Recently, on Booklikes, I was given the opportunity to take part in crowdsourcing a list of books by answer the following question:
Name the top twenty-five books you think are representative or transformative of their era or genre, or are culturally important or especially significant in some way.
The idea was to avoid churning out the same classics everyone reads and instead to identify books and writers that mean something to me. I haven’t ranked the twenty-five. For convenience, I’ve listed them in the order that they were published, with the most recent being described first.
Here’s what I came up with:
I’d like to share why these books are special to me. I hope some of them are special to you too or that you’ll be tempted to give them a try.
“Speak” by Louisa Hall (2015).
“Speak” makes my list, despite being less than five years old, because it is the most exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience that I’ve read
The prose is lyrical. The exploration of the concepts of sentience, memory, consciousness and humanity are deftly handled. The many voices that speak in the book are distinctive, engaging and emotionally authentic, even when they belong to an early AI asking a question it makes sound existential: “Hello. Are you there?”
“Flight Behaviour” by Barbara Kingsolver (2012)
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my must-read writer.
I selected “Flight Behaviour” because it manages to be a deeply human story and explore the impact or poverty, climate change and family on the choices that we make and the role played by faith and science in making those choices.
It tells the story of a young mother, living in poverty and boredom in an unsatisfying marriage in the Appalachians who has her life transformed by an unexpected encounter with a spectacular natural phenomenon.
I loved the realistic but none judgemental way in which poverty is described and the way science is presented as something exciting and seductive to people new to it.
“Juliet Naked” by Nick Hornby (2009)
Nick Hornby never disappoints. In “Juliet Naked” he gives us a humorous but compassionate exploration of obsession, co-dependency and celebrity and personal redemption in the context of a Trans-Atlantic comedy of manners
I selected this because I know how close I’ve come, from time to time, to falling into the same tar pits the characters get stuck in and because I loved the humour, especially when it related to how hard it can be for the English and the Americans to understand one another.
“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (2008)
I selected “The Hunger Games” because it was one of the best Science Fiction books I’d read in a decade, it brought me back to YA fiction, it was powerfully told and timely.
“The Hunger Games” struck me as a manifesto for fundamental human rights: not to be enslaved, not to be hungry, not to be subject to violence from your own state.
It made me realize that “Reality TV” is a social engineering tool that takes us further and further from reality and contributes to a level of noise and moral indifference that leaves us feeling powerless to change the world.
“The First Casualty” by Ben Elton (2005)
Ben Elton helps me see the world differently. With books like “Dead Famous” and “Chart Throb” he dissected social media. With “Blind Faith” and “Time and Again” he’s shown us scary possible futures. In “The First Casualty” he confronts us with the insanity of the slaughter of young men that was World War I.
“The First Casualty” takes its title from the truism that the first casualty of war is truth.
The novel is a pursuit of truth on multiple levels: the truth about the killing of British Officer well-known for his poetry, the truth about the British soldiers’ experience during World War I, the truth that war damages everyone it touches.
“Empire Falls” by Richard Russo (2001)
“Empire Falls” is so far away from my experience that it’s more alien than the Science Fiction that I read.
I selected this novel because, despite that, Richard Russo made the failing blue-collar town of Empire Falls, that Miles Roby has spent his life in, come alive for me.
This is not a cosy, Hallmark version of small-town America but neither is it a depiction of hopelessness. These are people who have strong bonds with each other, who get each other’s humour and mostly tolerate each other’s failings.
“Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling (1997)
I’ve been a Harry Potter fan since 1998 when based on word of mouth recommendations, I picked up the first two books, “The Philosopher’s Stone” and “The Chamber of Secrets”, together. After that, I was hooked. I was one of the many who pre-ordered the hardback versions of the books from “The Prisoner of Azkaban” onwards.
As Harry grew older, the books became longer and darker and we waited for more than a year between them. For the first seven years of this century, reading the Harry Potter books became a ritual for me. I would make sure that I had a day’s leave when each book arrived so that I could dive right in and then I would carry the book with me everywhere until it was consumed and I was left hungry for the next one.
Of course, I was not alone in this. As I travelled around Europe on business, Harry Potter was my companion at restaurants and hotel lounges and swimming pools. Everywhere I went people talked to me about Harry. They wanted to share their enthusiasm and rekindle their joy, so they asked: Who is your favourite character? Which is your favourite book? What do you think will happen next?’
In 2001, the first movie came out and suddenly the whole world had the same faces for the characters in the Potter books and we all knew exactly what Hogwarts looked like.
Harry Potter made my list because J. K Rowling helped us reimagine the struggle against evil in ways that seem more relevant every day. As I write this, Boris Johnson looks as if he will become the next UK PM. When I describe him as a Slytherin Deatheater who has no time for us Muggles and House Elves, everyone knows what I mean.
“Shakespeare’s Landlord” by Charlaine Harris (1996)
I love Charlaine Harris’ two supernatural series, Sookie Stackhouse vampire books and the Harper Connelly I-talk-to-the-dead books but I think the Lily Bard series, starting with “Shakespeare’s Landlord” is Charlaine Harris’ best work.
Get past the slightly silly title’s and the low production standard covers and you’ll find one of the best series I’ve ever read about what it means to be a rape survivor.
While each of the five books has a standalone mystery in it for Lily to help solve, the real driver of the series is Lily’s struggle to re-engage with life after having been the victim a brutal rape.
There’s nothing trivial or exploitative here. There is a lot of truth and some of it is hard to take. I admire Charlaine Harris for having written a hero is marked by her rape but refuses to be destroyed by it.
“Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow” by Peter Hoeg (1992)
This makes my list because it was my first encounter with what has become scandi-noir.
It isn’t scandal-noir as we now know it but it is the direct ancestor of it.
It’s set in Copenhagen. The mystery depends on the ability to read snow. It is a book laden with a dark, cold, unforgiving atmosphere.
Yet the main character is a civilian, a woman, a Greenlander in Denmark and someone whose analytical abilities exceed her social skills.
The book isn’t really about how the boy died. It’s about Denmark’s colonial past and its present, guilt-laden relationship with Greenlanders.
It showed me a non-anglo sensibility, made me aware of history no one taught me and still delivered an intriguing mystery driven by a unique main character.
“Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett (1992)
Terry Pratchett had to be on this list. I’ve read all of his books. His voice has been my companion for decades. I miss him. He was a man who could see all the faults and fears and hates in the world, share them with me with dry wit and leave me the gift of (qualified, tentative, ready-to-be-disappointed) hope.
I picked “Small Gods” because it was the first book I read that provided a plausible explanation for the Gods I don’t believe in. If I WAS going to believe in Gods, it would be these small ones.
“The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice (1990)
Given that Anne Rice is famous for reinventing vampires (sexy but not sparkly and definitely not YA material) why have I selected one of her witch books for this list?
Well, I liked the vampires but the writing in “Interview With A Vampire” was awful. “Cry To Heaven” (a book about eighteenth-century castrati – now there’s a narrow genre) is her best written but the one that I think kicked off a new genre with a very well written book is “The Witching Hour”.
It’s a big, self-confident book, with good action, great world building and characters I could cheer for. I recommend the whole Mayfair witches series.
“Use Of Weapons” by Iain M. Banks (1990)
“Use Of Weapons” did three things that I think raised the game in Science Fiction:
In Cheradenine Zakalwelt, Banks created one of the most complex and compelling anti-heroes I’ve ever met.
By exposing the terrible things The Culture is willing to do to preserve itself, Banks showed what it costs to keep an AI-run utopia running. Calling the people who do the wet work “Special Circumstances Agents” is either honesty or cynical humour or both.
Banks created a completely different way of perceiving events and how they are connected to one another by writing the story on two directly linear timelines that move in opposite directions.
“The Gate To The Women’s Country” by Sheri S. Tepper (1987)
Although I’m male, I’ve never really understood the whole male-bonding, brothers in arms thing. It’s never appealed to me but it’s so common that I felt that I perhaps had a kind of emotional colour-blindness that meant I couldn’t see what the men around me saw.
“The Gate To The Women’s Country” surprisingly gave me an insight into that world and made me glad for my colour-blindness.
It’s also a cool SF story with a strong feminist ethos. It centres around a conflict between a polygamist society run by warriors and a matriarchal dictatorship from which most men are excluded.
It’s not perfect but is thought-provoking and it made me wonder about the way the world sets up men to die for others.
“It” by Stephen King (1986)
This is the only horror book on my list. It’s also the best horror book I’ve ever read.
For me, the heart of this book is the children. King does nostalgic realism better than anyone else. He captures the hope and the fear and the bravery of youth. His characters are real. They shine with potential.
Then they grow up.
Yeah, there’s the clown, the bad thing hiding in the drain but that’s not the scary thing.
The scary thing is that the kids, all kids, grow up and the more they do that, the less potential they have. What goes down the drain is all the things they might have been but did not become.
I read “IT” as being a confrontation with all the ways in which we diminish ourselves and a reconciliation with the people we’ve become.
“The Accidental Tourist” by Anne Tyler (1985)
I was given “The Accidental Tourist” by someone who knew me well enough to see that I was one and cared enough to invite me to stop.
Macon Leary is the accidental tourist of the title. He is a man at war with himself, a travel writer who hates both travel and anything out of the ordinary. The book shows how, with help, he ends the war and embraces his life.
I’ve put this on my list because it did help me to become less of an accidental tourist and it introduced me to Anne Tyler whose write has let me live several vicarious lives of people more interesting than I am.
“The Cider House Rules” by John Irving (1985)
I’d read all John Irving’s novels before “The Cider House Rules” and enjoyed them for their originality, their fearlessness and their compassion.
With “The Cider House Rules”, I felt as if something had gelled in John Irving’s writing that made everything more powerful.
He still wrote characters that I believed in and wanted to talk with, even though I could see their flaws. He still approached difficult topics, abortion in this case, in original and challenging ways, as he had with rape and with monogamy in “The World According To Garp”.
The difference was in the level of complexity and of ambiguity.
This is a book about rules, about creating your own rules to live by, about taking responsibility for your own life and the lives you touch but it is also a book about how love can push all rules aside, making doing the right thing both obvious and impossible to explain or defend. That’s why it’s on my list
“The Neuromancer” by William Gibson (1984)
“The Neuromancer” was a game changer for Science Fiction. It invented CyberPunk.
It blew me away, partly because of the technology and partly because the future, with all this great tech in it, wasn’t bright and shiny.
The technology was amazing and, although we didn’t know it then, incredibly prescient. In a world that was ten years away from the first Web page, where mainframes ruled. IBM PCs ran on MS Dow 3.0 and the only laptop you could buy weighed thirty pounds. Gibson showed us CyberSpace, a “consensual hallucination” that allowed millions of people to visualise data and abstract concepts in the same way.
Now we take that so much for granted that people born in the West in this century struggle to imagine an app-free life.
Gibson also invented cybercrime and a whole underworld that exploited shiny technology to do illegal things. That was perhaps the most prescient thing of all.
“Small World” by David Lodge (1984)
David Lodges’ gentle comedies always hearten me. They’re closely observed, witty but never mean-spirited.
“Small World” is the second book in Lodge’s Campus Trilogy which takes a hard look at academics, specifically English Literature academics.
I selected “Small World” because, as well as giving witty insights into the world of international academic conferences, delivering some very tongue-in-cheek but hard to ignore lectures and creating three strong characters, it also works as a classic “Romance” and courtly love.
“Ridley Walker” by Russell Hoban (1980)
“Riddley Walker” is on my list because it does something that I haven’t seen any other post-apocalyptic novel do: it creates a new language as part of the world- building and, in the process, comes close to poetry.
This isn’t an analog of Klingon, where you have to look things up. This is to our current English what our current English is to Middle English. I loved it because it worked and because it gave the people of our future world a different way of thinking
“Memoirs Of A Survivor” by Doris Lessing (1974)
In the late seventies, I had a shelf full of Lessing (I still do- it’s just a bigger shelf now). I fell in love with the Martha Quest books, especially “The Four Gated City” which was the first book I read that suggested that mental illness was a natural response it an insane world and that, if you’ve never lost your mind, you’re in no position to assess your own sanity.
Yet it was “The Memoirs Of A Survivor” that called to me most personally. It’s a sort of auto-biography transposed to a dystopian London.
As an introvert with low needs for affiliation, it resonated with me because it made me confront my tendency to hide behind the walls of my own imagination while entropy slowly erodes the world outside. It made me wonder whether this amounts to mental illness on my part or to self-preservation and to what extent I needed to connect with others to create enough order and meaning to survive.
“The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin (1974)
I love Le Guin’s books. “A Wizard Of Earthsea” is an obvious candidate for this list. I’ve chosen “The Dispossessed” instead because it was the one that rewired my brain.
I read it when I was at university and my head was deep into economics and politics. I was fascinated by the attempt to conceive of a (less-than-perfect but still functioning) anarchist culture that is based around responsibility.
I was also impressed by how human and personal it was.
At the heart of this book is a recognition of the importance of understanding that actions have consequences that we have to own and the promises are fundamental to change
To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.
“The Magic Toyshop” by Angela Carter (1967)
In the early nineteen-eighties I read Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories” and understood for the first time what it meant to be shocked by a book. I didn’t disapprove. I also didn’t understand everything I was reading but I new it was wild, gleefully savage, self-confidently erotic and completely unclassifiable.
I read her compulsively after that until I reached “The Magic Toyshop” and things got personal. I still didn’t understand everything I was reading but this was literary cocaine, I snorted it in and my imagination exploded.
Except this time we were dealing with poverty. The description of the shabby bathroom with the crappy bar of soap with someone else’s hair on it hit me hard. My wife and I still refer it to it as the point where we realised we never wanted to go back to that.
“The Magic Toyshop” is what magical realism should be. It’s an assault, not an escape. Its magic is threatening, not reassuring and its reality is one I wouldn’t choose to share.
“Stranger In A Strange Land” by Robert A Heinlein (1962)
This book is on my list because it showed me how wickedly playful Science Fiction could be.
While Clarke was using Science Fiction to dream of exploring space and Asimov was using it to solve the logic of the Laws of Robotics, Heinlein was using Science Fiction as a sharp stick with which to poke the termite towers of Conservative America.
Although on the surface this appears to be a book about the the legal status of the first boy born on Mars when he returns to Earth, it’s really a vehicle for challenging the 1961 establishment views and values.
Our boy from Mars is the innocent hippy that the rest of the world wants to take advantage of and his three-times-larger-than-life lawyer, Jubal uses a kind of cultural jujitsu to defeat the establishment on its own terms.
It made me laugh from beginning to end. It would be so nice to see the bad guys lose like this from time to time.
“Gormenghast” by Mervyn Peake (1950)
Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast”, with its atmosphere of stifling tradition, rigid hierarchy and vicious people resonated with me on a deep level as an exaggerated but accurate view of British society as it was in the middle of the last century.
It’s not an easy book but it is a vivid one. Grotesques like the ruthless Steerpike and the self-obsessed Fuscia stick with me and of course the library fire was the greatest barbarism in the book.
“Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell (1914)
“The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” is a sometimes clumsily written novel that is given to sentimentality.
It’s also a simple and graphic explanation of how unfettered capitalism preys on working people.
For me it was a reminder that, no matter how nice they sound, the Tories are always the enemy and that they win because people refuse to see how things really work.