I’m considering embarking on a journey—a re-reading of the twenty one stories that best influenced, transported, soothed, seduced and inspired my imagination. For me a good story is a meaty carcass to gnaw on, a meal not to be hurried. I don’t read fast, never have. I like fiction that makes me think. Maybe some of these tales won’t have stood the test of time, but I doubt it, in my memory each still contains a bright hermetic integrity.
When it came to books I was a slow starter. I didn't realize reading was potentially a pleasure rather than a parentally inflicted chore until I stumbled upon Jerome K Jerome’s ‘Three Men in a Boat’ (which, as an eleven year old gave me my first laughter-stitch).
The list bellow represents something of a Sophie’s Choice, no two books by the same author, which alone meant a drastic and painful cutting. The order is chronological, not in terms of when they were written, but from the selfish notion that only once I’d read them did they come into existence:
“Nine Billion Names of God”— Arthur C Clarke. A short story that opened my mind to infinite possibility.
“Siddhartha”—Hesse. Could also have been Steppenwolf but I chose this because it introduced an 18 year old to the concept of spiritual journey.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” —Dumas. Revenge served sweet and cold.
“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”—Hugo. Profound pathos wrapped in a ripping yarn.
“The Foundation Trilogy” —Asimov. The ultimate in Science Fiction.
“Titus Groan”—Mervyn Peake. Although the Gormaghast trilogy fades in the last of the series (as Peak’s health collapsed), books one and two are truly remarkable feats of possibly the most underrated imagination in English literature. The guy was a good artist too!
“Cider With Rosie” —Laurie Lee. First of three effortless gems bridging pastoral England and sun-hardened Spain.
“Cat’s Cradle”— Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world.
“Cannery Row—Steinbeck. If this story don’t get to you, you aint human!
“Love for Lydia”— H.E. Bates. If I could write half as well as Bates I would die happy.
“First Love, Last Rights”—Ian McEwen. Along with his other early book of short stories, “Between the Sheets”, these wee tales are provocative, funny, and clever.
“The Wasp Factory” —Iain Banks. More extreme than McEwen, Banks is downright black.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”—Le Carre. George Smiley, is one of the great character vehicles of modern fiction, brilliantly-flawed, a giant little man.
“The Chymical Wedding”—Lindsay Clarke. It was this or John Fowels’ “The Magus”, and as Clarkes' book is about alchemy, that tipped the scales.
“Riddley Walker”—Russell Hoban. Written in a post-holocaustic language, it’s a one-off slice of genius.
“Four Letters of Love” —Niall Williams. An affirmation of heart wrenching passion and tenacity.
“Shadow of the Wind”— Zafon. From first to last paragraph, a story that overrules the humdrum.
“Perfume”—Suskind. Dark as it comes. For sheer originality and cunning, Perfume is a sensory juggernaut.
“The Fingersmith”—Sarah Waters. So well written. A tricky, conjurer of time and place.
“The Fencing Master”—Perez-Reverte. It was a tough call between this and his Captain Alatriste series, but The Fencing Master ultimately won the day, because I identified with what he was fighting for. And...his female villain is a bloody marvelous creation.“Game of Thrones”—Martin. Having read all five books, mostly in the bath (and I hate cold bath water!) I confess total addiction to Martin’s brutally real parallel world