Once upon a time, many years ago, a teenage boy stood in the middle of his local bookshop, gazing around in awe at all the shiny, tempting new titles, and told himself, ‘One day, I’ll have read all of these. I’m going to read every book in the world.’
That spotty, naïve, bespectacled young boy was me. For a while I did try, really, to do what I said – but of course, I failed. There are just too many books, and anyway, more are being created every day. You might as well try to count the stars.
So my question, now that I’m older and the future doesn’t stretch quite so endlessly in front of me, is ‘Which books should I read? And why?’
Or if I was standing in the bookshop beside that teenage boy, what advice would I give him?
These questions aren’t so easy to answer. And the answers seem different for everyone. If you ask your friends which are their favorite books, you’ll find you agree about some, and strongly disagree about others. Why is that?
Surely some books are better than others, aren’t they? That’s what they teach at university: there’s great literature and … other stuff. There are a few great writers whose books really matter and the rest is just pulp fiction, trash, popular entertainment of no importance. Isn’t that right?
Well no, not exactly.
After all, what did Dickens and Shakespeare think they were doing? Writing great literature to be studied in the schoolroom? No, of course not. They were providing popular entertainment. Dickens was writing like mad to fill his magazines, and Shakespeare was trying to fill the theatre. Did they care what scholars thought about their books and plays? Probably not, so long as ordinary people enjoyed them.
So why have their books survived to become great literature, while others haven’t? Why do people read them again and again? And, to go back to that teenage boy in the bookshop, what sort of modern books would you advise him to read, and why?
I guess everyone would provide a slightly different answer, so I’m just going to provide mine, and see what other people think.
There are four bits of advice I’d give that young boy about choosing a book, if he’d listen. (By ‘book’ here, I mean works of imaginative fiction, not factual books) These four are: story, character, language, and development.
The first thing, for any novel, play, or film, is that it’s got to be a good story. So far, so obvious; except that for many writers of ‘literary’ fiction, this seems to be a problem. ‘The novel tells a story; oh dear me yes,’ said E.M. Forster, as if this were some sort of dreary chore he had to perform, before he got on with something more important. But in my view this IS the most important thing: a good novel is just a story, well told.
The rub is in those words ‘well told.’ What do they mean? Different things to different people, obviously. To some – lovers of James Bond films, perhaps – it can mean lots of fist fights and gun battles, leaping out of helicopters and sex with beautiful girls. Fine, I like all that too (teenage boys probably like it even more) but for me it only works in a context where I can believe in it. (and in the case of James Bond I don’t think you’re meant to)
There’s a phrase called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ and to me it matters enormously. All the spies and villains and beautiful girls are just mildly amusing caricatures unless I can believe in them and care about them. I know they’re not real, of course – they’re in a book, for heaven’s sake! – but I don’t want that thrust in my face the whole time; I want the writer to take me to a place in my mind where, while I’m reading, I think these people are real. I want to think like a child, perhaps.
So that takes us to the next point:
Ernest Hemingway said it well: ‘If you want to create real characters, write as though they are living, breathing people.’ That’s why the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms is, for me, one of the most moving chapters in any book anywhere.
The story should be about real people. Or at least, people we can imagine are real. Who bleed when they are cut, who have fears and hopes and worries like we all do, who are not supermen or caricatures but sufficiently human to make us understand why they act as they do, and think we might do the same, in similar circumstances.
There’s more to those words, ‘well told.’ The plot – the skeleton of the story – is hugely important too. To clash again with James Bond, I quickly lose interest in plots that are obviously overblown and ridiculous – villains that will blow up the world, conspiracies (Dan Brown?) that explain the course of western civilisation. A lot of readers love this, I know, but not me. I don’t think the world is like that, so I don’t believe in it, and get bored.
But it’s a fine line. There are real stories of spies and assassination and conspiracy and murder which work brilliantly well because, like the characters, they are grounded in a reality which the author really believes in. Ken Follett’s early thrillers – The Eye of the Needle, The Man from St Petersburg, The Key to Rebecca – are like that. Thrillers whose plot and characters are – for me – totally convincing.
The other part of ‘a story well told’ is language. Here I’m going to give two examples, of two very different writers. The first will probably surprise a lot of people, and a few will snort in disgust. But it’s Ken Follett, in those early thrillers I mentioned above. (Not his later books, they’re slightly different) The language in those three books is extremely simple, devoid of all decoration. You might think it’s easy to write like that, but I can tell you, it’s not. It’s a great skill. With the minimum of words he gets to the heart of his story and characters, and creates a world which you accept as real. (I do, anyway)
In The Man From St Petersburg, a historical thriller, he gets to the heart of the world of 1914 in a way that few others manage. I tried to imitate his style in my books The Blood Upon the Rose and Cat and Mouse. That’s why I know how hard it is.
My second example is Patrick O’Brian, who wrote Master and Commander, Post Captain, and many other sea stories of the Napoleonic wars. If I had to take one set of books to a desert island, it would be these. O’Brian is a far more talented writer than Follett, but he does something similar with language in a very subtle, literary way.
Patrick O’Brian uses words so well, so persuasively and appropriately, that it seems the men in his books have stepped straight out of a novel by Jane Austen, and gone to sea. Only their new world of ships and the sea is much more real, more detailed and more rounded and exciting than anything they could have experienced if they had stayed within the pages of Miss Austen.
My last piece of advice for the boy in the bookshop is development. If you find a good book that fits all of the criteria I’ve listed, then you’re going to want to read another book by the same author. If you can’t find one, you’ll feel cheated, disappointed.
‘So there you are, my boy,’ I might say, putting my arm kindly round my teenage self. ‘If you want to get the best out of this bookshop, don’t try to read everything, it’s impossible. Follow my advice, and look for an author who tells a good story, with real convincing characters. Make sure he uses language well, and has written a decent number of books. Then if you like the first one, there’s plenty more to follow.’
That’s what I’d tell him. But I’m an old buffer, what do I know? He’d be embarrassed, and hurry away. Then he’d probably leave the shop clutching a couple of computer games and a tale about vampires.
What would you say?
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