Ten memorable books

ten memorable books and a cat

As someone who’s considerably less interested in producing a blog, in the conventional sense, than in imagining what, say, the LRB might be like if it only had a single, regrettably lazy, easily-distracted and discernably right-of-centre contributor — nothing wrong with a ‘normal’ blog, by the way, except that I’m simply not cut out for writing one — the very idea of ‘memes’ sends me lurching towards the ‘delete’ button.

On the other hand, reading Gareth Williams’ fascinating post here, with a special definitional supplement here, right before embarking on a half-hour, book- and iPod-free bus journey — and recalling a similar exercise by my old friend Barry Campbell, although I think that was on Facebook rather than Barry’s excellent blog, and hence, perhaps, as unrecoverable as it is now unlinkable — was a recipe for the sort of me-too response out of which the whole obligatory, mock-convivial and hence charmless ‘meme’ thing doubtless originated. And anyway, however much some of our American cousins may raise an eyebrow at this, it really is still too hot in London to think properly.

Hence, without much apology, here are, as per Gareth’s example, ten books which ‘have most influenced [my] thinking, that [I] have found [myself] referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing’, complete with minimal justification. To the extent that they are ordered in any purposeful way, it’s (roughly) the sequence in which I encountered them.

1. The Book of Common Prayer (various editions). Christened into the American Episcopal Church soon after birth, educated at a refulgently eccentric Episcopal parochial school, an irregular attendee at services during my lengthy spell at Trinity College, Cambridge, confirmed (rather belatedly) into the Church of England in 1996 and now a conventionally devout if not excessively frequent communicant, the liturgy of the worldwide Anglian communion has always been there in the background, incanting its timeless commentary in the face of a lifetime of change.

The Psalms, in particular, are the most perfect poetry we have, encompassing every human mood. Gloomy or flirtatious, contrite or more than ready to smite someone — I’ve returned to the Psalms in all these states, and never failed to find the words I so badly needed to hear. No, more than any other, the Book of Common Prayer is, to crib Gareth’s formulation, a book I’ll never truly ‘finish’.

2. The Collected Poems of W.H. Auden (1945). Heaven knows, as a poet and as a man, Auden had defects. The uselessness of his political judgement was more or less complete. Personally, I find his later poetry unreadably awful. But early on in life, I discovered Auden’s pre-war poetry and became absolutely intoxicated with it — which is to say, intoxicated with the language itself, not particularly with whatever the language was meant to express, which was doubtless silly and mostly wrong. And no, when it comes to his politics, why one earth should one pardon him for writing well?

Still, although there are plenty of poets whose work now seems to me far more impressive, it’s Auden whose phrases still turn up uninvited at the most inconvenient moments, as if the forefront of my thoughts somehow belonged to them, and I rarely have the heart to turn them away. (In this context it’s worth noting that I still, even now, know a disturbing amount of poetry off by heart, meaning that by some measures, this list should be more or less all poetry. But, well, I’ll spare you that.)

3. Flemish Painting: The Century of Van Eyck by Jacques Lassaigne (1957). Is this the book I’m struggling to identify? I’m not entirely certain. It’s a bit nonsensical, obviously, to choose as a ‘memorable book’ a book whose author and indeed title are now entirely lost in the mists of time. What I remember, though, are the tipped-in plates, the production quality, that paper, that typography, the bottle-glass green binding and, of course, the smell of the pages — none of which is yet susceptible to the offices of Google. Anyway, I’ve written enough about this one recently. Suffice to say, this (or one very like it) was the art book that paved the way for all the others, and still, in some profound sense, the one against which all other art books still must stand comparison.

4. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). I first read this on an indescribably hot beach in Florida, many years ago. At the time — aged 12, 13? — the scenes in which Angelica and Tancredi explore the countless half-forgotten rooms of Donnafugata, almost but not quite consummating their very passionate yet clearly totally doomed relationship, were by far the most successfully erotic thing I’d ever read. Three decades on, I’m less inclined to condemn that immature judgement, with which I still, as it happens, broadly concur, than to smile at the fact that even then, the dandyish and fatalistic yet clear-eyed, perhaps even faintly cynical ultra-conservatism of Lampedusa’s narrative ‘spoke’ to me — as, needless to say, it still does, in tones as seductive and persuasive as ever before, every time I re-read this most elegantly tragic of novels.

5. Ada or Ardour: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov (1969). The worst novel of Nabokov’s English language novels? Probably. Over-long, overblown, self-indulgent, near-incoherent, in places downright silly? Clearly so. But maybe the lack of formal perfection — as opposed to Pale Fire, say, or Lolita, let alone the talismanic Speak, Memory! — was part of what I loved about Ada, what made it not only so approachable and so likeable, but also so easy frighteningly easy to assimilate.

Years later, self-exiled to another country, I loaned a copy of Ada to someone I didn’t much like. Her comment on a book she couldn’t finish? ‘But he’s such a snob!’ No doubt Nabokov’s own highly individualistic demi-libertarianism, rooted in the sense that anything else was likely to be poshlost’, made an impact. And certainly my prose, as regular readers can attest, never entirely recovered.

6. Absolom, Absolom! by William Faulkner (1936). Don’t even start. I hold no brief (as Faulkner himself would put it, probably half a dozen times in as many pages) for the ‘Sole Owner & Proprietor’ of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. His prose is often sagging and lumpy, his plot-lines laughable, his politics worrying, his range narrow, his collapse into the welcoming arms of self-parody more sad, in the end, than funny. Yet until I read Quentin Compson’s meandering account of what he did on his summer holidays, there was something I hadn’t really understood about how people and places intersect with one another, how it is that ‘history’, in its narrative sense, really happens — why it is that the past isn’t dead, or, as far as that goes, even past.

Having absolutely devoured this and its sister volumes in my mid-teens, I hardly need to read them any more, or indeed even like or respect them much — they’ve long since changed the way my mind works, which is something else altogether.

7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). What a banal choice! Still, this is that rare thing, a book that grows as the reader grows, so that every time I re-read it — every few years, even now — my smiles or grimaces of recognition strike at different points. Few authors have ever managed to enter into the inner worlds of such a disparate cast of characters, placed under the pressure of such astonishing events, with such conviction or, indeed, such success. It’s all here — misplaced intellectual enthusiasms, loves silly and sensible, adolescence, old age, nationalism, patriotism, the various trials of being a child or a parent, books and battles and death. All of which is why I have no intention of pretending I don’t love this book, just in order to make myself seem a bit more original, a bit less predictable in my favourites.

8. The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1976). This is a classic example of the gleeful freedom with which a reader can, if sufficiently motivated, ride roughshod over authorial intentions. The Final Days was, I think, meant to be a sort of tour de force of journalistic self-congratulation, in which our heroes, having cunningly fronted up a judicial coup against a not particularly wicked US president uncovered a great and heinous wrong, pursue their prey to the death. Typically, though, I read it as a tragedy of the most sublime and terrible sort.

The lazier sort of psychotherapist would, perhaps, have found something to say about my defective relationship with my actual father, connecting this unremarkable biographical detail with what would be a lifelong (thusfar, anyway) tendency to form imaginative attachments to fictive father-figures, the more powerful yet also embattled the better. How I would have loved, I remember thinking at the time, to have been one of those Nixon daughters!

Well, fair enough. The odd fact, though, is that The Final Days become, however improbably, a book to which I’ve repeatedly turned in times of trouble, finding in it some sort of oblique consolation, as well as the forerunner of other books that have functioned in a similar way: C. V. Wedgewood’s A Coffin for King Charles or Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair, for instance. And still, to this day, I find personal disloyalty — the tendency of rats to abandon ships they believe or perhaps simply just hope to be sinking — very nearly the most unappealing quality imaginable.

9. American Visions: Epic History of Art in America by Robert Hughes (1997). I’ve written quite a lot about Hughes already, e.g. here, so there’s no reason to belabour the explanation. Suffice to say that the unpredictable accident by which I casually picked up this book at a friend’s place in the South of France, entirely expecting to dislike it for some sort of notional glibness or cheap anti-Americanism, not only helped nudge me out of the mild depression that followed the completion of my doctoral thesis — ironically so, incidentally, as Hughes by his own account suffered from fairly serious depression during the later stages of American Visions — but also restored to me the world of visual arts I’d abandoned in my rush — unsuccessful, alas — to become a professional historian.

Did I agree with all Hughes’ judgements? Do I agree with them now? Absolutely not. Still, the generosity of his style was particularly welcome after that season of academic texts, his amateurish enthusiasm ditto, while his robust assumption that these cultural and historical issues were the legitimate interest of pretty much any ‘intelligent generalist’ seemed to offer an exit from the cul-de-sac into which I was, at the time, glumly certain I’d stranded myself. Amused and challenged by his reviews, encouraged by his example, I took to producing ‘art notes’ for my own entertainment. And in these, I guess, lie some of the early origins of my writing for Electric Review, and for this blog.

10. Religion and Public Doctrine (3 vols.) by Maurice Cowling (3rd volume published 2001). This, perhaps, as the most recent of my memorable books, is the hardest of all to explain. As a conservative reading History at Cambridge at a time when Mr Cowling’s black light still radiated discernably from high atop Fen Court, I managed to avoid the University’s most notorious conservative historian with a thoroughness absent from most of my academic activities, only encountering him, entirely by chance, when a stray quotation from, I think, the introduction to RPD1 included (c. 2001) part way through an email from someone I used to know turned out, against all expectation, to be by no means the dull, dry, earnest stuff I’d for some reason imagined RPD to be, but rather, instead, a pronouncement at once startling in its oddity yet also, it must be said, obscurely hilarious, too.

Thereupon began an intellectual adventure rich with complication, not all of which I’ve untangled yet. Here, though, is what I’ve discovered so far. First, it won’t do to take Mr Cowling too seriously — that way may possibly lie a metaphysical darkness far too corrosive, anyway, for the safety and sanity of mere non-Petrean mortals. Secondly, though, and equally important, it won’t do to ignore Mr Cowling, if only because once one’s seen things — the world of conventional academic endeavour, for instance, or present-day Conservative politics, or even books about the history of architecture — from within the hypnotically rhythmic cadences of that magnificently indirect prose, it’s impossible to see anything quite the same way ever again. Finally, as much as anything else, RPD reminds me that books — personally important, memorable books — can function as a form of externalised scar tissue, an organic record of some of those scrapes, impacts and traumas that left a mark and, in doing so, made us who we are. Having acquired those Cowling volumes at quite a cost, I might as well enjoy them now.

What can we conclude from all of this? There will be few surprises here, at least to Fugitive Ink’s more regular readers. Clearly, it’s notable to what an extent we’re influenced, particularly in early life, by the reading habits of our parents’ generation, but that’s hardly a new discovery. There was much more fiction on the list than I’d expected, in part because I really never read contemporary fiction these days. And at some points I found myself wishing — rather against my better judgement, as in some sense I don’t really believe in subject specialisation, not least as I’m happy enough to find ‘history’ or ‘politics’ or ‘religion’ pretty much anywhere — that I was allowed ten ‘memorable’ art books, ten books of twentieth century poetry, ten photographic picture books including images of ruins, ten books about Venice, ten books with ‘museum’ in the title. All of which sounds far too much like a meme for another day ….


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20 Comments

Filed under art, books, history, politics

20 responses to “Ten memorable books

  1. Gaw

    Having seen a few of these now, it seems to me that the explanatory notes (when provided) are just so much more interesting than the dry, stand-alone list (not that I won’t be adding a couple of your memorable books to my Amazon pending selection). It’s a sort of join-the-dots intellectual autobiography. Thank you for sharing it!

    BTW I agree, meme: silly word. Almost sufficient to put you off. I prefer Kurp’s “parlour game”. Much more genuine as long as you bear in mind that wherever you lay your wifi-enabled laptop, that’s your parlour.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Gareth — indeed, thanks for starting me off on this path in the first place!

    As for parlour games, of course you’re right. Aside from anything else, the implied throwback to the world of Jane Austen novels and what people did for fun before electricity spoiled everything [Ada fans with sharp ears may detect a batsqueak of a reference to a favourite volume here] represents a far more compelling model than the wretched ‘meme’, contaminated from birth by its Dawkinsian origins and leaking pseudo-scientific pomposity and amoral nastiness wherever it slithers …

  3. Have you found the YouTube channel called SpokenVerse? “Tom O’Bedlam” (the pseudonym of the reader) reads some Auden. I’m not sure if they fall in the range of Auden of which you approve. But personally I feel poetry is meant to be read aloud, and “Tom” is especially wonderful.

    My favorite — possibly because it was the first one I heard, thanks to Roger Ebert, possibly because it’s a lovely poem read well — is “The Cinnamon Peeler” by Michael Ondaatje. But his readings of Auden are good, too, including, of course, “Funeral Blues”.

  4. It never ceases to amaze me what splendid stuff other people find on YouTube — I hadn’t noticed that channel, Chris, but it’s certainly one for further exploration. ‘Tom’ certainly has the right sort of voice for Auden — not too over-emphatic, just lugubrious enough. Thanks.

    I agree, too, about the need to hear poetry read aloud. Actually, having seen your comment, I was thinking about this a minute ago, whereupon it occurred to me that one reason I hadn’t thought of the poems of T. S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas even as dark-horse candidates for ‘most memorable book’ — although I know plenty of their poems off by heart — is because, in both cases, my knowledge of them comes from recordings of the two men reading their own work, not from books at all. And indeed, rather against expectation, one of my favourite evenings of this year thusfar involved listening to an actor named Stephen Dillane reciting the Four Quartets on a near-empty stage here — unforgettable.

    ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’ was a discovery for me — again, thanks — although I cannot for the life of me fathom why YouTube seemed so anxious to protect the world’s youth from its influences — surely children trawling the internet in search of information regarding the facts of life could actually browse further and fare worse?

  5. I personally find nothing on YouTube. This fell into my lap by way of Roger Ebert, whose work I read religiously. One of the great things to happen in recent times is Roger’s starting to blog, meaning he now writes the way he’s always wanted to write, which is all the time about everything, not just a few times weekly about movies.

    Roger Ebert is one of my heroes. Like Robert Hughes, I imagine, he believes in the legitimate interest of the intelligent generalist. The two of them give me hope, because I’m not specialized in anything.

    I have MP3s of Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot’s reading some of their more famous poems. Thomas is hilariously sonorous, as if he felt he needed to sound like Orson Welles to do his work justice; Eliot, meanwhile, sounds like a frail wheezy old man, which is perfect for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, even if he wrote it when he was a youthful 29.

    I started collecting (digital) recordings of poetry readings when I bumped into a couple of Allen Ginsberg readings. “Howl” never came alive for me until I heard Ginsberg reading it; aloud it’s an entirely different work. Also, you can find, wandering around the Internet, Ginsberg’s reading of “America” superimposed with a Tom Waits song, “Closing Time,” in such a way that the two sound made for each other.

    Those pretty much got me hooked. Tom O’Bedlam’s channel is pretty fantastic. (I think he’s Terence Davies, myself.) Of course someone churlishly picked on him for the typeface he’s been using, as if it’s important.

  6. Roger Ebert is, alas, a blind spot of mine. I can remember, decades ago, watching him on something called ‘Sneak Preview’ — but then I changed countries, and the unimpressive trickle of films I used to watch slowed to an absolute draught with the onset of motherhood. You do, though, make his blog sound appealling. I shall seek it out.

    And as for typefaces, I sorely wish I had the wit to make my emphatic ‘of course typefaces are important!’ show up in … oh … 22 point Zapf Chancery! Instead, you’ll just have to imagine it. Not for long, though, please ….

  7. Barry Campbell

    Lovely list. Much congruence, including the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and Absalom, Absalom. Faulkner for better or worse captured the South better than anyone before or since.

  8. Not only do we have similar tastes in literature, Barry — and if I’d listed fifteen books, and been marginally less inhibited about mentioning children’s literature, The Dark is Rising might well have got a name-check — but we both seem to be up and about by 5 am, and on the internet soon thereafter. What was it in the drinking water in Raleigh, c. 1965/66?

    Seriously, though — was your list only on Facebook? I’d love to have cited it in my post more directly, but actually I couldn’t even find it there, let alone on your ever-inspiring blog.

    And as for Faulkner, it’s not just the South he seems to have captured. More than once, I’ve spoken to people from other countries and other language traditions who’ve surprised me with the passionate enthusiasm of their praise for Faulkner’s treatment of rural communities and their social relations, his multi-generational story-telling and, perhaps most surprisingly in some ways, for the way in which he writes about issues of ‘race’. I do, in all honesty, find him hard to read now. But quite possibly that says more about me than it does about him.

    Finally, your blog has got me thinking about Vidalia onions. As far as I know, it is not possible to buy them in the UK. Why are (semi-)free markets not producing the marvellous effects I tend to expect from them?

  9. I read about movies a lot more than I see them. I’m less into movies, for some reason, than movie reviews. I know a lot of useless trivia about films I’ll almost certainly never see. Why I bother I don’t know.

    Over the years I’ve read nearly everything Roger Ebert has written, particularly his zero star reviews, which are always entertaining. If you’d like a place to start, you can try his review for Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.

  10. Maybe you can’t get Vidalia onions because there aren’t that many of them. They have to come from a select few counties in Georgia to qualify as true Vidalias. However, you can probably get Vidalia-style onions — the only thing really special about them is they’re grown in low-sulfur soil. Plenty of other places produce low-sulfur, sweet onions. They just can’t call them Vidalias.

  11. I think you can link to postings on Facebook. How its done depends on whether you are a cultist (Mac user), a gnostic (Linux), or a conformist (Windows).

    I know I can link to Twitter updates so I’d be surprised if FB was impossible.

  12. Antoine, I am an evangelical agnostic in the OS wars – we run Mac OS, Windows Vista and Ubuntu at our place –

    Bunny – I am pretty sure the book list was only on Facebook. It is interesting to me how quickly Facebook has become a primary platform – I populate the status field via Twitter, and the notes are RSS imports from the blog, but there is a lot of content, comments especially, that only live on Facebook now.

    I have been blogging since 1999 (well before it was a word) – Facebook has become important quickly.

  13. Bunny, I am betting that you can get sweet onions aplenty in the UK, but not Vidalias. I am pretty sure I saw them in the produce section of Tesco last time I was in London (2006, if memory serves).

  14. All hail the early adopter!

    Barry, seriously, you’re right about Facebook. Any clues about how normal mortals link to it, though? Or, err, Mac-using mortals, anyway? Or transport data in any useful way?

    I am fond of Facebook – it reminds me of the ancient past, wherein I worked in an office, and hence received low-key information about what my various acquaintances had managed to do the night before – but I haven’t yet got a grip on how I’m supposed to integrate the Facebook world with the archaic formularies of Fugitive Ink.

  15. Barry, re ‘sweet’ onions:

    You saw them in Tesco. Well, fair enough. I saw them too. But did you taste them? Or the ones in M&S? Or Waitrose?

    Sorry, but I do remember at least edited highlights of my Southern upbringing, and the things you saw are not, in any true sense, ‘sweet’ onions.

    I want an onion I can eat without carbonisation. That’s the challenge. But to date, demi-free markets have yet to provide a satisfactory answer – or, indeed, the crunchable, bite-in-your-burger [or veggie equivalent] onion.

    Please, learned readers, prove me wrong.

  16. Maybe, if you’re really nice, I’ll mail you some. I wonder if they’d allow them through. Maybe if I camouflaged them as rutabagas.

    Mmm, onions….

  17. Clearly, this post really should have been titled ‘ten most memorable root vegetables’ ….

  18. The only “eat them out of your hand like an apple” onions I’ve ever known are Vidalias and Texas Sweets.

    I am pretty sure I *did* taste the sweet onions – made a salad with them – but I have no distinct memory of what they were like.

  19. But you have special foodie gifts, Barry, that probably allow you to seek out a plausible onion several counties, if not whole countries away … next time you come to London, I shall scrutinise your onion-purchasing arrangements with unabashed curiosity, and probably admiration, too.

    Meanwhile, Chris’ useful research suggests that more than one farmer is exporting onions to the UK … although where the importers hide them once they arrive remains obscure.

    Perhaps I should just rename this blog ‘Fugitive Onion’ and give up on the art, books and politics stuff?