Posted by Dom
In the seemingly endless list of days and weeks of the year in Britain dedicated to something or other, one initiative that the homepage team is firmly behind is World Book Day.
In the UK and Ireland, the first day of March marks the 10th year of the literary jamboree – scores of other nations will be organising their own promotions, meanwhile, on a separate day in late April.
As you can see from the event’s website, the origins of the day actually come from Catalonia, where in a tradition going back more than 80 years, gifts such as roses and books were given to loved ones to mark St George’s Day. Today, World Book Day focuses on the enjoyment that books can provide for everybody, and aims to get children fully involved by giving them a chance to buy one of ten specially published titles absolutely free.
Readers are also encouraged to list the ‘Ten books you can’t live without’, which got everyone on the homepage team thinking about the various titles that had made a significant impact on their own lives. One of the main joys of books is how one title can mean something so different, and so intensely personal, to everyone who reads it – often reflecting a particular time in that person’s life, a certain mood or a life-changing event. The relationship you have with a book can last a lifetime, and in our era of ‘want it now’ immediacy inspired by civilisation’s ever-growing reliance on computers, iPods, TVs, games consoles and countless other gadgets, this rare quality should be treasured.
‘A room without books is like a body without a soul’ said the Roman orator Marcus Tulius Cicero, which goes some way to explaining the power that literature can have in our everyday lives. As a small contribution to the World Book Day celebrations, here are our selections in a range of categories which we thought summed up the varying emotions that books can inspire.
1) Favourite book of the last 12 months
Laura: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Jon McGregor) This is my one controversial choice. Despite winning awards, reviews I’ve read of McGregor’s first novel have ranged from high praise to grave contempt, his unusual style of writing prompting anger among impatient readers seeking correct grammar and a more rigid structure. But McGregor’s prose is more like urban poetry, describing scenes and places, rather than naming them, and abandoning all direct speech in favour of a more atmospheric reported dialogue. Set in an unnamed northern town, this novel manages to expose the extraordinary where on the surface all seems ordinary, and reveals that the most remarkable events are those which occur without fanfare or widespread reaction, and often slip by unnoticed.
Dom: We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) Probably not a very surprising choice, as pretty much everyone I know who’s read this book has raved about it, but I had to put it in as it simply stands head and shoulders above everything else I’ve read in the last year. The disturbing fictional account of Kevin Khatchadourian’s high school killing spree has an immense power on the page, with no trite observations or obvious conclusions ruining the hypnotic effect of the ghastly unfolding events. Utterly gripping and pretty much impossible to put down.
Megan: Oh The Glory of It All (Sean Wilsey) This memoir by the son of rich San Francisco socialites dissects the strange world of the American elite. A stepmother from hell, a whirlwind tour of the US’s strictest boarding schools and San Fran during the height of the 1980s skateboard revival – this book winds through the darkest corners of wealth and emotional poverty, and ends up growing a vegetable garden somewhere in Tuscany. It is a brilliant and well-researched work of non-fiction, and a fantastic example of Americana.
Ian: Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979 (Michael Palin) This is exactly as the title says, and all the better for it. A stunningly well-written and entertaining glimpse into a world of TV comedy, popular culture and baffling BBC decision-making long gone. It’s the kind of size and weight that thankfully precludes you attempting to read it anywhere other than inside your own home in a large and comfortable chair positioned in good light and relative silence, where you can give it the attention and respect it deserves. Plus it has entries like this: "Tuesday, April 14th 1970: At the BBC there was nowhere to park – the excuse being ‘Apollo 13’. In explanation of why ‘Apollo 13’ should be responsible for filling the BBC car park, Vic, the one-armed gateman, just said ‘Apollo 13’ in a way which brooked no argument."2) Favourite classic (pre-1960)
Laura: Down and out in Paris and London (George Orwell) Orwell combines social commentary with his own experiences taking low-paid jobs and tramping in both capital cities. He ventures from menial toils in dire French kitchens to London doss houses, meeting a host of colourful characters, tramps and vagrants through the course of his own personal experiences. Orwell seeks to expose how the poor of both countries were treated at the time of writing (1920s and 1930s), but his anecdotes are just as relevant today, if not more so than formerly, because they give us a fascinating view of a lost world, seldom written about by novelists at that time.
Dom: Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett) I love the countless interpretations that can be made of Beckett’s classic, and how arguments about the play haven’t dimmed over the last half-century. Despite having read the work countless times, and seen various different versions in the theatre, I’ve never tired of it, and the fact that any ultimate ‘meaning’ is so elusive is one good reason why it has kept its hold on my imagination for so long.
Megan: The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway) A slim, rather haunting volume that had me wanting to expatriate at fifteen, TSAR was the first book that lured me into adulthood. It probably had something to do with the red lipstick, dancing, and copious amounts of wine, but god, isn’t the postmodern world awesome?!
Ian: The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger) "Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell." A few days in the life of a 16-year-old, Holden Caulfield, who mooches disconsolately around post-war New York, slowly slipping into nervous exhaustion and breakdown. Yet it’s somehow a deeply inspiring and uplifting book, thanks chiefly to Salinger’s ability to imbue even the most trivial of instances and common of occurrences with incredible poetic beauty and emotional resonance: running across a snow-bound road; standing in a rainstorm; watching people from a hotel window; walking through a park at night; travelling on a train – he elevates all these experiences into grand epiphanies and personal revelations. Holden is such a plausible character it’s almost painful to believe in him. His relationships with his few friends, his parents, in particular his younger sister, are beautifully drawn and desperately poignant. A masterful book with a masterful message.
3) A book that changed your way of thinking
Laura: Life of Pi (Yann Martel) I love this book – mainly because you feel you have learned and achieved something at the end of it. After what I initially found to be a slow start, putting into context Pi’s spiritual and religious beliefs, I was mesmerised by the tale, only at the end realising what kind of impact it had. It is essentially a tale of survival after a shipwreck, part realistic, part fantastical, the real beauty of the book lying in the reader’s power to choose which version of the story they want to take away with them.
Dom: Prozac Nation (Elizabeth Wurtzel) I was going out with a girl at the time who suffered really badly from depression, so reading this stark and harrowing account of one woman’s battle with the illness was pretty eye-opening, to say the least. The bravery of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s no-holds-barred account stays with me even today, as does the way it changed my beliefs about this crippling condition for ever. A film of the book was made, starring Christina Ricci, Michelle Williams and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, but for reasons I don’t quite understand its cinema release was pretty much canned… maybe it just didn’t live up to the emotional power of Wurtzel’s writing.
Megan: Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (Alan Wiesman) Gaviotas is in the middle grassland desert of Colombia’s llano, sandwiched between nothing and more nothing – the product of a group of innovative scientists, environmentalists and farmers. A fully self-sustainable, technologically brilliant and spiritually founded project birthed from literally nothing, Gaviotas tells the story of a revolutionary community who have struggled to build a place for the future – a truly inspiring read, especially in this day and age.
Ian: Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) This is the best book I’ve ever read. It’s also the only book I’ve read that has made me laugh out loud in a public place. Catch-22 is sublime because of its intelligence and endless, unrelenting imagination. Nothing is what you expect. Every chapter contains a surprise, a revelation, a moment of heart-stopping poignancy or eye-popping lunacy. The structure is incredible: events and characters are introduced in chapter two to make a point that isn’t resolved until chapter 20; a catastrophe is hinted at in chapter five, the consequences of which may have been alluded to in chapter one but whose causes have to wait until chapter 26 to be revealed. A new talking point, philosophical dilemma or ethical quandary is introduced every couple of pages, but always in as non-dogmatic and questioning a manner as is linguistically possible, so you never feel you’re reading an essay nor some kind of ideological tract. It has a character with no first name. It has a character called Major Major Major Major. It has a character whose name translates as Lieutenant Shithead. It has a character who has flies in his eyes but can’t see he has flies in his eyes because he has flies in his eyes. It has a character who likes popping apples in his cheeks but can’t verbally explain why he does it because he has apples in his cheeks. It has a character who sees everything twice. It is also the most powerful case against war ever written, and bequeathed the English language one of its most ubiquitous and enduringly relevant aphorisms.
4) A book you’d save from a burning building
Laura: Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) I am forever trying to ‘convert’ friends to this novel. It has to be one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read, slipping between genres, styles and periods of time with effortless literary confidence. It is clever, provocative and weaves together the most disparate range of stories. I’d feel it as my duty to save this book above all others from a burning library because it’s not only a work of art, but its bold ventures into a post-apocalyptic future deserve to be preserved for generations to come.
Dom: The Secret History (Donna Tartt) Students go to an American college and get mixed up in sex, drugs and murder? Sounds very ‘so what’, but this incredibly well-written, haunting and poignant first novel is anything but. I’ve read Donna Tartt’s masterpiece several times now, and never tire of it – if any book encapsulated the whole pick it up/can’t put it down philosophy, this is it. Its dog-eared state on my bookshelf is a testament to just how many times I’ve returned to its winning mixture of classical literature allusions and popular culture. Shame that her eventual second book, The Little Friend, was so mind-crushingly dull.
Megan: The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrey Niffenger) If I could require everyone on earth to read something, it would be this book. Niffenger’s first mainstream publication, this book tells the story of a couple, Henry & Clare, trying to sustain a relationship amidst Henry’s chromosomal time-travel imbalance. It sounds like awful chick lit, I know (it’s the awkward combination of sci-fi and romance), but this is a fantastically researched, compelling and altogether brilliant read that has grown roots into my very soul. I’ve read it twice, and cried twice. Once was on the tube, and people were looking at me, but honestly? I couldn’t help it. I give this book to anyone who hasn’t read it. Also, some trivia: apparently Brad Pitt & Jennifer Aniston bought the rights to make this book with their film company, before they split. So who knows if the film-version of this story will get lost in time as well…
Ian: Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell) The potency of this book’s central messages is overwhelming, and the language and situations Orwell deploys to get you to understand those messages are breathtaking in their simplicity and power. Nineteen Eighty-Four says all there needs to be said about the dangers of absolute power, the willingness for society to teach itself to hold contrary opinions, a person’s propensity to believe things at face value, the threat of endlessly renewing dictatorship, the wily ways of politicians, the psychological tools wielded by government and big business to keep a population in check, and the struggles involved in striving for a Utopian world. Its central character, Winston Smith, is anyone and everyone. Its depiction of pastoral England is beyond compare. I can’t imagine the world without this book. Its existence is non-negotiable. It must always be available for new generations to read, argue over and relish.
5) The worst book you’ve ever read
Laura: The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole) I found this category difficult because if I don’t like a book, I tend to stop reading it. But if I hark back to school days, when enforced reading was part of the curriculum, I am forced to recall this literary horror in all senses of the word. Said to be the first novel of the gothic genre, it is a supernatural story full of prophecy, transgressions and fateful events – oh yes, and the odd oversized limb and bridegroom crushed by a giant falling helmet. At the time I found this utterly unfathomable tripe and I’m sure I would today. Shelley, Stoker and Poe did this type of horror so much better.
Dom: Ulysses (James Joyce) Brings back ghastly memories of trying to struggle through incomprehensible, unreadable pages of sludge whilst on a ‘reading week’ at university as part of my English Literature course. OK, it’s meant to be some sort of modern classic, but the fact that I never actually managed to make it past about page 32 kind of marked it down in my estimation. Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I could get absolutely no hold on this whatsoever.
Megan: Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen) Yes, I know I’m likely to get jeered saying something like that in this country, but seriously? SNORE. I had a flatmate at university who used to read this book repeatedly, accompanied by the BBC series. Nothing else. Just this book, over and over and over again. It was no wonder she was without dates on a Saturday, as she probably expected them to rock up on horses. Anyway, any expectation I had of this book was forever ruined by the constant sound of Colin Firth stuttering in the other room. Bleh.
Ian: The American (Henry James) Nobody likes being forced to read a book; it colours your opinion of the text and makes you suspicious of its contents. The American was easily the dullest and therefore most objectionable work I had to read at university. There were other charmless works I ploughed through out of duty rather than love, but none were quite as tedious and tortuous as this: hundreds and hundreds of pages documenting the titular traveller’s enervating experiences of late 19th century European upper class etiquette and in particular his pursuit of a boring widow of an aristocratic Parisian family. The plot goes nowhere, the characters are rotten and there isn’t even a proper ending. All of which does the American people no favours whatsoever.
Let us know what you think of our choices – and if there’s an all-time classic that you’d like to recommend to fellow readers, have your say on our special messageboard.
MSN video editor Antony, meanwhile, has some interesting musings on the often-tortured lives of the authors behind the classics, which are well worth a look.
We hope we’ve encouraged some healthy debate, or prompted you to add another couple of titles to your own bookcases at home.