Lists of books especially those which You The Reader must read can be pretty tiresome and I've written a short one myself last year. The implication of a list that specifies author and title is that the writer's taste will track or overlap the readers and has the rather prejudiced undercurrent that there are absolutes in literature. I say prejudiced because there are +200,000 books published in English England alone each year (and another 20,000 at least in English in India) and there must be hidden gems in there that Dr Opinionator-O'List hasn't troubled to read because they haven't been reviewed in The Observer. And last year's 200,000 too!?
So I was delighted to read a list by Janet Potter at The Millions that has actionable ideas about how to decide what to read but mentions no specifics. That gives space to find your own books in the particular and peculiar circumstances to which you are exposed. Before the WWW, which emerged from the brain of Tim Berners Lee about 20 years ago, there was the internet. It was heavy on text and light on images, but allowed people with similar interests to communicate without being in the same room. I used to tune in a half dozen USENET 'newsgroups' which allowed threaded conversations to develop on particular topics within particular arenas. alt.rural serviced my need for information and advice about killing chickens, maintaining dirt-roads and building tree-houses. rec.arts.books was a talking-shop for readers. Someone on r.a.b. advised us to read Bill "before-he-was-famous" Bryson's The Lost Continent, it's a voyage round America and into a personal past. I laughed so much there was a puddle.
I've written before about the unexpected books which I have found in a section of the copyright library of Trinity College Dublin where the books are shelved as they come in, so particle physics rubs shoulders with piratical psychics. It was there that I rounded on Oliver Rackham's Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. I spent the whole of the next weekend entranced by this "complete history of Britain's trees, woods and hedgerows". I never looked at the landscape with dull glazed eyes after that. I came across Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan in a dark corner of the school library when I was 16, read the next two books in the trilogy and felt I had licence to be not quite normal since. Peake's Gormenghast books " . . . give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and
enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience" as CS "Narnia" Lewis put it. Those wild fantasies were written as Peake slipped remorselessly into Parkinson's and dementia. The tragedy of his decline is laid out in a heart-breaking memoir A World Apart by his wife Maeve Gilmour.
I have a copy of Days of Our Years by Pierre van Paassen, which is inscribed, on the fly-leaf, "Louis W Pitt Jr. / from Mrs George M. Jones / Graduation from Episcopal / June 1940". I bought that in a library book-sale in Boston in the early 1980s. It is also a travel book, starting in Gorkum in Zuid-Holland where it looks across the river at Brabant, and bucketing round Europe and Africa and the Near East through the 1920s and 1930s. As a journalist he covered Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War but he always worked out his own story from events rather than accepting press releases; this was not well appreciated in those troubled and polarised times. Accordingly, he spent 10 days banged up in Dachau in 1933 and was later expelled in turn from both France and Germany. Despite being a Unitarian minister he was a committed Zionist before there was anything like a state of Israel. An interesting man, so. But wholly sunk into oblivion nowadays.
Penguin, is inscribed, not on the fly-leaf but on the only white part of the cover, "Wilfred Xmas 1939 fr. G". Wilfred is my Grandfather who died when I was three, so he knew me even if I didn't know him. I'm guessing that G is my great-aunt Gwen his oldest sister, who died long before I was born. I think that's near enough to Janet Potter's advice "You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed - To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.” Now I really will take her advice, because much as I cherish the memory of my Grampa, I haven't read his Christmas present yet. And it's the weekend! Must stop bloggin' there's books to read.