So which ten books would you take to a desert island? (I know, you could take a kindle, but humour me. Imagine somewhere with no electricity, so after a month your kindle will be useless. The box of books will last forever).
For me, well, I guess if I knew I was going to get off again fairly soon, then I would take some of the books I haven’t got around to reading yet, but really want to, in the hope that I would get through them all before I was rescued. But that is another list…
However if rescue was not guaranteed, then I would probably take books I have read before and which I would like to read again. At least I would know that I would not be disappointed by my choice. And one of the brilliant things about getting older is that you quickly forget things, so you can re-read books after a relatively short period of time. I’m able to re-read Agatha Christie’s books and not remember whodunnit, even after a relatively short gap. This should make book buying cheaper and cheaper the older I get, until I can sit in an armchair and just re-read the same book over and over. (Note to children, please ensure it is a relatively interesting book)
So is this list of books I would like to re-read the same as the list of books I have read and which have influenced me? Not sure – but actually I feel it’s more about authors who have influenced me. So I am going to cheat and give the list of top ten authors I would like to read on my desert island. (Perhaps I could even have the authors for company? Though some might be a bit boring, being dead)
The other thing to point out, as James Robertson said in his talk (see previous post) this list may be true today but was different last week and would be different tomorrow. Looks like I’m going to need a large container on my island..
Here goes, after much cheating and deliberating, a list of authors to be marooned with me, or at least their books to be marooned with me.
- Maggie O’Farrell – at the moment my favourite author, particularly The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone. Her structures are absolutely gripping. Easy to read but by no means easy subjects, you should not start reading them when you don’t have time to spare, as I guarantee you will not be able to put them down. If you are struggling to structure your story then have a look at how she does it to carry the reader onwards.
- Charles Dickens – his characters are larger than life, surreal, and I love the weird and wacky names he gives them. I wonder if a writer today would get away with these. But do look at him if you feel your characters are a little dull. Dickens has larger than life characters and is a good role model. You would not, however, get away with his reliance on things like coincidence, and the fact that all his neglected children grow up to be selfless and caring adults – noooo… psychology tells us that childhood neglect creates psychopaths I’m afraid Charlie, but he had the excuse that we didn’t know any of that stuff yet. Which book to take? Probably Bleak House, a) because it is really long so would keep me going for quite a while on my desert island, b) because it was the first Dickens I read, for a book group, which made me plough through it, even though 400 pages in I was still struggling, but oh boy the next 500 had me hooked! Great Expectations is also brilliant – I mean who could imagine a Miss Haversham nowadays? If you do like Dickens, and you’re also open minded, then read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith which I felt owed a debt to Dickens, but has a wonderful plot and has an amazing narrative structure.
- Jane Austen. A cliché perhaps but she has an enduring appeal. Her skillfully depicted characters would leave me feeling I’m not alone on my island. So much modern writing owes her a debt (why the entire Mills and Boons profit margin depends on the ability of its writers to churn out endless versions of Pride and Prejudice). What Jane Austen had, which Mills and Boons does not, is wit and sparkle and originality.
- Doris Lessing. Not perhaps her current stuff, but in the 1970s she was one of the most influential writers as far as I was concerned. Canopus in Argos series – Shikasta in particular, is a fantastic science fiction re-writing of the Bible and the Fall. Brilliant. I want time to read that series again, then I would re-read the Children of Violence series. Oh yes and the Fifth Child is a really dark story. Anyone who is considering having a really large family should read it (well before they start having extra children, don’t for God’s sake read it when you are pregnant). I am not sure a current writer could learn much from her as she was very much of her time, but she sustains ideas through books and series of books, and reading them gives you a sense of a sharp mind behind the pen.
- Isaac Asimov. Dead and chauvinist so probably not great company on my island, but as a teenager I devoured his books. Actually as a teenage girl in the 1970s there were not many female role models so anyone interested in sci fi probably had to go for Asimov, despite his stereotypical views of women. His imagination knew no bounds (apart from in gender politics) – the Robot books, the Foundation series. The end of Eternity was a great stand alone novel. A few weeks on my desert island should do me to re-read them all. For sci fi plots and imagining other worlds I still feel there is no-one to beat him.
- John Wyndham – while I’m on the subject of what I read in my teens, and what would probably be wildly out of date now in terms of gender, I mustn’t forget this guy. You have probably encountered some of his work already: The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Day of the Triffids; but there are many others. The Chrysalids and Trouble with Lichen have themes which would still be relevant today. I always imagined that when he sat down to write a book he would say, “what would happen if…” (What would happen if everyone in the world went blind? What would happen if we discovered the secret of aging?) If I had him on my island I could ask him… However I have tried to get my children to read him and they’ve failed miserably. The language is quite dense and out of date for today’s readership.
- Time Travellers Wife – Audrey Niffenegger – only one book! But one I have read over and over again. It is so clever! (If you have tried and given up, persevere – honestly it is worth it). I definitely want her on my island.
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon – A Scot’s Quair – three novels, same character, set in Rural Aberdeenshire. We had to read Sunset Song for O level at school – it was wonderful. I would like the time to read all three again. As a picture of rural Scottish life after the Second World War, it’s brilliant. Also interesting a man writing from a woman’s perspective which I think he does really well. As a woman writing and realising that a man is emerging as a man character, I take heart from this.
- Kate Atkinson is an author I have come to look out for. I think she defies categorisation – her latest few being whodunnits (with Jackson Brodie). All her books have been surprising and very creative.
- Argh! Only one left- who to choose? David Lodge, Deborah Moggach, Nick Hornby; all good authors. I would like to re-read all the early Fay Weldon novels – she has such a strong voice (so does Nick Hornby incidentally). Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces is worth a re-read, Kate Grenville the Idea of Perfection, but no… I have to choose one so I choose Barbara Kingsolver – The poisonwood bible. I often use this in my creative writing classes to show how description can really create atmosphere, but also she is a wonderful example of how to write multiple first person viewpoint really well, so that you instantly know which “I” is speaking. Not easy to do, and very clever. If you are struggling with creating voices for your characters then do look at her.
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