False Dichotomies


Favourite 30 Books

The ‘Favourite 30′ series continues! This time it’s my favourite 30 books, accompanied by a pithy and pretentious explanation as to why.

30. Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales - For taking us into the Gulag with clarity, compassion, and – above all – dark wit.

“Five or six persons follow shoulder-to-shoulder along the narrow, wavering track of the first man. They walk beside his path but not along it. When they reach a predetermined spot, they turn back and tramp down the clean virgin snow which has not yet felt the foot of man. The road is tramped down. It can be used by people, sleighs, tractors. If they were to talk directly behind the first man, the second group would make a clearly defined but barely passable narrow path, and not a road. The first man has the hardest task, and when he is exhausted, another man from the group of five takes his place. Each of them – even the smallest and weakest – must beat down a section of virgin snow, and not simply follow in another’s footsteps. Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.”

Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

29. Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson - For being a hilarious Rothian romp, taking in aspiration, failure, affliction,  Jews, and pornography. 
“Exploited? If anyone’s exploited it’s the God damn men. Most of these girls are on a total ego trip in front of the camera. Sure I had animals in my last film, but nobody there forced anybody to fuck them. Chuck Raw, my star, walked off the picture because of the dog. He says, ‘I love dogs and I won’t be a party to this, Milton. Banging women fucks up their minds – they can’t handle it. Any dog who fucks a woman is finished as an animal.’ I respected Chuck for that. I have the courage of my convictions, he has the courage of his. Don’t you get the idea yet? Nobody is putting these people in chains! I am taking them out of their chains! I am a monster with something to offer! I am changing America fucking forever! I am setting this country free!”

28. E.H. Carr: The Twenty Years’ Crisis -  For demonstrating that theoretical texts can be rooted in the actual world, and still be pithy and fun.
“Just as nobody has ever been able to make gold in a laboratory, so nobody has ever been able to live in Plato’s republic or in a world of universal free trade…But it is, nevertheless, perfectly right to venerate Confucius and Plato as the founders of political science, Adam Smith as the founder of political economy, and Fourier and Own as the founders of socialism. The initial stage of aspiration towards an end is an essential foundation of human thinking. The wish is father to the thought. Teleology precedes analysis.”

27. Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Chronicle of a Death Foretold - For doing exactly what it says on the cover, and maintaining the suspense regardless.
“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees when a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit. “He was always dreaming about trees,” Placida Linero, his mother, told me twenty-seven years later, recalling the details of that unpleasant Monday. “The week before, he’d dreamed that he was alone in a tinfoil airplane and flying through the almond trees without bumping into anything,” she told me. She had a well-earned reputation as an accurate interpreter of other people’s dreams, provided they were told her before eating, but she hadn’t noticed any ominous augury in those two dreams of her son’s, or in the other dreams of trees he’d told her about on the mornings preceding his death.

26. Amartya Sen: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny - For using a simple idea as the basis for an equitable order between nations and peoples.
“It is unfair to children who have not yet had much opportunity of reasoning and choice to be put into rigid boxes guided by one specific criterion of categorization, and to be told: ‘That is your identity and this is all you are going to get’.”

25. Franz Kafka: The Castle - For showing that Kafka is at his best when he is never-ending, and that the tiniest, most terrifying encounters are often the minor ones.
“Keeping his eyes fixed upon the Castle, K went ahead, nothing else mattered to him. But as he came closer he was disappointed in the Castle, it was only a rather miserable little tower pieced together from village houses, distinctive only because everything was perhaps built out of stone, but the paint had long since flaked off, and the stone seemed to be crumbling.”

24. Ahad Ha’am: Selected Essays – For providing the core texts of Cultural Zionism.
“I, at least, have no need to exalt my people to Heaven, to proclaim its superiority over all other nations in order to justify its existence. I know why I remain a Jew, or rather I can find no meaning in such a question any more than if I were asked why I remain my father’s son. I can say just what I please about traditional values and beliefs without thereby being afraid that I may cut myself adrift from my people…My feelings and opinions are my own. And this freedom of spirit – scoff who will – I would not exchange for all the civil rights in the world.”

23. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar - For an awesome opening one hundred pages, leaving a tragic sense that – had Plath lived longer – her novels would have offered a female corrective to the overwhelmingly male trajectory of post-war American fiction.
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

22. Patrick French: The World is What It Is – The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul - For showing that a ‘warts-and-all’ biography can also be a great and moving work of literature.
“ A full account of a writer’s life might in the end be more of a work of literature and more illuminating – of a cultural or historical moment – than the writer’s books.”

21. J.M Coetzee: In the Heart of the Country - For being Coetzee at his most florid, for extraordinary empathy, and for making mornings spent with the Border Police pass more quickly.
“Today my father brought home his new bride. They came clip-clop across the flats in a dog-cart drawn by a horse with an ostrich-plume waving on its forehead, dusty after the long haul. Or perhaps they were drawn by two plumed donkeys, that is also possible. My father wore his black swallowtail coat and stovepipe hat, his bride a wide-brimmed sunhat and a white dress tight at waist and throat. More detail I cannot give unless I begin to embroider, for I was not watching. I was in my room, in the emerald semi-dark of the shuttered later afternoon, reading a book or, more likely, supine with a damp towel over my eyes fighting a migraine. I am the one who stays in her room reading or writing or fighting migraines. The colonies are full of girls like that, but none, I think, so extreme as I. My father is the one who paces the floorboards back and forth, back and foth in his slow black boots. And then, for a third, there is the new wife, who lies late abed. Those are the antagonists.”

20. Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man is Hard to Find - For its perfect title story, the concluding pages of which are among the most horrific in modern American literature.
“The children’s mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn’t get her breath. “Lady,” he asked, “would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?”
“Yes, thank you,” the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. “Hep that lady up, Hiram,” The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, “and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl’s hand.”
“I don’t want to hold hands with him,” June Star said. “He reminds me of a pig.”
The fat boy blushed and laughed and caught her by the arm and pulled her off into the woods after Hiram and her mother.”

19. John Banville: Shroud  – For exemplifying the Banvillean ethos – the greatest stylist since Nabokov – and for containing his greatest anti-hero yet.
“Who speaks? It is her voice, in my head. I fear it will not stop until I stop. It talks to me as I haul myself along these cobbled streets, telling me things I do not want to hear. Sometimes I answer, protest aloud, demanding to be left in peace. Yesterday in the baker’s shop that I frequent on the Via San Tommaso I must have shouted out something, her name, perhaps, for suddenly everyone in the crowded place was looking at me, as they do here, not in alarm or disapproval but simple curiosity. They all know me by now, the baker and the butcher and the fellow at the vegetable stall, and their customers, too, hennaed housewives, mostly, plump as pigeons, with their perfume and ugly jewellery and great, dark, disappointed eyes. I note their remarkably slender legs; they age from the top down, for these are still the legs, suggestively a little bowed, that they must have had in their twenties or even earlier. Clearly I interest them. Perhaps what appeals to them is the suggestion of the commedia dell’arte in my apperance, the one-eyed glare and comically spavined gait, the stick and hat in place of Harlequin’s club and mask. They do not seem to mind if I am mad. But I am not mad, really, only very, very old. I feel I have been alive for aeons. When I look back I see what seems a primordial darkness, scattered with points of cold, hard light, immensely distant, each from each, and from me. Soon, in a few months, we shall enter the final decade of this millenium; I will not live to see the next one, a matter of some regret, the previous two having generated such glories, such delights.”

18 + 17 + 16. Naguib Mahfouz: The Cairo Trilogy - For taking us into pre-revolutionary Cairo in the truest traditions of realism, and for showing us the Arab world that Edward Said and Bernard Lewis would have us believe does not exist.
“Surely a book that would shake the world was better than a civil service position, even if the latter shook the world too. Every educated person knew about Socrates. Who remembered the judges who had presided at his trial?”

15. Vladimir Nabokov: Speak, Memory - For being Nabokov’s most tender work, and for blazing new paths for the autobiography.
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged – the same house, the same people – and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture distiurbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.”

14. Alan Hollinghurst: The Line of Beauty - For making sure that I will never have to read a Henry James novel now that I’ve read this, and for being Masterful throughout.
“He felt he floated forwards into another place, beautiful, speculative, even dangerous, a place created and held open by the music but separate from it. It had the mood of a troubling dream, where nothing could be known for certain or offer a solid foothold to memory after one had woken. What really was his understanding with Wani? The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. The deep connection between them was so secret that at times it was hard to believe it existed. He wondered if anyone knew – had even a flicker of a guess, an intuition blinked away by its own absurdity. How could anyone tell? He felt there must always be hints of a secret affair, some involuntary tenderness or respect, a particular way of not noticing each other…He wondered if it ever would be known, or if they would take the secret to the grave. For a minute he felt unable to move, as if he were hypnotized by Wani’s image. It took a little shudder to break the charm.”

13. Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho - For demolishing an era and revealing itself to me on the second reading, ten years after I thought it was all about a psycho killer.
“Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on other. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this — and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed — and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…”

12. J.M Coetzee: Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life II - For being a brutal, proudly unglamorous and inspiring portrait of the talentless artist as a young man.
“But he cannot see a connection between the end of yearning and the end of poetry. Is that what growing up amounts to: growing out of yearning, of passion, of all intensities of the soul?”

11. Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room – For transfixing me from the beginning and hardly letting up and making so much out of what seemed so little.
“Maybe when two people meet for the first time all the possible variations on destiny are contained in their separate natures. These two will be drawn together, those two will be repulsed, most will pass politely with averted gaze and hurry on alone.”

10. Shalom Aleichem: Tevye the Dairyman - For chronicling the Yiddish world with relentless humour, tomfoolery, and tragedy.
“Still and all, a Jew is a Jew, and when it’s time for the evening prayers, pray you must.”

9. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State - For managing to be simultaneously Haredi, anti-Occupation, anti-government, god-fearing and humanist.
“Halakhah is founded on faith, yet at the same time constitutes this faith. In other words, Judaism as a living religion creates the faith upon which it is founded. This is a logical paradox but not a religious paradox.”

8. Martin Amis: Experience – For reaching the heights that his novels never quite do, and for being full of gossipy anecdotes that can be told again and again.
“I am easily moved to tears and rarely survive a visit to the cinema without shedding them, racked, as I am, by the most perfunctory, meretricious or even callously sentimental attempts at poignancy (something about the exterior of the human face, so vast and palpable, with the eyes and the lips: it is all writ too large for me, too immediate for me.)”

7. Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - For being the best post-war British novel and for exploding all the clichés about what makes a great character.
“Because you have got your sleeves rolled up. I won’t have to do with girls who roll up the sleeves of their blouses, however fine the weather. Roll them down at once, we are civilised beings. He fell the week before Armistice was declared. He fell like an autumn leaf, although he was only twenty-two years of age. When we go indoors we shall look on the map of Flanders, and the spot where my lover was laid before you were born. He was poor. He came from Ayrshire, a countryman, but a hard-working and clever scholar. He said, when he asked me to marry him, ‘We shall have to drink water and walk slow.’ That was Hugh’s country way of expressing that we would live quietly. We shall drink water and walk slow. What does the saying signify, Rose?”

6. Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses - For moving me to tears in Jaisalmer (the parting of the ways between John Grady Cole and Alejandra), and for one of the great monologues in post-war American literature from Alejandra’s aunt.

“The indians stood watching him. He could see that none of them spoke among themselves or commented on his riding there nor did they raise a hand in greeting or call out to him. They had no curiosity at all. As if they knew all that they needed to know. They stood and watched him pass and watched him vanish upon that landscape solely because he was passing. Solely because he would vanish.”

5. Rohinton Mistry: A Fine Balance - For being the great Indian novel in English, never less than gripping over the course of its 624 pages.
“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’, he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.”

4. Philip Roth: The Dying Animal - For its spot-on depiction of the tragedy of the (heterosexual) male condition.
“The great biological joke on people is that you are intimate before you know anything about the other person. In the initial moment you understand everything. You are drawn to each other’s surface initially, but you also intuit the fullest dimension. And the attraction doesn’t have to be equivalent: she’s attracted to one thing, you to the other. It’s surface, it’s curiosity, but then, boom, the dimension. It’s nice that she’s from Cuba, it’s nice that her grandmother was this and her grandfather was that, it’s nice that I play the piano and own a Kafka manuscript, but all this is merely a detour on the way to getting where we’re going. It’s part of the enchantment, I suppose, but it’s the part that if I could have none of, I’d feel much better. Sex is all the enchantment required. Do men find women so enchanting once the sex is taken out? Does anyone find anyone of any sex that enchanting unless they have sexual business with them? Who else are you that enchanted by? Nobody…She thinks, I’m telling him who I am. He’s interested in who I am. That is true, but I am curious about who she is because I want to fuck her.”

3. William Boyd: Any Human Heart - For its original structure, and for being moving throughout.
“That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience. Everything is explained by that simple formula. Tot it up – look at the respective piles. There’s nothing you can do about it: nobody shares it out, allocates it to this one or that, it just happens. We must quietly suffer the laws of man’s condition, as Montaigne says.”

2. Christopher Hitchens: Letters to a Young Contrarian - For changing my life and providing me with enough debating points to last me through my twenties (although no further).
“We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only source of light. Reducing the son to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere in between. On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood; the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next.”

1. Roberto Bolano: The Savage Detectives - For being hands down the best novel of the twenty-first century thus far (even though it was published in the twentieth), and for being the story of an obscure group of Latin American poets in the 1970s that is also the story of anyone who has dreamed and hoped and confronted the despair of the desert, too.
“Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.”


6 Comments so far

  1. Eamonn April 26th, 2011 11:35 am

    no vitali grossman! the hitch’s second worst book at number 2.

    bolaño’s heirs buy themselves another yacht, and deservedly so.

    I must check out Shalamov and the cultural zionism bloke

  2. Alex April 26th, 2011 11:38 am

    Haven’t read any Grossman yet, but plan to kick off my grand tour with Life & Fate.

    Which is the Hitch’s worst book?

  3. Eamonn April 26th, 2011 11:44 am


    I life and fate in the last few months and it’s amazingly good.

  4. Eamonn April 26th, 2011 11:50 am

    i meant, “i read `life and fate`

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  6. ニューエラ 値段 September 16th, 2013 1:36 am

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