After the halcyon days of my twenties, when I was reading a couple of books a week, my son was born when I was 31 and my capacity for reading diminished considerably. No more reading on trains and buses as I gadded about doing my own thing; gone were the days of reading late into the night; goodbye long lazy afternoons on the couch with a book. Somehow, I still managed to make some time for reading, and I read some life-changing books in that time, as well as books I can consider key influences in my own writing journey.
Looking back, I can see how much of my reading at this time was dominated by white men, especially American white men. For example, Patrick DeWitt, Joshua Ferris, Justin Cronin, Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Dee, Michael Chabon and Peter Heller were some of the writers who narrowly missed making it onto this list. I was much less conscious then of reading outside my comfort zone, hearing the voices of the marginalised, balancing the scales by actively seeking out books by women, people of colour and so on. Regretfully, this list contains only four books by women (all white, all English speaking), and one book by a person of colour (the Australian Aboriginal writer Kim Scott). Apologies aside, it is still a list of bloody magnificent books!
Books Other People Love
Scarred by the phenomena of The Da Vinci Code, I tend to be suspicious of any books which are wildly popular. Sometimes, eventually, I cave in to pressure from people whose opinions I trust and discover I have been missing out on something wonderful. This is the case with Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which made me cry so long and hard I got a headache, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series (I know, I’m cheating here by including 7 books for the price of one) which I started, out of desperation, on a holiday when I had run out of any other reading options, and which then kept me up way past my bedtime.
Sometimes you think you’ve read and heard everything about a dark and shameful part of history like the white invasion of Australia, and there is nothing more than can be said about it or no new ways to say it, and also you don’t want to read about it because it’s too depressing and you feel hopeless about it. Then Kim Scott writes a book like That Deadman Dance and you realise you were wrong about all of the above, and when you read it you cry, of course, but you also laugh a lot and learn so many new things. Then Peter Docker asks himself, what if the white invasion had gone really differently and writes the alternative history/speculative fiction masterpiece that is The Waterboys, and you realise there is always more to be said about these things and always new ways to say it.
No list of mine would ever be complete without a good serve of speculative fiction. I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in a single sitting, and found it perhaps the most harrowing book I had ever read. There was just no relief to the horror. But part from the impact it had on me as an individual reader, it was a significant book for me as a speculative-fiction writer because it was one of the first crossover books where a ‘serious’, ‘literary’ writer tackled the ‘unserious, unliterary’ topic of the apocalypse. Which really changed the landscape for other books that came after.
The other two spec-fic books on this list are touchstones for the Monkey See books I am writing now. I stumbled across Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann in one of those pop-up shops that sells remaindered books. How any book by Doris Lessing could be remaindered, I can’t fathom, but especially Mara and Dann, which is one of her most accessible books and just an old-fashioned bloody great story, of a brother and sister on an epic quest (like Monkey See), travelling across a scary future version of the African continent, enduring massive hardships and adventures. It is so excellent! I have read it multiple times and never grow tired of it. I picked up Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World in a bookshop, having never heard of it or him (I almost never buy books in this way), and it turned out to be a fantastically inventive, rollicking steampunk adventure which showed me the kind of voice I needed to write Monkey See.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was a book I avoided for ages because the title was so unappealing to me and I still don’t really understand it to be honest, but the book is so marvellous, so witty and clever and meta and experimental and wry and tongue-in-cheek but also so deeply moving and human and perceptive. Gush gush gush. One of my top five books of all time.
One of the books I took on my honeymoon was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about the death of her husband and daughter. Such an uplifting book to read by the pool! But oh, my god, the clarity of her thought was so clear on the page. It was the first of many Didion books and essays I went on to read. This sounds kind of poxy but when I’m reading her writing I feel like I’m somehow becoming a better writer by osmosis.
You know how there are books you grow out of (Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you) and books that grow with you? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a book I’m sure will grow with me. It is so dense and layered and somehow seems to contain all of life. I knew as soon as I read it that I could probably re-read it every ten years for the rest of my life and get something completely different out of it each time. I don’t feel like I’ve explained this well so if you want to understand what I mean I suppose you’ll just have to read it yourself.
Have you read any of these books? Did you love/hate/feel indifferent to them? What books were blowing your mind in your thirties?