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THE ONLY TEN BOOKS YOU’LL EVER NEED

18-04-2007

It’s a bold claim, but Laurence Inman reckons he’s nailed it - here are the essential books no reader should miss. The others you canthrow away. Apparently.

Let me tell you about the most shocking thing that ever happened to me.

It happened one terrible night when I was twenty-five, so we’re going back a good….ten years or more. At that time I was living in a remote village in Leicestershire. It had been blustery all day and as the shades of evening closed in, the shutters of the downstairs library kept banging in a very irritating way.

I was reading Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. I had just turned over onto page 232 when a truly horrifying realisation took shape in my mind.

I had read it before!

Not only that, but it took me 231 pages to realise it!

The implications were enormous. I had always thought that if you read a book then it’s as if you’d put it in the secure bank of your memory. It would stay in your mind, ready to be summoned up again whenever you felt like it. But no. It was more like a dodgy curry and ten pints of lager: in and out in no time.

To suppose otherwise was like saying you could eat an orange and it would continue to give you vitamin C for the rest of your life.

I might just as well not have read it in the first place! And then another thought, even worse, elbowed its way to the front of my consciousness: suppose I had read it not once, but twice before, or even three times! How would I know?

I was standing in Waterstone’s a few years ago, looking for another book to fill the house up with, one I’d probably bought before, more than once probably, and which I’ll very likely be buying again in five years, when I suddenly thought: If every word in all these hundreds of thousands of books on these five floors of book-supermarket suddenly entered my head, would I notice the difference?

I honestly think I wouldn’t. I don’t think anybody would. Because ideas, and experiences themselves, once over, are fleeting insubstantial things.

Things happen, you have been to various places, thought certain things, but they may as well have been other places and other things. Having been somewhere is, afterwards, more or less the same as thinking you’ve been there. You might just as well have read about it.

In fact, that can be better than actually going, otherwise what’s the point of Literature ?

Go to Spain ? No, not these days; It’s far too touristy. When I went, in 1936 with George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Laurie Lee, it was brilliant! The people in those villages in the Ukraine in the 1880’s were so hospitable and what better companion could I have had but Chekhov ?

By the time I die I’ll have been everywhere, met everyone and read everything. Well, who’s to say I won’t have ? Not me, certainly.

Books are a load of crap,’ wrote Philip Larkin. I haven’t yet got to the point of believing that, but I am beginning to think, what with one thing and another, that I may as well just keep reading the same ten things over and over again.

Leaving aside Shakespeare, Chekhov and all English poetry then, here’s my list of ten books I’d be happy to live with for the rest of my life, in no particular order.

  • James Joyce. Ulysses.
  • Dostoevski. The Brothers Karamazov
  • Flaubert. Madame Bovary.
  • Jane Austen. Emma.
  • Dickens. Bleak House.
  • Conrad. Victory.
  • Tolstoy. War and Peace.
  • George Eliot. Middlemarch.
  • Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby
  • Anthony Powell. A Dance To The Music Of Time.
  • Middlemarch again, for after I’ve forgotten it.

Some people may wonder why there is no mention of a 19th Century American novel about a whale. Well, I agree with Woody Allen on that. When asked if he’d live his life differently if he was given the chance, he replied: ‘No. I’d do everything exactly the same. Except I wouldn’t read Moby-Dick.

Next week: a major pre-election update on life in the Amesbury Road and Park Hill Conservation Area for Middle-Class Gentlefolk Who Like Life To Be Nice And Safe And Cosy.

Go on then. Laurence has set the standard. So what book or books do you regard as essential reading? Leave a comment on our music and arts messageboard.

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