Thursday, 1 March 2012

By the book

On World Book Day, moving behond the simple - and obviously obvious - point that books are quite simply fabulous, it seems entirely apt to ask a number of literary questions.

The current 'big question' that seems to be exercising many in the literary world is less 'what are you reading?' and more 'what are you reading it on?' Or put another way: books v ebooks. Which is a sort of new religious war.

Now frankly, there are some downright daft – and pretentious – arguments doing the rounds in favour of both sides of this debate, but it seems to me that ultimately, the only one that is important is what you like yourself. In other words, it's entirely subjective.

Personally, I can do many things on a mobile device - writing this blog, for instance, or reading news on a wide variety of sites - but when I want to read a book, whether fiction or not, then I will read a book.

There is a pleasure in the physical aspect of a book. You hold it differently. It feels utterly different in your hands. That's not to say mobile devices are bad - they have their place.

The point is, there are arguments for both. And they're neither right nor wrong in simplistic terms.

But on this day, let's move away fom such diversions.

Books are a wonderful part of my life - as is literature (the two are not synonyms). As recently as 12 years ago, I considered Tolkien to be the greatest author ever and writer of the greatest ever novel(s), but fortunately, the last decade or so has seen me grow up. And realise - amongst other things - that Lord of the Rings is far from original. Far, far, far from it!

So here's a brief list to celebrate some of my favourite books - and hopefully inspire you to think about your favouring books too.

Favourite classic novel

I have to go for Pride and Prejudice, which I read approximately every two years - and always find something new in it.

I hate the chiclitification of it - this is a very clever satire, not a simplistic rom-com. Fab stuff - and too subtle of most people, it seems. Jane Austen still utterly rocks.

Favourite modern novel

The Tin Drum

There are quite a few contenders for this - more than one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - but Günter Grass's debut novel was one of the first pieces of serious literature that I read, and it remains an astonishing work that lives high in my personal panteon - not least as an example of northern European magic realsm,, which people seem to be surprised exists.

Favourite short story/novella

Death in Venice

I have now lost track of how many times I have read Thomas Mann's apotheosis of western short fiction since I first discovered it, some 10 years ago.

It took me a month to read, that first time - I was so utterly stunned to discover that a book could have as many layers as an onion. I couldn't write anything myself for months thereafter. And then, like a damn bursting, thoughts and words burst forth: my working vocabulary seemed to grow expotentially.

There are reasons I rate Mann so very highly. And that's without even beginning to explore the ideas in a book that so many completely misread and/or misunderstand.

Favourite graphic novel

V for Vendetta

Alan Moore's graphic masterpiece was the first graphic novel I ever read. It was a shattering read and I've not seen it bettered.

Otherwise, Asterix. In English, German or even the original French.

Favourite piece of non-food non-fiction

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of Prussia

Christopher Clark's history of Prussia is a fabulous example of modern history writing. Quite simply superb.

Favourite piece of foodie non-fiction

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

Anything by Elizabeth David is worth reading. But this collection is, in particular, an utter joy.

Favourite single volume of poetry

The Man With Night Sweats

Thom Gunn's collection left me stunned by its power when I read it in a single sitting. Extraordinary stuff.

Favourite childrens's book

Well Really, Mr Twiddle is possibly appalling, but it was the first non-picture book that I ever read, all on my own. And I sat in a little red and white whicker bucket chair and chuckled madly through the entire Enid Blyton affair.

Favourite piece of genre fiction

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler's masterpiece is, err, a masterpiece. Cynical poetry. Superb.

Favourite comic novel

Witches Abroad

Just on of Terry Pratchett's fantastic series of comedy fantasy satires. I could have picked any one of many others, but this gets the nod. It ranges from outright farce to heart-rending pathos.

I love PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe, but Pratchett has taken the English comic novel to new heights.

So, what about your own lists?


  1. My favourite book has2 be jane eyre...bronte's much better than austin,2 me anyway!! And one of my other favourites would have2 be; sons+lovers...not got a fav poetry...not read enuff of it,unfortunatly!! Judi rushby.

  2. The great thing about such lists is that nobody is right and nobody is wrong.