I believe that books are like music, deeply personal artefacts, which makes them difficult to recommend to others. Yes, there are metrics that make recommendation easier – the quality of the writing, the style and of course the topic itself, but that’s just a small part isn’t it? Don’t you also have to throw into the mix your mood at the time of reading, your personal circumstances, your age, your attitudes, the current economic climate, current trends, etc, etc?
I’m going to list some books here that I rediscovered recently in the loft whilst looking for something else. I hadn’t forgotten these books, but I had forgotten I still had them, and upon seeing them I received such an instant rush of delight, such strong flashbacks to a time in my life when I actually remember very little, yet the reawakened memories from seeing these books invoked a real sense of nostalgia.
These books were all read by me between 1987 and 1990 (+ 1993) (aged 22-25 (+ 28)). I started my first job in London in September ’86 and finally freed from academic study, plus a commute down the northern line, I suddenly had time to read, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
- The Catcher in the Rye – J.D Salinger
I bought this from a second-hand bookshop off Islington High Street in 1986. I can remember buying it, but I can’t remember why (probably because I thought it looked and sounded cool). I don’t remember that much about the book, but I do remember Holden Caulfield, and even though he was a 1950s kid growing up in America, I liked him, I identified with him. He found the world challenging and I guess as a young man living in a new city with few friends, starting my first job, I shared a few of Holden’s angsts. I look at the book now and I don’t think I could read it again, despite all those memories. I read it at exactly the right time, and that’s my point about books, you can’t recommend ‘feelings’.
- The Cider House Rules/A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
July ’87 (I used to write inside my books). This was my second Irving novel after reading The World According To Garp (a book I think I gave away). I loved Garp so much I searched more from Irving and this happened to be next. John Irving was so good at creating characters and Homer Wells was no exception. This is a big book, one of those ‘life’ books that follows Homer throughout his life. Weird and wonderful (often unreal) things happen to Homer but it doesn’t matter, this isn’t a book about story so much as it’s a book about people. I loved Homer Wells and I devoured that book on my commute – 730 pages – in just a few short days. I read ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ whilst inter-railing in 1990 and I consider Garp, Homer and Owen to be good friends of mine.
- Success/Dead Babies/Rachel Papers – Martin Amis
I felt I had to try British authors and stumbled upon Martin Amis, possibly recommended by a friend. I don’t think these three books were a trilogy, but I read them that way – all between ’87 and ’88 – they’re all published in the same style and all based around young people (my age), living in London (my new town). Amis was (is?) a brilliant writer and I loved the Englishness (perhaps after reading American literature it felt fresh and more closer to home). These books are about lives of young people living loose and fast. Drugs, sex and booze are rife, morals are dubious, far removed from my life (except maybe for the booze) and perhaps it was the escapism and naughtiness I liked most. Rachel Papers made the most impact on me. I think I fell in love with Rachel, it wasn’t always an easy read. That’s what I remember, not the plot, but the emotion.
- A Kind of Loving – Stan Barstow
Not content with just going English, I went full Yorkshire in Aug ’89, availing myself of Stan Barstow. I absolutely loved Stan Barstow. His books were set in Yorkshire, in the 60s, often around a young man starting out in life and struggling to make ends meet. Vic Brown was the main character. Vic became a trilogy with Watchers on the Shore and A Right True End. I read them back to back. Barstow’s books (I read 6 of them in total) made me realise you don’t have to hide your roots, you can be proud of them.
- The Crow Road – Iain Banks
I’ve included this, even though I read it a little later (4th May, 1993, Euston Station). I include this because it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read. Prentice McHoan is Scottish and had a very different upbringing to me, yet it feels wonderfully familiar, not so much the scenes or the situations, but the way Prentice thinks, the emotions he feels. But I didn’t just love the character of Prentice, I loved the way Banks described scenes and I think this was the first time I deeply appreciated how wonderful description could also be. The Crow Road remains one of the most beautiful books to combine character, story and description in my opinion, and there’s one scene in the book that remains my most favourite scene I’ve ever read. I probably will read this book again one day with a fine malt.
- The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
My other most favourite Iain Banks novel is The Wasp Factory (since lost and hence not pictured). I wanted my kids (my two boys in particular) to read that book as that also had a huge impact on me and I wanted them to feel some of what I felt. It failed badly, neither of them read it and I felt sad, but then realised what I said at the beginning – you can’t force books on others. The Wasp Factory wasn’t their book, it was mine. Hopefully they will make their own discoveries, and often it’s the discovery process that’s the most exciting.
As a final caveat I should add that I did successfully lend Amis’s Dead Babies to my daughter and she did read it in June 2013 – thanks for that Em, and thanks for also writing your name in the book and continuing the tradition 😉 x