An Imperfect List of Fantastic Books

It was tempting to title this post “A Long Time Coming,” but that’s far too similar to the title of the first post in this blog.

At the time that New Media was coming to an abrupt end, Wendy asked for a list of my top ten books. I actually did start putting a list together. I have it here in front of me: 31 books. Joanne and I worked on our lists during a train journey into London to see the Information Design Exhibition at the Design Museum. I have her list too: 26 books. The lists are dated 19 March 2005. A long time coming.

Two years later, and I have an email in my inbox from another friend asking for more or less the same thing. So now it’s time to browse the bookshelves, go over the old list and decide on my 10 favourite books. The list, not surprisingly, is going to be a bit arbitrary. I’m not including books that I read before I was 12 or 13. If you’re curious, my favourite book from my childhood is The Lorax . Dr. Seuss had a huge influence on me: just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have read my childhood poetry.

OK. Here we go:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This choice is probably influenced by the fact that Joanne and I recently watched Capote. Then again, maybe not. It’s book #11 on the train list. It gets the top spot because it’s the first book I remember reading that I loved, aside from the Lorax, of course. I can trace my core beliefs back to a handful of books, some of which are on this list. This is one of them.
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Should I be ashamed that this book made it onto my list rather than 1984? I read them around the same time, probably 1984 actually. Brave New World had much more of an impact. I suppose it seemed more relevant at the time. Of course, I was a 13-year-old kid. 1984 is sitting in my bedside stack of books. Perhaps I should read Brave New World and 1984 side by side again to see what I think now.
    Huxley had an impact for another reason. The Perennial Philosophy sparked my interest in World Religion. My nascent rebellion against seven years of Lutheran School probably had something to do with it, too.
  3. Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – When I was 18 or 19 years old, Vonnegut was the only author I read. At least that’s how I remember it. If this list were organised according to the impact books had on the way I see the world, Vonnegut would be number two. As you probably know, Vonnegut died recently. So it goes. The day after he died, I reread Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut, I realised, isn’t a great stylist. He can tell a fabulous story, though, and he has the remarkable ability to convey what he believes is right. It’s all the more remarkable because he also manages to convey all the absurdity, doubt and uncertainty that most of us experience on a daily basis.
  4. The Arabian Nights – I’ve read many a book of folk and fairy tales in my time, but this is still the best. The Brothers Grimm runs a close second. I wouldn’t bother with all 1001 nights, though. From what I remember, several hundred of the nights are padding added in the 18th century. The Haddaway translation is the best.
  5. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino – I discovered Calvino via his collection of Italian Folktales and the recommendation of a friend. I quickly fell in love with his work. He’s able to transform his love of learning, words and books into spellbinding fables. Though all of his work is amazing, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller remains my favourite because the conclusion, while extraordinarily simple, questions the very notion of conclusions.
  6. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Joanne introduced me to Angela Carter. In fact, I basically “stole” Angela Carter from Joanne, and was quickly recommending Carter’s books to everyone who would listen. But her books are amazing. In a world where most of the fairy tales we know are through Disney films, Carter rescued fairy tales — and story telling in general — from saccharine certainty and happy endings. The stories in The Bloody Chamber are dark, well written and enthralling.
  7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – Forget that this is a “classic.” Forget that it is the “first European novel.” It is the funniest book that I’ve ever read. OK, it’s really two books. I maintain that the second is the better of the two. In it, Don Quixote sets off again. This time, however, the people he encounters have read what we’ve read and know what we know. They see him coming a mile off, a wannabe knight with his head in his books of chivalry. If you met Don Quixote on the road, what would you do? And you thought reality television was cruel.
  8. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami – I discovered Murakami by accident when I picked up this book from shelves of the Co-op bookstore in Austin. Murakami was completely unexpected. In a different time, with a bit more confidence, his characters would have been tricksters, bridging the gap between humans and the gods. Instead, these are ordinary men, not god-like at all. They are caught between reality and imagination, trying to make sense of it all. In a way, they are Don Quixotes with no Sancho Panza to provide comic relief or guidance. Not nearly as funny, but still fascinating.
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – Several Christmases ago, Mike gave me Ghostwritten. He thought I’d love it. My brother knows me well. Mitchell is now my favourite living author. He is a master craftsman. His stories and characters are perfectly drawn, but it is as a ventriloquist that he truly shines. He can take on the voice of any character. The tone and timbre is so convincing that you’d swear they were standing in front of you, sharing their strange life stories with you. If you do read Cloud Atlas, read If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller first.
  10. Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni – This is a recent find. I want to read more of Benni, though according to Wikipedia, only three of his books have been translated into English. Hopefully this will change. It’s rare to find a book that is simultaneously as imaginative, politically engaged and enjoyable as Margherita Dolce Vita. I bumped a very worthy, but better known, book was bump from this list simply because I think more people should know about this book. So read it, already.

And there it is. There’s a lot that I’ve left out. Now that I’ve finished it, the list as a whole seems to lean heavily in favour of literary fantasy, if there is such a category of fiction. I do read other types of books. Apparently, I don’t enjoy them quite as much, though.

So, what do you think? Are my choices crap? What 10 books would you choose?

5 thoughts on “An Imperfect List of Fantastic Books

  1. Great to see a post.
    Like this bit about your childhood poetry. Though the rhyming was very Seussesque, I remember folks quite enjoying it when your poems cam out in “The Cougar”.

    No Rushdie? Midnight’s Children?

  2. That’s quite funny. Midnight’s Children is actually the book that I left off for #10. I suppose it really deserves to be on there somewhere, though. The trouble was deciding where. I suppose Rushdie won’t be too upset by not making it onto this list. He’s already won the Booker of Bookers, after all.

  3. Pingback: 106 books of pretension » otrops

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