My sort-of favourite books

As part of the office banter on a free-spirited Friday afternoon a new colleague started asking everyone what their favourite book is.

I couldn’t answer. I gave a few titles that jumped to the forefront of my mind under duress in a lukewarm attempt to join in but I didn’t feel my answer was all that sincere.

You see this type of question can be unconsciously teasing out whether you might be someone’s “type of person”. When someone asks a question like that it can often be a shorthand way to identify your educational or intelligence level, your social class, or your cultural parameters.

And how a person chooses to answer such a question can be equally revealing. If you pick War and Peace for example, are you trying too hard to demonstrate how clever you are? Or the choice of a counterculture author could just be seen as striving for a hip identity that you long left behind in your twenties.

Our identities are intricately intertwined in our cultural tastes, and sometimes what we present to the outside is not always who we truly are in the inside, but is more often than not an attempt to identify with a tribe. I prefer not to be pigeon-holed and like to fill my life and world with a broad range of experiences, refusing to limit my tastes to the imaginary boundaries we draw to define ourselves.

Knowing the books I read, and understanding why I’m drawn to them is like offering up a window to my soul, and I don’t want to give everyone that privilege. Plus, in reality, there isn’t just one single book that stands out.

Different books have meant different things at different times of my life. Something I thought was amazing 10 years ago would maybe leave me cold now. Something that touches me now, I would not have finished five years ago. I also hope that a new “favourite” book is around every corner. It rarely is though.

How does a book even earn “favourite” status? Out of all the books I’ve read the ones I still remember fondly deserve that title. The books that I’ve read more than once are also worthy contenders. The titles that have inspired me or have opened my eyes or made me think differently about something have to be favourites too. And, then there are those books that you admire for the sheer writing craft on display – the books that no-one else could have written.

So here are some of the books I’ve read that belong in my favourites list but if I was to write this again, next week, next month or next year, this list could quite possibly look very different.

But one thing that strikes me reviewing this list is that there is something in each of those very different books that has either shaped or tapped into the way I think about the world but it’s how they all fit together that best reflect who I am. So if someone was to ask me again what my favourite book was I could pick any one of these 10 titles on any given day and it would lodge a different impression of me each time but I would only really be revealing a 10th of my reading life story.

1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
Ok, when naming favourite books the classics are a go-to option, because, after all, they’ve stood the test of time and therefore have that universal endorsement of quality. I haven’t read nearly enough classics but I started reading some in my teens. I could have chosen Wuthering Heights, which was the first “classic” I enjoyed and have ready multiple times but the lesser-known Tenant of Wildfell Hall left a stronger impression and helped shape my feminist views. It was truly ahead of its time tackling issues like domestic abuse, divorce and women’s rights.

2. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
As a teenager trying to make sense of the wider world, deeply moved and alarmed by the injustices that could occur outside the cosy confines of suburban Edinburgh, I developed a fascination with South Africa due to reading Alan Paton’s novel and also The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. Cry the Beloved Country was a powerful and influential early reading experience that evoked in me compassion, empathy and a strong sense of moral justice.

3. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
I’m not a fan of most of Irvine Welsh’s work but to someone growing up in Edinburgh, this book and its popularity was a major event. I rattled through it in a day. Everyone I knew read it. I loved it. And the film. And the stage play. It was just exciting that someone was writing about our home city like this and it felt like it had never been done before. It opened up doors for lots of fresh Scottish contemporary fiction and shaped my literary tastes in subsequent years.

4. Intimacy by Hanif Kuresihi
I don’t think I would enjoy this book much now but this slim little novella earned multiple readings during my 20s. Controversial at the time, it was an unflinching account of a man’s inner thoughts about abandoning his family life. I admired it for its brutal honesty and pared-down style that let the harsh facts do the talking. Unfortunately, it may have shaped my view of men in a slightly negative way during a time when I was trying to make sense of love, sex and relationships.

5. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
This is another book that I would not pick up now – particularly with the gift of hindsight – but  I have to acknowledge that at the time of reading it had a strong effect on me. The depiction of violence against women in this book was quite rightly extremely controversial and  although I found it difficult and unpalatable at times, I also found this novel utterly compelling. It is clever satirical writing at its best and while the violence may have been gratuitous, I still to this day admire Ellis’s ability to create such a visceral literary experience on the page.

6. One Day by David Nicholls
Zeitgeist novels are to be approached with caution in my humble opinion so I didn’t expect to take to One Day as much as I did but I felt (like millions of others) that it was written just for me. The 90s references, astute observations, and careful character detail, could all have been pinched from my life. I was worried in fact that I’d maybe left an old diary on a London tube!

7. Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes
I was a little bit snooty about reading a Marian Keyes novel, if I’m being honest, partly due to the poor packaging of her novels that make them look a little “chick lit”. I was late to the party to this one but like One Day I connected to it and couldn’t put it down. Some books help you learn about the wider world, but this one helped me learn about myself.
8. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This is an absolute masterclass in novel writing. It combines an epic study of 1970s India with precise character constructs, and its central theme is one that always interests me; it explores the question of how our birth right determines our fate regardless of what we do and the associated injustices that come with that. The writing packs such an emotional punch that the book stays with you long after the final page.

9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This is another book that I admire for the writer’s sheer ability. An unusual idea executed with skill, this also leaves you feeling rather unsettled when you put it down. I have never read and never will read another book like it. It’s an astonishing literary experience.

10. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
I wasn’t a fan of the Eels prior to picking up this memoir by the band’s singer/creator, but I was after reading. I was initially drawn to the book following a TV documentary that revealed Everett is the only surviving member of his family and his memoir is written from that perspective. It also shares interesting insights about the record industry and the creative processes and obstacles behind earning a living from making music. This book soothed me during a difficult time in my life. It’s definitely a special book I hold close to my heart.

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