Of course, to pick only five books is very difficult - in fact near impossible - and thus I have to start with a guideline. For me, very simply, the primary purpose of non-fiction is to convey information, whereas the primary purpose of fiction is not only to entertain, but to evoke an emotion. That aspect - the power that writing possesses to make people feel things they wouldn't otherwise feel, is perhaps the reason why I write. If not the only reason, then certainly the most vital. And thus, to choose five books, I had to take a moment and think about books that I remember reading, and especially those that made me feel something that - even now, even years later - I can recall clearly. They are as follows:
The Shining - Stephen King
I was thirteen years old. I was ill with chicken pox at boarding school. In order to prevent infection of others I was quarantined. The room I was in had twelve beds, and I was in there alone. The door was locked. Through the round porthole window of that door was a long black-and-white checkerboard tiled corridor. Every once in a while I would hear footsteps, and I would go to the window, but when I looked through there was no-one there. Half the book I didn't really understand. The half that I did understand scared the hell out of me. Perhaps that was really the first time that I was truly aware of the power that fiction possessed to evoke an emotional response in the reader. I have read the book again since - quite recently in fact - and not only is it a good book, but it reminds me of how I felt at thirteen years old.
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
A masterful collection of short stories about a young man's experiences in the Vietnam War written by someone who was posted to the Vietnam War as a young man. A real ground-level perspective of what it must have been like. Imagine being a teenager, just eighteen years old, and your Draft Paper arrives. You spend a number of weeks doing basic training, and then suddenly you are on the other side of the world. Jungle, heat, mosquitoes, the monsoon, food you have never eaten before, and all the while people whose language you don't even understand are trying to kill you. But O'Brien brings such a level of reality to it. He speaks of home, his girlfriend, his experiences at school - other such matters - and they just serve to remind you that he was just a normal kid with a normal life until the war called him. Breathtakingly powerful, emotive, compelling, a truly brilliant collection.
The Shipping News - E. Annie Proulx
If I consider novels from a very simplistic perspective, then there's only three types. First there's the clever potboiler. There's thousands of them - very well written, very clever, but they are not necessarily something that you read to enjoy the finer aspects of prose. If asked three weeks after reading such a book what you recall of it, your memory would be very vague. Secondly, there is ‘literary fiction'. There's a great deal of cliquishness and snobbery about books, and there really shouldn't be. A good book is a good book. And such a thing is so subjective it would be almost impossible for everyone to agree. However, there is this classification called ‘literary fiction'. This is the kind of book that's often criticised for being too much ‘style over substance', but they are beautifully written. These are the kind of books you read to enjoy the prose. The third kind of book is one that somehow manages to do both - tell you a great story, but tell it in such a way that makes it utterly unique. There are actually two books by Annie Proulx - Close Range, one of her collections of short stories, and this one, The Shipping News - that really do it for me as far as great writing with a great story is concerned. I love this book. Really. I have read it two or three times. I'll read it again sometime. I'll enjoy it just as much then as I did each time before.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
What can I say about this book? I have read this four times. I'll read it again. Genius. Absolute genius. I feel very strongly about this book. This was almost a case of ‘one man had one book as his life's purpose', and then once the book was written he never published another word, and he drank himself to death. For many years - simply as a result of this book - Capote was considered one of the most eminent and important twentieth century American writers. I don't think anything could ever take that away from him. And then there is the Harper Lee twist. Search out the Norman Mailer essay about the relationship between Lee and Capote (childhood friends - she the author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird', the only book she ever wrote, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Oscar-winning film adaptation; Capote the author of ‘In Cold Blood', a serialised book that sold more copies of The New Yorker than anything in history, generated four films, two of them adaptations of the book, two of them bio-pics of this period of his life), and see what you make of it. An astonishing book - as William Shawn said ‘I think this book will change the way people read...it may even change the way people write...' Superb, breathtaking, magnificent.
Raymond Chandler - no specific title
I have to include Chandler. No list of great books could ever be complete without Chandler. What can be said? An enormous talent. A master wordsmith. Between Chandler and Hammett the entire genre of crime fiction was revolutionised. Everyone who writes crime fiction owes a debt to Chandler. He made the PI possible. He made smart one-liners work better than anyone. A genius.