some of us are booked in for life… – what about you?


11 Jul
11Jul

They can do all kinds of things to you, books.

They can get you into trouble when you’re young: ‘Put that book down, Christopher, you were in bed two hours ago – They’ll be ringing social services next, you look like a zombie!’

Indeed, they can be bad for your health: ‘How many times have I told you not to read in the dark, you’ll be as blind as a bat by the time you’re 30 – You’ll have glasses like jam jars!’

Be bad for your diet… or maybe good for it: ‘’No wonder I’m hungry, I forgot to eat!’

Be bad for musicians: ‘Look at my guitar nails, but I thought she’d get killed!’

They can cause insomnia: ‘’Couldn’t sleep until I knew he’d marry her!’

Or have the reverse effect: ‘I’ll never finish this book at this rate!’

They can make you late: ‘Shit, I’ve missed my stop!’

And put you off films: ‘’Nothing like the book (snooty voice)!’

They can make you say even sillier things: ‘’So many books in the world and I have only one pair of eyes!’

They can force environmentalists into a corner: ‘’Nothing like the feel of a good book, you can keep your kindle… Oh, wait a minute…’

They can force you into a corner: ‘’Can’t move in this room for…!’

They can arouse you: ‘Has it suddenly got hot in here?’

But they can even bring about delirium; or trip you up; or have you falling in love with a fictional character: ‘Why isn’t Holly Golightly my next door neighbour!’

I could go on. And it’s enough to make you wonder why we do it.

Why, then, do we do it?

Because books can also make us cry, from deep within, in a way nothing else can…

As well as make us laugh, wholeheartedly, from that same place…

And further to that, they may guide us, lead us down the right path, or steer us from the wrong one; they allow us to empathise, sympathise…

They may not always tell us anything new – perhaps never tell us anything new. Yet they always tell us in a new way…

Stories guide us, our world is in narrative form; and they may be major influences in our lives, particularly in our formative years. To a degree, they mould us into who we are today, construct our perspectives, leading us out onto the world…

And all I’d like to do in this blog post is to state five such books that have played an important role in my life thus far, and why. Who knows, I may then persuade you to tell me yours, allowing me to enter your literary world, for yet another perspective.

In the meantime, I urge you to dress accordingly, according to each of my – our – literary destinations…
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Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathon Swift.

It was an old English teacher who, indirectly, prompted me to read this one. Though when I say indirectly, do I mean belatedly? Whatever the case, I laughed in her face – I was thirteen years old, what would I want with a children’s story, teachers are so stupid!?

When eventually picking up and delving into Gulliver’s Travels many years after my teacher’s rebuked guidance, I recall referring to the big Collins Dictionary in our house, for a peak at its definition of ‘satire’.

“Wow!’ I blew. ‘And I thought I knew what the word meant. Jonathon Swift must be, sort of, the Master…”

I’ve rarely read satire to equal that kind of power since. Certainly nothing has ever surpassed it.

I also haven’t read the book for over twenty thirty years, and have only ever read it that first time. Isn’t that strange! That such an influential book and inspiration should then hold me at a distance? And the truth of the matter is that my recollections of the story have become rather vague.

All I now recall are names, the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos, Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians.

However subconsciously, perhaps I’ve always known you can’t go home again...

What I recall, though, is getting pulled in to the point of believing that the first-person narrator of this classic satire on humankind had gone quite mad, wherein no-one-escapes-the-jape. In other words, for some uncountable time, my world lay in a book, and that’s all there was.

By the end, of course, I’d feel a little silly, but oh-so thankful.

And to think the man, the writer, was eventually certified insane. By whom, one might ask, by whom? Thanks to this book, my dad’s over-cited favourite citation, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, finally made sense…
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My next book may be scribed in the French language but all takes place in Algeria.

L’Etranger, by Albert Camus – first translated into English by Stuart Gilbert as The Outsider, and not a title I care for, but I’ll leave that one for another read, here <<.

It could be said that Camus’ first person ‘alien’ hero, Mersault, is even more skilfully achieved, in that here we have no fairytale encounters with Little and Large, but an everyday man going about his everyday business, and somewhat taciturnly at that it; barring, that is, a frightful encounter with a priest just prior to his execution, where, instead of yielding himself before his knees, of surrendering outpourings of contrition… there simply is no contrition; Mersault isn’t sorry for killing a man in ‘cold blood’ in the brutal Algerian midday sun, only that he should now be subjected to religious bigotry, be forced to feel something he does not, and be deprived of those utopian Algerian evenings.

Mersault, ultimately, verbally explodes with something as formidable as it gets; something as hot as that Mediterranean sun. And up until that point he has posed questions I once dare not ask. Indeed, I feared I didn’t have the language to articulate them, my feelings. But, as Camus himself once stated, this man at the forefront of existentialist thought, “Difficult concepts need only be expressed in simple words.”

He was a soulful character, Albert Camus. And as literary heroes go, Mersault? Well…

L’Etranger, by stark contrast to Swift’s masterpiece, I have read many, many times; I will never tire of it.
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And so to 50s New York, and to a brownstone apartment buzzing with life, thanks wholly to the catalytic character that is Truman Capote’s creation Holly Golightly, in Breakfast At Tiffany's.

For me, in this case, the book and the film are as disparate as red wine and white; they’re different drinks from different grapes.
The Holly Golightly I see in my mind’s eye – to take nothing away from Audrey Hepburn – is the impish, cropped-headed blonde; one of the boys, but a real girl…

Funny, but I imagine old Joe Bell’s still standing around with a burning cigarette, outside his café on Lexington Avenue, silently yearning to set eyes on her once again: “I see pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight.”

I feel that sense of loss, of something never even attained; a childhood sweetheart, that first, secret, love; I feel what is truly meant by worshiping the ground upon which someone walks. That she might just recognise that I exist…

How can a novel do that?

I have yet to visit New York but, suffice it to say, the first thing I’ll do when… Or maybe not. Again, maybe that place is better left where it is…
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For our next destination we return to France but for a German writer, in Emile Remarque, and his not-so-green-fields classic, fields amid the Great War of 1914-18, the one to end all wars…

My choices are not in order of preference, by the way, and nor have I left the best until last. But this one, All Quiet on the Western Front, a book “… intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling” – is possibly the one that speaks for itself most, in that it surely speaks to the public most; is the most well-known for the right reasons. It is the one, then, capable of creating tears from that normally well-hidden somewhere…

How well the German army characters become our friends, our families!

And we recognise how Paul Baumer, the novel’s principle character, is better left where he lies, never to return to his native Germany. For things would never have been the same, nay much for the worse, for the last of a happy breed of men.

But even when privileged with this knowledge, when first person narration moves to third, when the author steps in to inform us of the news of a sniper’s fatal bullet, but a day or two before the day of the Armistice, nothing is made any easier…
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And it’s unlimately back to England.

I’ve allowed myself a play for number 5, by The Bard himself, since I feel it would be wrong to pick two Shakespeare plays from a choice of only five books: Henry IV part 2.

This play, like so many others taught me to appreciate the force of ambivalence in literature; and, moreover, to then witness it further brought to life upon a stage.

Ambivalence. To be torn. To be in two mind. Call it how you will, yet know there exists no easy answer; no easy way out. A man must be a man; must make a choice, for better or for worse.

And if Henry IV’s usurpation of Richard II’s throne makes for provocative reading and viewing, the act is surpassed only, for me, by one of the most powerful theatrical acts ever to grace paper and a stage: Henry V’s rebuking of the debauched, though wonderfully comic, Jack Falstaff.

Was a literary, theatrical relationship ever greater, than between the latter and the former Prince Hal?

Immediately upon coronation, a worldly prince is transformed into a pious and responsible king; for the great that is to come – a wondrously led English success over a numerically far greater French army; William Shakespeare must wield the knife by way of a quill and eliminate the influential Falstaff from the page. And, oh, how our masterful playwright achieves the deed!

"I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;

How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!"

Even when typing out the lines, the hairs on the back of my neck are raised…

I know that many of you simply cannot reed plays from the page – plays are for performance, and all that. For me, conversely, the very idea of the text being a play adds something extra to my already imaginative mind, for the playwright never tell us how we should think.

Maybe just a little something for you to think about…
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Funny, but when looking back to my own debut novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J: We never had it so good…, it being part of what has since become a series entitled The Rowlings Years, I came to realise just how affected, influenced by the above books, and no doubt others, I was…

The power of words, eh.

What are your favourite five books? And why?

All pics courtesy of Wikipedia.

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