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 ….