A serendipitous selection of fifty books, each with a little trivial and textual description as guilty justification for their inclusion. (At the bottom of the page is the Official Selection Policy.) Categories of books have been constructed, roughly in shape with a particular stage of one’s life – from the nappy littered years of babyhood, the hunt-for-the-kiss sodden years of adolescence, maturity, contrasting moods and emotion, midlife crises, empire building, and the final decline and its denouement.
Cops & Robbers Janet & Allan Ahlberg; Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak; Stig of the Dump Clive King; The Eagle of the Ninth Rosemary Sutcliff
Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson; Northern Lights Philip Pullman; Rebecca Daphne du Maurier; On the Road Jack Kerouac
The Member of the Wedding Carson McCullers; Lolita Vladimir Nabokov; Gone to Earth Mary Webb; Evie and Guy Dan Holloway
The Poverty of Historicism Karl Popper; Cosmos Carl Sagan; Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand; My 60 Memorable Games Bobby Fischer
The Dark Lantern Henry Williamson; South Riding Winifred Holtby; To Serve Them All My Days R.F. Delderfield; The Secret History Donna Tartt
An Angel at My Table Janet Frame; The Complete Poems Elizabeth Bishop; Ice Anna Kavan; Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
How to Write Gertrude Stein; Nightwood Djuna Barnes; House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski; A Void Georges Perec
Moby-Dick Herman Melville; Lanark Alasdair Gray; Ulysses James Joyce; Ninety Eighty-four George Orwell
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith; The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald; Excellent Women Barbara Pym; To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee
Prufrock and Other Observations T.S. Eliot; The Horse’s Mouth Joyce Cary; Raise Up Off Me Hampton Hawes; The Enchanted April Elizabeth von Arnim
Spurious Lars Iyer; At Swim-Two-Birds Flann O’Brien; The 5 Simple Machines Todd McEwen; Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying anon
The Private Life of the Diary Sally Bayley; Murder on the Orient Express Agatha Christie; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark; Badger’s Parting Gifts Susan Varley
The Holy Bible; The Complete Works William Shakespeare
How to bring these titles together was a challenge: to make sense of what could only ever be a disparate selection. My thoughts turned to the difficulties selecting an English Test cricket team and Alec Bedser, a much maligned figure of my youth whose task it was as a once great cricketer and as chairman of the Test team selection committee to appease at all times the county cricket circuit, the press, the public, and take note of the current form of cricketers, both parvenu and practised veteran, and come up with a well drilled and, most importantly, balanced Test team. His appearances on television made him look shifty, as though he couldn’t be trusted (in fact he couldn’t be, and he never made a good fist of his job). This lodestar of failure gets my approval and he has become my role model. Do you choose the man (or book) of the moment or do you go for the confirmed batsman (or classic)? One flash century in July does not a summer make, of course, and the problems of choosing any list includes all sorts of compromise, heartache and inconsistency.
The number three in the batting order is the crux of all cricket teams. First wicket down had to be padded up from the off and be versatile enough to take the shine of the new ball if an early wicket fell, or to kick start an accumulation of a serious score once lunch on the first day had been negotiated. But this was the easiest choice in my literary Test team, for it had already been made: Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs choice of the Holy Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare were the ideals of Ken Barrington and Colin Cowdrey rolled in to one, dour defence and graceful stroke play, not much sense starting elsewhere. Only two books (other than my Desert Island two) date from the nineteenth century: all random as a blunderbuss, choice dispersed like confetti at a wedding, senseless and never thought through. Not that you have to justify a selection of books ever, and nor should such a collection ever be assembled in a hierarchical fashion. Reading is the most democratic of all art forms, and a reader may be promiscuous and desultory, but has their own preference and taste. So it is then that this selection is based on hunch and whimsy rather than reason backed up with footnote or annotation.