My top five books

September 25, 2009

This is a list of my fave books I was asked to do for the Wood Green Bookshop, who are collecting authors’ top five book lists on their blog and currently appealing to civilians for their votes, too. (Server may be down).

Anyway, as with the Contagious thing, I don’t know when it’s going up on their site, so turn over the page my friend, ask the Lord his help to lend, to hear me go on about how I’ve hardly ever read any books, actually. (NB: I tried to keep it roughly themed to EOC, there are other non-sci-fi books that I’ve enjoyed).

Roald Dahl’s short story anthology, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, was the first book to affect me. My brother and I were taught at home by our mum for a while in the 80s, and Dahl’s short stories became a staple for English comprehension lessions (Mum was an English teacher and, looking back, I think our lessons had a slight bias towards her subject). The Henry Sugar story is well-known, but I think we forget how beautiful it is in its conceit. As with so much of Dahl’s stuff, it’s all about magic and greed – adult themes through a harsh and childlike imagination. For my brother and I it was a deliciously naughty peak into the troubles of grown-ups. The Hitchhiker is the other stand-out story here – all about an unforgettable encounter with a ‘fingersmith’, a man described in such gloriously grotesque detail you’ll drive straight past poor souls thumbing lifts for the rest of your life after reading it. All of Dahl’s short stories are magical, of course, but this is the compilation that has stayed with me as a strangely grown-up revelation bestowed on me during a strange grown-up-filled time of my life.

The next book that really captured my imagination, predictably enough, was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Until that point I’d been contentedly devouring frollicky horsey adventures almost exclusively, but something pubescent happened in my brain when I turned 12, and suddenly I found myself thinking about time and space all the time. I was a stupid clown at that age, a sort of shy, backward idiot always trying to make a rubbish joke out of everything, and I couldn’t believe how cleverly funny this book was allowing itself to be. It was such an intensely colourful adventure; mind-expanding, the possibilities Adams was allowing himself to explore. I haven’t gone back to it much since because I’m happy with the memory of the book (and most of its sequels), but I did of course watch the recent film. It was… fine.

The third book to impress me was Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, which I picked up at random in the college library on night while waiting for my mum to finish work. It turned out to be the memoirs of a man who, to my ambitionless 14-year-old self, would recalibrate the bar for an interesting life. I had no idea who he was or even whether anyone else knew who he was, but he had the same sense of humour as me, and seemed drawn to exactly the same types of challenges, grasping and running with all these incredibly exciting things that thrilled me right through. As a shy idiot teenager it was that fantasy of courage that I was buying into with Feynman, and I’m sure if I read it now it’d annoy the hell out of me, but at the time I drank in the late physicist’s tales with wide-eyed credulity. Tales of self-taught safe-cracking and encrypting letters in jigsaws to send to his wife in hospital, of bomb testing and bad conscience, of maths and science and the period he spent simply learning to watch himself fall asleep. The stories were as exotic and unlimited as the wind-swept planes of Lost Alamos but also sanctioned living intelligently and pursuing one’s inconsequential obsessions right to the end, and for their own sake – all very distant ideas to a young teenager with no money, sharing a room with her mother in a small rented flat. I think of this book every time I lie awake at night waiting for the signs of sleep to arrive and pull me under. Which is often.

The fourth book on my list is Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape by Christopher Wood. My undergraduate degree was in the History of Art and for a long time I found it quite difficult. I discovered Christopher Wood during the second year, I think, and it helped me turn a corner. Also, by showing me the kind of research that was possible, this was one of the books that gave me the basis for my Masters degree a couple of years later. Possibly I just don’t like paintings very much, but I was immediately captivated by the connections between the art and writing that Wood makes in this treatise on the northern Renaissance master Albrecht Altdorfer. One hears a lot about the bold frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, but there’s a case here that the revolution happening in Flemish art of the time was all about detail and writing. Landscape in the northern Renaissance emerged outwards from the calligraphic detail of miniatures and maps; the subject of the painting became gradually subsumed by its supplimentary imagery and landscape painting as we know it was born – at the expense of subjects charting meaning. Basically, Wood argues that landscape painting emerged from the mapping impulse, from the urge to plot patterns until meaning is gone and only the detail remains. Perhaps you’re beginning to see why I liked this book so much.

I’m not very good at long books, so my next choice is another anthology of short stories. I read Stories of Your Life and Others this year, and was impressed. Ted Chiang is a highly-regarded sci-fi writer, relatively new on the scene, and all about quality rather than quantity. This slim tome is a collection of most of his work to date and the stories explore loads of mad ideas about alternative realities. There’s the world where angels exist, but rupture the fabric of spacetime like great natural disasters, amoral hurricanes whisking souls away to heaven or earth-cracking quakes sucking casualties down into hell. There’s the society who wants to build a tower to the roof of the world, with every detail painstakingly visualised for us by Chiang, and there are the aliens who write notes for Earth in strange splayed symbols but disappear without really telling us anything. And that’s the thing I like about Chiang’s work: it has a certain dignity, a holding-back. There’s a genuine fascination with questions but a modest pause where other fiction writers would supply answers. In a way, I wish he’d write more, but equally the ideas in this book will keep me thinking for a while yet.

Leila Johnston is the author of Enemy of Chaos, a facetious fantasy gamebook for adults described as “Absolutely hilarious” by the Observer and “Wickedly funny” by Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow. The website is www.enemyofchaos.com, and the accompanying iPhone app, www.enemyofchaos.com/app.

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