Today it is World Book Day, so here is my list of a ‘top ten’ of books. It’s not a proper top ten, because they’re not in order – well, at least, they’re not in order of quality or preference or anything like that. Clearly they’re in some order, otherwise they wouldn’t have numbers, and would have to be placed in a kind of cloud and float around so that no one could say one was above the other. They’re not in any intentional order.
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid – Douglas R Hofstadter
I thought I might as well start with (You see? There was an intended order. D’oh!) the one which is going to be the hardest to explain, and, frankly, the one which it isn’t very likely anyone I know has read. Among those who are interested in such things, it is, however, regarded as a masterpiece. The book seeks (and finds) analogies between the music of J. S. Bach, the graphic art of M. C. Escher, and (rather surprisingly to the layperson, perhaps) the mathematics of Kurt Gödel, and links all with the hard question of Artificial Intelligence: whether machines will ever be able to think just like humans. Each chapter of the book is followed by a dialogue between imaginary characters, which aims to illuminate its themes. These have a creativity and a playfulness (themselves themes of the book) which are a delight in themselves. If I were ever going to be marooned on a desert island such that I would have time to read, rather than desperately stave off starvation and exhaustion, I’d want this book by my side.
- A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
This is the story of a tiny boy with a mangled voice who distinguishes himself in the first chapter by killing the narrator’s mother with a fly ball at a baseball match. He becomes convinced that he is God’s instrument on Earth, and the multiple themes, images and leitmotifs of the book all come together to justify that belief in a wholly satisfying way. One of the few books that literally had me on the edge of my seat. That isn’t in itself a recommendation, but it is rich in character, beautifully written, and, for a plot-junkie, an absolute delight.
- The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
- Consciousness Explained – Daniel C Dennett
I put these two together because between them they put the nail in the religious bug that had been foisted on me by upbringing, and not thus far entirely destroyed. Dawkins had infuriated me, as he does all religious people (and probably intends to do) but something about what he said left me unable to avoid reading him, like the fascination of a carcrash or of picking a scab. I read the Dennett because I was fond of saying (as many religious people feel, I am sure) that a universe which was bizarre enough to contain consciousness was easily bizarre enough to contain (I probably meant co-exist with) God. I was aware that either book, if convincing, would leave me without a religious faith. Both were. Both are brilliantly written and confront us with the inevitable conclusion that God is a delusion, long before either of the writers became even more famous as two of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheists.
- The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde
This is the first in a series of books about ‘literary detective’ Thursday Next, who acquires the ability to enter into works of fiction and influence their events. When the villain Acheron Hades kidnaps Jane from the book Jane Eyre the last pages of the book go blank. Thursday has to put things right, and in so doing, affects the book in a significant way. Set in an England whose cosmopolitan capital is Swindon and where people keep Dodos as pets and buy poetry from streetcorner vending machines before taking the airship to work, what is not to love?
- Hitch 22 – Christopher Hitchens
The thoughts and memoirs of the great, lamented Christopher Hitchens (another of those Horsemen I mentioned above), written long before he was aware of his imminent early demise from cancer. In addition to accounts of his relationships with such people as Martin Amis and Edward Said, we have his discovery, late in life, that he is Jewish and how that makes him feel, along with multiple pieces of journalism and essays. He is doubtless infuriating in many ways, but he’s the only person who has ever made me wish I’d been a bit more left wing.
- Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
I’m not going to say much about this one. Pip, Jaggers, Magwitch, Estella, Miss Havisham: you’ve seen the films and the TV adaptations. Do yourself a favour. Read the fucking book.
- Guns, Germs & Steel – Jared Diamond
Why did Europeans land in North America in the 15th century and proceed to colonise (and arguably conquer) instead of the other way around? Why did technology develop at its particular advanced rate in Europe while other parts of the world languished in a state of comparatively primitive development. This is a prolonged and well-researched response to that question, and is both enlightening and provocative.
- The Child in Time – Ian McEwan
There are many McEwan books that could have been included. I was very tempted to consider Black Dogs, but it’s not long enough to be counted as a novel in many people’s books. This one is a more mature work, and weaves its plot themes of child loss, lost childhood, and rebirth and re-birth into an elegant tapestry. Despite his early reputation as dealing with gritty realism, one of the things he does particularly well is to characterise the lifestyles of the educated London elite.
- The Stuff of Thought – Stephen Pinker
Had to have some Pinker. His books deal with a surprising variety of subjects, while always leaving one with the suspicious that there is an over-arching theme. This one is about the nature of language and the links between linguistics and the way the brain works.