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Desert Island Books

I was recently asked to name my favourite book for a personal profile which would be made public. While it seems like a simple enough request, I was immediately struck with, well, not terror, but a least a mild misgiving. First of all, choosing a favourite after a long lifetime of reading is, as I said in response to the original request, both a test of memory and a bit like being asked to choose the best moment of your life. And then making it public adds another dimension: what will people think of me as a result. And, yes, I am conceited enough to think that people might actually judge me because of what I read.

So, to even things out a bit I refused to choose a favourite and instead selected a few as a representative sample. I now want to redress the balance even further, for my own peace of mind, even if no-one else cares.

For the sake of simplicity, I have adopted a Desert Island Books approach only limiting myself to seven, not eight, books, because…..Well, why not?

So, these are books which have meant a lot to me, which I would be happy to read and re-read and which I would not want to leave my life.

La Peste (The Plague): Albert Camus. Yes, I am pretentious enough to suggest that I read it in the original French. I was a late teenager in the 60s in search of a cause other than music. Along came a trendy French teacher to my grammar school, which was a public school wanna-be. He was young, probably only a few years older than us, his A level students. He wore black, roll-neck sweaters when all the other masters were in shabby, shiny suits. And he offered us Camus, existentialism, JP Sartre, French culture and everything that went with it. Sold! As a set text, the book could have been something I wanted to forget as soon as the exams were over, but it struck a chord. It has a cyclical plot and memorable characters. Of course, the book has had a resurgence in recent years. It’s about a town in Algiers closed to the rest of the world because of the plague. Lockdown. Oh, and it was probably in part responsible for my choice of Philosophy as the major part of my first degree.

Follow the Saint: Lesley Charteris. Most people’s list of books include something that brought them to reading, but I have little or no memory of any of those. However, as soon as I was old enough to choose my own books from the adult section of the library, I discovered first Fleming and Bond and then The Saint. There were so many of them, many of them in novella or short story form, so ideal for a young boy ploughing his way through a writer’s catalogue. What I loved about these books was that they included language never heard in the provincial town I grew up in. The vocabulary, the idioms and the different grammar used by the villains, the hero and his sidekicks (especially Bronx resident Hoppy Uniatz) told me that there was another world out there, that didn’t talk with a provincial accent or in RP tones.

Lord of the Rings: JRR Tolkien. Everybody knows this one, if only because of Peter Jackson’s film version. I was introduced to it via ‘The Hobbit’, which was read to us in Grammar school by an enlightened English teacher who understood the power of reading aloud, even to 14-year-old boys. In my case the LoTR is not just the story that Tolkien told but a particular book given to me by my wife-to-be (although we didn’t know it at the time) on my 20th birthday. It has been read and re-read and remains on my shelves.

A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles. A recent addition to the list. I like this because of the way the characters are outlined. The way they are formed in the reader’s mind. It also helps that there is a development across the book. Slow and gradual with a surprising, but gently unfolded ending. I feel I could read and read this and still not find how the bricks which built it have been fitted together. Yet, they do.

A Wild Sheep Chase: Haruki Murakami. My first Murakami but certainly not my last. He has a way of making the absurd seem perfectly natural. He can manage to make the idea of looking for a sheep with special markings, because it’s critical to the survival of both the protagonist and a Yakuza style boss, seem as normal as going to the shops. And, yes, of course there is such a thing as a sheep professor.

Dickens’ Journalism: Sketches by Boz: Charles Dickens. Despite the fact that much of my working life has been closely tied to English, i didn’t do either A level English or an English degree. As a result, I missed out on the experience of the general canon of English literature including Dickens. I only came to him in later life. But, having found him, I am reluctant to let him go. The temptation would be to include one of the episodic, plot-rambling novels, or even the ever-popular Christmas story. Instead, I choose to include his more journeyman writing. Stuff that he produced while he was honing his craft and this fills the bill. The title says it all really. They are short pieces dealing with characters and places, often in London and often still recognisable today from his descriptions. Many of them resurface in his novels, so at times it’s almost like reading the notes he made while thinking about his larger works.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: John Le Carré. Another complex narrative with a bit of a twist on the defective protagonist who is not entirely happy in his skin. In this case he is part of a coterie of spies, each of whom, apart from Smiley and Peter Guillam seems to have it in for the others, thus building a set of circumstances which create on-going doubt as to who the mole is. One of the features I love about Le Carré’s writing is his use of “Circus” (the spy headquarters named because of its location at Cambridge Circus) jargon. We are never told exactly what the scalp-hunters or the lamp-lighters do in the spy world and in not doing so Le Carré seems to be inviting us into the world of mystery that Smiley inhabits.

Well, that’s my seven, for now at least. It would be different tomorrow. What are yours?

Written Steve Walter

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