Angela Macmillan recommends Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
I always hum and hah whenever someone asks me to name my favourite book. The simple answer is that I don’t have just one. I have rehearsed my reply first to Roy Plumley, then Sue Lawley and now Kirsty Wark, and like my desert island record choices, my book choice has not stayed constant. One thing, however, is certain. It must be a nineteenth-century novel. George Eliot or Dickens or Mrs Gaskell? It is not a question of preferring one to another. I need them all and not just one of their books but all of them. But I am being asked for one book, so under duress, I have selected Bleak House. Of all Dickens’ novels, this one seems to me to be the most satisfying and I urge everyone to read it not just once but at least twice.
Once the mysteries of the plot are discovered and the outcome revealed, one can begin, in the second reading, to see something of the complexity of the overall design and of the parts that make up the whole. Fitting these parts together or separating them becomes completely fascinating. It is like looking into Dickens’ mind. In terms of the novel’s form, it has a neat beginning and end, but in terms of Dickens’ idea or vision, the whole concept becomes much bigger. The strength of the book is that it is just that – a whole concept. Dickens lends his point of view to Inspector Bucket: ‘There he mounts a high tower in his mind, and looks out’ (Ch. 56).
Connections form the framework of Bleak House. Dickens demands that we look for and make connections and having found them that we look again, for this will not be the end:
What connection can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabouts of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had the distant ray of light upon him when he swept up the churchyard step? What connection can there have been between the many people of the innumerable histories of this world, who, from the opposite sides of the great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together! (Ch. 16).
Two questions here: the first asks us to look into the mysteries of the plot, the second demands that we look into the mysteries of life itself. But the one is connected to the other. It is as if Dickens draws a ring around his world and inside ‘everything’ leads to something else: ‘And thus, through years and years and lives and lives, everything goes on, constantly beginning over and over again, and nothing ever ends.’ (Ch. eight)
It is not easy to get at what lies at the heart of the novel because each time you pick up a thread, you are not sure whether it is taking you back to the beginning or on to the end. But what you finally discover is that there is no such distinction. Everything takes you deeper in to the heart of the individual characters even though, intriguingly, they are not always at the heart of their own selves. A second reading of this demanding book about the terrible failure of individual and collective responsibility will not allow you a fictional escape but rather a confrontation with reality.
Marion Leibl recommends Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.
Of all the books that I have read and that have stayed in my memory, Catch-22 is probably the one that is most present still. Joseph Heller’s story about the very reluctant air force captain Yossarian, who clearly perceives that anybody who sends him to places where people shoot at him obviously wants to kill him, is unsentimental, vulgar in parts and honest. Yossarian’s only aim is to escape, but he is trapped by catch-22, the rule that in order to be excused from flying one has to be certified insane, but ‘a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind’, and so the wish not to go on fighting means that he has to go on because of it.
Yossarian’s daily experience is the surreal normality of war, and the irreverence with which he insists on pointing out that the emperor is wearing no clothes and that war has no pathos comes back to me as a reassuring counterweight, at times, in the reporting of current wars. Heller’s characters, some of whose names mercilessly reflect how he sees them (Lieutenant Scheisskopf, Chief White Halfoat) are stereotypical and therefore clearly recognisable in civilian surroundings as they are in the military setting of the story. Although inextricably linked with the insanities of war, Catch-22, I believe, goes further than that. It instils encouragement for looking at the world around with one’s own eyes, for reaching one’s own conclusions, and for holding one’s own life dearer than any ideologies.
Helen Tookey recommends Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, and the poetry of Edward Thomas.
I don’t think I could nominate just one book as my all-time favourite, because different books feel essential to different states of mind or different times of life. One of my favourite books is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: I love its sweep, its extremes, its language (or perhaps languages), its comedy and its tragedy. Another of my favourite books is Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer: a children’s book (about a girl who travels back in time from the 1950s to 1918 and finds herself trapped there) which I first read when I was about nine or ten and which can still move me to tears. At the moment, perhaps my favourite writer is one I’m still in the process of discovering: the poet Edward Thomas, who died at Arras in 1917. Thomas spent most of his life working as a hack writer to support his family, and only began to write poetry, encouraged by Robert Frost, two years before his death. I love his poems for their honesty, the sense they convey of someone always fully engaged with what seemed to him to matter most–the beauty of the natural world, the difficulties of human life and love. His work often seems simple but is at the same time incredibly powerful. I love his poem ‘Words’, in which he invokes ‘you English words’, ‘older far/ Than oldest yew, – / As our hills are, old, – / Worn new / Again and again; / Young as our streams / After rain’. His Collected Poems (which includes his 1917 war diary) is available from Faber.
Katie Peters recommends Middlemarch by George Eliot.
I always hate it when people ask me to name my favourite book. It seems impossible to pick one single story that is by itself enough, and I always find myself shiftily throwing in a few titles as quickly as possible in the hope that no one will pull me up on not choosing one final book.
Having said that, there is one book which always stands out in my mind as the one I keep returning to, that I never tire of and that brings up new things every time I read it. Middlemarch by George Eliot is often proclaimed to be ‘the greatest novel ever written’. With such a description preceding it, it may seem strange to discover that much of the novel’s brilliance is in its concern with life’s disappointments – the heartbreaking comparison between the hopes and ideals we set up for ourselves, and the reality in which these dreams are diminished.
Eliot focuses on the individual stories of friends and acquaintances living in a small provincial English town in the 1830s. One of my favourite characters is Tertius Lydgate–the young doctor who moves to the town with hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research. He is determined to make a difference in the world in which he lives and not to become like those who seem to have given up and taken an easy route, which he finds contemptible:
For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little… Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures.
The words ‘once meant’ here seem to hold some foreboding, but I won’t ruin the story for you because this is such a great book that I recommend you read the whole thing yourself.
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