A friend of mine posted this article from HuffPo on the 12 books that you must have on your shelf. I had a look through and shrugged my shoulders in indifference at most of them. I can’t say that any of those I hadn’t read / didn’t own jumped out at me as essential ornaments for my bookshelf. Granted, I am British and HuffPo is an American media site so the autobiography of Malcolm X, Beloved and the People’s history of the USA would never be essential readings for me.
So over the last few days I have had a good think and here then, most humbly, is my alternate list of 12 must have books in no particular order. Please note that I am only including books that I have read either in part or in full:
1. The one I do agree with here is On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. It is one of if not the most important science book in human history. The fact that its detractors are still slinging mud at it, misrepresenting its content and indulging in the most desperate of character assassinations of the man who wrote it proves how dangerous the ideas within were to the theocrats who had enjoyed a dangerously over-priveleged position until its publication in 1859. I read it for the first time early last year and was surprised just how comprehensive the work was and how much Darwin had out-thought his opponents who still claim “he never explained situation X”. In many cases he did explain situation X
2. Well, if HuffPo can do Americo-centric then I can do Anglo-centric. For a topography geek like me, The Making of the English Landscape is patriotic geography porn (I bet you never though you’d see those words in the same sentence!) The author W.G. Hoskins is a passionate – though if we were to be unkind we might call him parochial – author of the beauty of the English landscape, describing how nature and human interaction over thousands of years has given England a uniquely fascinating and complex topography. The book has been attributed to opening up the fields of environmental conservation and human geography
3. It wouldn’t be a must have list without some Dickens and naturally the top of the pile is A Christmas Carol. What more can be said about a book that still resonates with us today? It is the tale of one man’s redemption from avaricious and callous to compassionate and caring, reminding us of what Christmas is all about and the true value of human interaction. The tale never grows tiresome and the short novel is always a joy to read
4. The first woman on the list would naturally be Mary Shelley with Frankenstein. At first the writing style comes across a little heavy but once you settle in it is – in its own way – quite gripping. We all know the story by now. Or do we? Far from the 1950s brainless lug who kills generally indiscriminately, the creature of the original novel is tragic and arguably the victim of his creator. He is learned, outspoken and angry at the “father” who abandoned him. He soon devotes his unnatural life to the torment of Frankenstein who in turn is a callous and self-destructive figure for whom the reader can only feel contempt. There is so much we can take away from this novel, a tale of actions and consequences that are timeless
5. I quibbled for a time over whether I should go for Animal Farm by the same author but eventually I chose George Orwell’s 1984. It is a tale so dark, a dystopia so bleak that all others pale in comparison. Its effect on the English language and on political commentary is so widespread that I’ll be willing to bet that there is a fair proportion of the populace in most western countries who don’t know where terms like “thought police” and “big brother” come from
6. Ray Bradbury is a prolific science fiction writer but for me the one novel that stands above all others is Fahrenheit 451. Another dystopian novel, it is about a fireman whose job it is to burn books. An interesting fable about the power of ideas; it still resonates so much with us today while we debate about how much free speech ought to be permissible in a modern society. The most powerful scene for me is between the protagonist and a government official who explains that books are burnt not to keep people from having dangerous ideas about the government, but because people no longer want to be challenged. They want a simple life unaffected by ever having to think about anything. Had it been written in the last few years, he might have been telling the truth
7. The Bible. It was on the HuffPo list and I’m repeating it here. Christians should read it to know what it is they are being taught. Far too often I have been confronted by a believer desperate to “save me” by quoting one or two passages as if it is all they know of their own holy book. Atheists should read it for ammunition. There is always wisdom in “knowing thine enemy”.
8. Merchants of Doubt. Whichever way you look at it, climate change and the international community’s attempts to find a solution to our out of control carbon emissions is one of the biggest issues of our age. This book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway is a chilling insight into a group of people it refers to as “free market fundamentalists”, people who move from one issue to the next effectively flinging mud at the consensus, the scientific evidence and calling into question the political motivations of those that express concern. It demonstrates how they have used to same tactics against tobacco smoke, acid rain, the ozone layers and several other issues. A sobering book that will never be read by those who need to read it most
9. A good dystopian novel makes the people of the time it is written really think about the state of their world. A truly great example still resonates seven decades after it was written without having to re-interpret its message. Tied to the above in a roundabout sort of a way, Brave New World warns against out of control capitalism, humanity on a mass production conveyor belt where the only religion is Fordism and personal discontent is held at bay by an antidepressant-cum-temporary-lobotomy. It is a world where there is no government except the great glory of the capitalist system. We are told to “BUY LOTS OF STUFF!” and “ENDING IS BETTER THAN MENDING!” It is a homogenous world – mostly for the sake of efficiency. I suppose you could describe it as a McDonalds system of government.
10. A controversial choice next with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It created a stir when it was released that resulted in death threats against the author. For many years he lived in hiding. If you don’t know why it is so controversial then take a look here. I’m not suggesting people ought to read it for the controversy but for the serious message within that warns against the cult of personality. It is also a parable about taking responsibility for our own actions. It is not an easy read, his style is heavy but the two primary characters remain an interesting contrast throughout.
11. Books that leave me with a warm fuzzy glow are few and far between and not necessarily because I read dark stuff primarily. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods carries you on a journey across America with a man searching for a new direction in life after being released from prison. As he meets the old world gods taking sanctuary in the new world he gets caught up in an eternal war that could never truly have a victor. It is profoundly thought-provoking as a discussion on progress versus tradition and how each can have a place in the world without sacrificing or destroying the other. It is a much loved work that spawned an expanded version a few years ago and a 10 year anniversary tour for 2012.
12. I’ve read a lot of John Wyndham but it wasn’t difficult to think of the novel I believe is his must read: The Chrysalids. Another future world acting as commentary for the time it was written in (and in some ways still relevant today), it is about a small community run by extreme religious principles which abhors differences, no matter how minor. They even go so far as to destroy vegetables that do not fit the norm. Inevitably, this iron-fisted theocracy finds difference wherever it looks for it. It is important for our time because it demonstrates humanity’s capacity for self-destruction on grounds of piety
So there we are. Next week I’ll do the twelve books I feel I must read (but haven’t read yet).
As a final comment on this blog post, I quote the HuffPo article:
The Daily Mail reported last year that a survey by Lindeman’s wine in the UK showed the average bookshelf was filled with 80 books that the owner themselves hadn’t read.
Hmmm. I have read every book I have in storage but I have a definite “to read” list (you can see this by visiting my Good Reads profile). I don’t think I have ever bought books with the intention of not reading them.