I confess, I don’t really know what a literary pillar is. The more I tried to think about this list of 50 books, the more confused I became. If I interpreted literary pillars to mean classics of literature, then my list probably wouldn’t be that much different from anybody else’s: Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and so forth. But then it would be full of books that were there as a matter of received opinion, not necessarily books I’d enjoyed or rated or even necessarily been able to finish. On the other hand, if I were to produce a list of books that had shaped me as a reader and a writer, then it would inevitably be full of titles by Enid Blyton or R.J. Unstead or Ladybird Books or other works I’d be even more embarrassed to admit to reading now.
In the end I came to an odd compromise position. These are not all great books, they are not all books I necessarily rate highly now or even enjoyed. But they are all books that have helped to shape my mature tastes and interests, and they are all books that have lodged sufficiently in my memory for me to call them up without having to scour my bookshelves. In some ways, I think that memorability is the most important thing about all of them.
They are not pillars, in the sense that I don’t think the edifice of literature would come crumbling down if any or all of them were knocked away. But they are pillars in the sense that I think I might have been a different person, a different reader, a different critic, if I had not encountered these books.
I’ve arranged them in alphabetical order of author, because I honestly couldn’t think of any other arrangement for them.
1: English Music by Peter Ackroyd
There was a time, almost impossible to imagine nowadays, when Peter Ackroyd seemed to be one of the most important of contemporary English novelists. From Hawksmoor on, his work was inventive, daring, fresh, engaging. Most of the delight, of course, came down to an enjoyment of his skill at mimicry, tied in with a precise and detailed knowledge of London at various stages in its history. The high water mark, for me, was English Music, which really was Ackroyd doing the police, and everyone else, in different voices. Unfortunately, everything he has done since then has been a falling off. But I’ve read English Music several times, with real pleasure every time.
2: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’m not really a fan of Atwood, I’ve not actually read very much of her work. But I was a judge for the first Arthur C. Clarke Award, when this novel won, and of all the winners since then this is still the book that stands out most vividly for me.
3: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
I have now no idea what made me first pick up this book. I’d not heard of the author, but I’d presumably seen a review somewhere that sparked my interest. But I just loved the cleverness of it right from the start. He’s not been able to keep that up, and his best work since then has all been very different in tone and affect. But that first book was just a brilliant one-off that taught me a lot about what you could with story.
4: Tiger, Tiger by Alfred Bester
When this book was written it was the early 50s. Science fiction was at its most conservative, both politically and artistically. And along came this guy who played with the shape of the words on the page, who just put the most extraordinary literary invention at the service of the most traditional of sf stories (culled quite openly from The Count of Monte Christo), and in the process he produced the one truly classic sf novel of the entire decade.
5: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
I love short stories. I think I love them mostly because of Borges. I can read them over and over again (my copy of this book is falling apart), and they always stun me.
6: The New Confessions by William Boyd
There seemed to be something of a vogue at one point for sprawling novels that encompassed the whole of the twentieth century, and often seemed to use film as their guiding metaphor: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, Star Struck by Nigel Williams, Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson. I’m not sure The New Confessions is the best of the bunch, I’m not sure it is the best thing Boyd has done (I slightly prefer The Blue Afternoon), but this was the novel that somehow confirmed him as a writer I wanted to follow.
7: 2001, A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
I had just seen the film. I was taking my O-Levels, and after the last of my exams needed something to read before school ended. There are times when the circumstances in which we read a book matter every bit as much as anything actually in the book. This was one of them. But it is still an amazing book.
8: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
So, back in the 80s I was reviewing regularly for the late, lamented Fiction Magazine, and at one point I was sent a bunch of first novels by new American writers. They were mostly technically competent but rather uninspiring. Flash forward a few years and everyone is suddenly talking about this book. I pick it up and realise that Chabon was actually one of those new American writers. Still don’t think The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is up to much, (though in retrospect I see much of his fascination with the fantastic), but this one excited me and introduced me to a writer I now read assiduously.
9: The Solitudes by John Crowley
10: Love and Sleep by John Crowley
11: Daemonomania by John Crowley
12: Endless Things by John Crowley
Is this a cheat? I could have listed these under one title, Aegypt (see Lawrence Durrell and Gene Wolfe below), because they do form one closely interwoven sequence. But they were written over 20 years and encountered not as one work but as four separate volumes. Anyway, this is my list so I can structure it how I want. There are some who will tell you that Crowley’s Little, Big is the finest work of contemporary fantasy, they could be right, but for me it is these four books that really work. The writing is gorgeous, the subtle interplay of themes is magnificent, and over four volumes there’s the space to really let the slow, insistent quality of the books work their magic on you. These probably come close to being the most essential books on my list.
13: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Is this science fiction’s Finnegans Wake? A broken, disorienting narrative that loops back around on itself, episodes that arise and disappear, unexplained occurrences that separate the city from the country that surrounds it. My first encounter with science fiction that wasn’t just full of wonders but that was genuinely wonderful.
14: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany
This was the first work of criticism that I read for pleasure. I’d written reviews before this (my first-ever review was, coincidentally, of Delany’s Triton), but it was this book that probably turned me into a critic.
15: Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick
There had to be one novel by Dick on this list, the question was: which one? I could have gone for the obvious, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or Ubik, I could have been deliberately perverse and chosen one of the posthumously published non-sf novels (I have a great affection for The Broken Bubble and Mary and the Giant), but in the end I opted for one of the novels that tends to be, I think, overlooked by the critics. It’s probably not the best thing he wrote, but it has all the archetypal Dick tropes in there, and for me this one worked as well as any of his books.
16: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
I can’t think of any book that has made me laugh out loud as much as this one has. And I laugh just as uproariously every time I re-read it.
17: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
The impossible Larry in My Family and Other Animals was my first encounter with Lawrence Durrell. Shortly after reading Gerry’s book for the first time we were on a family holiday in the Lake District, and in a small bookshop there I found a copy of The Alexandria Quartet. I bought it, read it, fell in love with it, and I have probably re-read it at least as many times as My Family and Other Animals, though for very different reasons. It is lush, it is over-written, it exoticises the East, and it is still beautiful.
18: Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot
19: The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Ten Twentieth Century Poets was one of our O-Level set books, but we were only studying five of the poets, and they bored me. So I started reading the five we weren’t supposed to read. One of the poems I came across was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Not long after, on a school trip to Manchester University, I picked up these two volumes. I became a poet by trying to write like Eliot. I quote his work still, often unconsciously. In terms of what made me a writer, I probably owe more to these books than any other.
20: Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison
When I first started reading sf seriously, in the late-60s, early-70s, I wasn’t aware that the literature had any no-go areas, political or sexual. But the writers clearly felt that, and this groundbreaking collection was the result. It has the usual overblown introductions from Ellison, and not all the stories work, but in sum it shows how refreshing writers can be when they are kicking against the pricks.
21: Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson
Another writer who made me fall in love with his work with his very first book, and I have read him assiduously ever since. A diptych of essays I wrote on his first four books that appeared in Foundation was, I believe, among the first pieces of criticism his work ever received.
22: The Civil War by Shelby Foote
I was ill, with a particularly acute form of gastric flu, and I really couldn’t do anything except watch the box. Fortunately, this coincided with the first episode of Ken Burns’s series on The Civil War. Two things happened. One: I became a devotee of the war, so much so that the first full-length book to bear my name was on the Civil War. Two: I fell in love with Shelby Foote’s voice. Of course I had to go out and buy his three-part Narrative History, which is brilliant (much better, I think, than his novels which I’ve also read).
23: Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
There are far too few women on this list, but the ones I have picked mean a great deal. This novel in particular, which follows a mysterious silent woman through the American West in the late-19th century, is just unforgettably good.
24: The Magus by John Fowles
Not, by any means, his best book (I might just pick The Ebony Tower over The French Lieutenant’s Woman), but it was my introduction to Fowles, and I was already in love with Greece (which I had recently visited for the first time), and the magic of the book just worked for me. When I met Fowles, years later at a party at Livia Gollancz’s home, he put up with me gushing over him all afternoon with what, from his Journals, must have been unusually good grace.
25: The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner
When we first got together, my wife insisted that I must read everything by Alan Garner. She was right, he is brilliant. But it was this book, made up of four slim volumes that each lightly fictionalised pieces of his family history, that caught me up far more than his more famous novels.
26: Free Fall by William Golding
27: The Spire by William Golding
28: Pincher Martin by William Golding
I couldn’t pick just one book by Golding, these novels meant too much to me (maybe I should add The Inheritors, and I have a great affection for The Scorpion God). These three are indelibly inscribed in my memory. The opening of Free Fall always makes me think of my grandmother’s home; the ending of Pincher Martin is probably the most devastating conclusion to any novel; and the whole sense of life invested in the ambition of The Spire is just so powerful. And they gain on each re-reading.
29: Lanark by Alasdair Gray
I resist hype. So when everyone was going on about how good this book was, it actually put me off. So it was a long time later when I finally got around to it. I’m so glad I did, though, the curious combination of complexity and joy, the mundane and the fantastic, makes this sui generis. He has written good books since then (and having met Gray it is impossible to read his books without hearing that characteristic soft purring accent), but nothing comes close to this devastating achievement.
30: The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
Like Philip K. Dick, there’s a real problem in knowing what to choose. Any of the Viriconium books should make the list; and since Harrison is often at his best in short fiction what about a collection like The Ice Monkey? But in the end this novel of devastation and disappointment is both the most affecting and the most characteristic of his books, and it shows off why I think he is perhaps the finest craftsman working in English fiction today.
31: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
I think there was one point where I read this book five times in one year. I couldn’t get enough of it. It’s a long time since I re-read it, but that doesn’t diminish its hold on me.
32: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Another of the great sui generis novels in the English language (or, at least, a version of it). It is set where I live, it takes as its guiding metaphor a wall painting in Canterbury Cathedral that I have seen any number of times, and it demands to be read aloud. Brilliant.
33: North Wind by Gwyneth Jones
For some reason, the middle volume in the Aleutian Trilogy is the one that stands out for me, though the whole work is one of the great achievements of post-colonial sf. One of the curious things about her work is that I think she’s at her best when she’s most difficult. Not sure what that says about her, or about me.
34: The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
During the Protestant Worker’s Strike in Northern Ireland in 1974 I was studying for my finals, which is how I ended up re-reading parts of this by candle light. That seems appropriate. I don’t agree with Kant; there are whole essays of disagreement scribbled in fading pencil in the margins of my copy, but it shaped the way I think.
35: Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis
I first started reading Kazantzakis on my first visit to Greece, and the two are now inextricably merged in my mind. This ‘autobiography’, which seems to bear only a passing relationship to the truth, is the book I found myself responding to most readily.
36: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Damon Knight
I encountered this anthology around the time I was first discovering sf, and there are stories in here (‘Another World’ by J-H Rosny, ‘The First Days of May’ by Claude Veillot, ‘Sail On! Sail On!’ by Philip Jose Farmer) that are still incredibly vivid in my memory even 40 years later.
37: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Okay, opinion seems to be divided over whether this or The Dispossessed is Le Guin’s best book. I choose this one simply because what it says about gender combined with that awesome journey across a frozen world make this a book I just cannot get out of my head.
38: The Last Days of Socrates by Plato
This is actually a collection of four short dialogues put together by Penguin Classics. I read it in that strange interregnum between finishing my A-Levels and leaving school. It was my first encounter with philosophy. I’m not sure what I expected, but this was different. It was the reason why I opted to take a module in philosophy when I went to university a couple of months later.
39: The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
I’m possibly too close to both the novel and the author to have anything very sensible to say here. Let me just say that, for me, this is one of the few genuinely indispensable novels.
40: The King Must Die by Mary Renault
More Greece (do you detect a theme?); I went through a phase of reading and re-reading all of Renault’s historical novels with immense pleasure. Their evocation of the time is still one of the measures I use in judging how good a historical novel is. They were also, incidentally, perhaps the first books I encountered in which homosexuality was not presented negatively but in a straightforward neutral way.
41: The Chalk Giants by Keith Roberts
Keith Roberts was the first writer who responded positively to one of my reviews, the first writer I interviewed (by post), and the subject of my first extended piece of critical writing. He was, therefore, crucially important in my own development as a critic. It helps that he was one of the best writers in the genre, and this, I think, was his most powerful work.
42: Queen of the States by Josephine Saxton
I love Jo, and I love this book. There’s not much else to say.
43: Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
I suspect this is Silverberg’s best book, but the reason it stands out for me is that it was perhaps the first book I’d read which blurred the distinction between sf and the mainstream. That set me thinking on lines that I am still pursuing today.
44: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
I suppose there had to be one of the ‘classics’ in here, but I love this book because of how many rules it breaks, with what glee it distorts everything we understand a novel to be.
45: Warm Worlds and Otherwise by James Tiptree Jr
It is possible that ‘The Women Men Don’t See’ is the single most important story ever published in sf. It is certainly one of the most thought-provoking, one that, having encountered it, you simply cannot leave alone. But then, for a while there before her identity (Alice Bradley Sheldon) was revealed, Tiptree was consistently turning out wonderful stories that challenged the way we thought about sex.
46: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Science fiction has been called the archetypal literature of the twentieth century, but I’m coming to the conclusion that the defining texts were all written in the 19th century. In a series of five novels — The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and The First Men in the Moon (the last published in 1901) – Wells laid out a groundwork that the genre has been struggling and failing to emulate ever since. The Time Machine is as close to a perfect work of science fiction as we have ever got.
47: The History of Mr Polly by H.G. Wells
And after setting out his scientific romances (which he himself could never again live up to) he then wrote a series of wonderful social novels, the last and best of which, in my mind, was this one. Another book I first read at school, and that I continue to cherish.
48: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
49: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
When I came upon Wittgenstein’s work during my philosophy degree, it became what the subject was all about. I still quote from the Tractatus endlessly, but I think it was the Investigations that has most shaped my thinking, and that crops up in my more theoretical critical work.
50: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
This is one of the heights to which neither the genre nor Wolfe have been able to return since. But it is a book to relish, to surrender yourself to, while at the same time it is a book to doubt and to question at every turn.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.