“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
OK, I didn’t make that up, gonzo journalist and National Lampoon enthusiast, P.J. O'Rourke, said that, but it captures the essence of what I’m trying to persuade you of so, we’ll go with it.
There’s an untapped, largely under-publicised trove of GREAT books out there that fall into the wasteful No Man’s Land between classics from GCSE English Lit. and s'lebrity ghost-written biographies. We’ve learnt all we can from Of Mice and Men and there’s little worth in investing the required hours to decipher Katie Price’s various volumes, so here are 5 tomes guaranteed to lure you away from Netflix, iPlayer and your adult website of choice, and get you back on the grown-up hobby wagon for good.
1. My Dearest Jonah by Matthew Crowe
Don’t read up about the author; you’ll find out that he’s several years younger than you, yet has penned, probably, the best book of 2013 and definitely a better book than you’ll ever half-write a few notes for.
Crowe has turned out a story that writers with decades of experience would proudly call their best and My Dearest Jonah is a return to the kind of craftsmanship we’ve given up on seeing in modern novels and you probably won’t have seen since you last read a ‘classic’.
I bet you a grand that when your own kids get to middle school, provided they weren’t confiscated as wards of the state at birth because you’re a MESS, they’ll be teaching this enigmatic tale of Jonah and Verity, who strike up a mutually life-saving pen-pal relationship just at the point Verity’s life spectacularly implodes and Jonah’s is set to be rebuilt following a lengthy prison sentence.
2. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
I love psychopaths, conspiracy theories and bumming around; so does Jon Ronson, and his widely publicised penchant for the former two saw him on the receiving end of a cryptic phone call asking if he’d assist with identifying the mentalist(s) who posted copies of some old book around the world to various highly regarded neurologists.
His investigation takes a predictable turn towards the insane and sees him learning how to apply the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (invaluable knowledge for us all) as he comes across committed psychos in special units as well as the yet-to-be-diagnosed mentalists who somehow manage to claw their way to the top of global conglomerations
While dark, murky and freaky as fuck in some places, Ronson (who also wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats) remains chipper about the sorts of people who, when shown a photo of a frightened face and asked to name the emotion reply: “I don’t know what that emotion is but it’s the face people make before I kill them.” PERFECT Sunday evening come-down reading.
3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
OK, so this is, technically, a classic, but in the most acceptable (for our purposes) sense of the word, it’s a ‘Modern Classic’.
MTV started up their own publishing house just so they could get Stephen’s debut novel out into the world (it may not have happened that way round, but it was certainly the first book MTV ever published and they’re the kind of people sorry, were, the kind of people, that would do something as spontaneously mad-cap as conjuring a publishing company out of thin air).
It’s a book with its own soundtrack and the music is as important as the setting, characters and events, all of which will at once plunge you into a deep nostalgic depression and exonerate you of your torturous teenage years.
Think of it as Catcher in the Rye for children of the 80s.
4. The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
Don’t be put off by the wordy (pun intended) title; The Etymologicon is an accessible, readable, funny look at the origin of words and the humorous links between ancient meanings and modern-day language.
The fanatical wordsmith puts to rest some age-old myths, including whether the aptly named Thomas Crapper actually invented the flushing toilet, and where the phrase “enough room to swing a cat” comes from (animal lovers should steer clear of this chapter).
The entire book is littered with gems of wisdom, perfectly clipped into memorable sound-bites, which can be readily shared in order to make you appear knowledgeable and interesting, for example, did you know the light-hearted, multi-purpose greeting “Ciao” actually means, “I am your slave”?
He also chucks a quiz in at the end, and everybody likes a quiz.
5. The Life of Lee by Lee Evans
Do not scroll down, I haven’t sneakily shoe-horned in a sleb autobiography. Lee Evans is the Dickens of his generation. Honest. Not shitting you.
God knows where the profusely sweaty, O level failing, stage-pacing maniac learnt to write like this, but The Life of Lee is, honestly, a pleasure to peruse.
His Dad tried to name him Cassius Clay, he spent his formative years lugging a prop box round working men’s clubs and amateur boxing, he met his wife when he was about 12 and STILL loves her and never quite manages to connect the dots between the Bristol housing estate he was born onto and the Hollywood films roles and sell-out arena shows he’s gone on to.
Look past the World Cup cranial silhouette and you’ll see that Lee is a masterful poetic soul of inconceivable measures.
To conclude, you don’t have to sit on the tube with a first edition Voltaire on your lap to lure like-minded quasi-intellectuals; all of these books are meaningfully weighty, affecting and actually interesting.
Ignore all of the above if you’re a Kindle owner; you can continue re-reading your favourite passages from Fifty Shades of Grey and your seat neighbours will be none the wiser.