‘Read widely and with discrimination, bad writing is contagious’ – P. D. James
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In my opinion Ishiguro’s best novel. The Nobel Prize winner’s darkly twisted tale of a strange boarding school in 90’s England is a powerful and deeply evocative story that makes it, though I deplore the phrase, difficult to put down.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
As an evangelical admirer of McCarthy, I must confess my impartiality in this decision, but any good book list reflects the habits and preferences of its compiler – after all – why recommend something to others that you wouldn’t read yourself? If, like many people, you were introduced to his serrated prose by way of The Road, I urge you to read the entire ‘Border Trilogy’, starting with the journey of John Grady Cole. The greatest American novel of the last few decades, it is an honest and cruel exposition on boys becoming men.
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
McEwan certainly doesn’t need any publicity from me, but I feel his most recent book is somewhat underrated. It arrived at the end of last year to a rather flat critical reception, but this witty narrative delivered from the perspective of a foetus is self-consciously abstract, raising questions of philosophy, responsibility, and love. Also, now would be a good time to read, or re-read, McEwan’s masterpiece Chesil Beach, just in time for the release of the screen adaptation’s UK release in January.
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
By seeking to study, appreciate, and understand the classics, we protect ourselves ‘from the repeated attacks of materialism and barbarism’, said Gilbert Highet in 1949, and the need for classical study has only increased since Highet wrote those words. Graves’s myths remain a great work of literature, and the tradition from which they draw continues to course through our stories, our language, and our imaginations. If you want to expand and deepen your understanding of western culture and civilisation, to comprehend the foundations of European folklore, tradition and superstition, or if you simply want to be able to allude to myths other than that of Icarus, then read Graves.
Improper Stories by ‘Saki’
On that grim day at Beaumont-Hamel, the unnamed German sniper cannot have known, when he pulled the trigger, that he was robbing the English language of perhaps its wittiest writer after P. G. Wodehouse. The short stories of Hector Hugh Munro, better known as ‘Saki’, are delicious tour-de-forces of a darkly comic style. The very best, drawn from his four published collections, are brought together in this short, but treasured, volume.
The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker [Non-fiction]
The globally respected cognitive scientist weighs in on the ceaseless bickering over human nature, and whether it’s our genetics or our surroundings that foster our personalities and dictate our behaviour. Spoiler: It’s a bit of both, really. If you appreciate the crystalline prose of this author, be sure to pick up A Sense of Style, his modern contribution to the great tradition of style guides, taking up the banner of Strunk & White.
Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali [Non-fiction]
This woman’s words are as remarkable as her journey. Hirsi Ali’s stories of escape, apostasy, betrayal and desperate, timely pleas for reason are among the most important you will read this century. With a clarity of argument that has won her both praise and threats of assassination, she picks apart the basic assumptions of Islam and delivers compelling evidence to support her argument against her childhood faith. To her, what is important is not that you agree or disagree with what she has to say, but that you listen.
In addition to this list, if you’re a humanities undergraduate looking to broaden your mind and keep abreast of developments and the ever-shifting critical consensus in contemporary literature, I would highly recommend you put subscriptions to the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement on your Christmas lists.
– by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke
*Images courtesy of goodreads.com