Here are 10 books that are not only fantastic works of literature, worthy of study and dissection and all the rest of it, but are also ripping yarns that command your attention from the first page to the last. Try putting any one of them down.
John Banville – The Book Of Evidence
Irish writer John Banville’s mellifluous prose is perfectly utilised in this look into the mind of a killer. The first person narrative is at once funny, beguiling and maniacal, always leaving you uncertain where the story will wind up. Never before have I read a book that keeps you guessing until the very last line, but The Book Of Evidence does, and trust me, the payoff is definitely worth the wait.
Jonathan Safran Foer – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Forget the saccharine, vacuous garbage that was last year’s film adaptation, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is one of the best novels in recent years. Multiple storylines, inventive typography, repeated images, pages with no text, pages with text so close you won’t be able to make out a word...but none of this makes the book difficult. In this case too, the final pages will floor you.
Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man & The Sea
Quite simply one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever conceived. I don’t know anyone who didn’t read this in one sitting. Hemingway may have gone out of fashion, and he almost certainly was a bit of a cunt, but his writing style is wholly unique. Brash yet tender, powerful yet unyieldingly romantic, and never better displayed than in this achingly beautiful story of a man’s attempt to catch a fish. Makes you want to hit the beach with a daiquiri and sleep all day.
Richard Yates – Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness
I’m sort of cheating here given this is a book of short stories. However, like Joyce’s “Dubliners”, or indeed any great album, they’re a group of stories all thematically linked, as if the characters had all lived in the same block or shared the same experiences. Yates’ skill is writing about nothing, and yet making it entirely universal. Glutton For Punishment, a simple story about a man who loses his job, taps into the post-war anxieties of the American middle class better than anything I’ve ever read before. A stunning, stunning read.
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5
I must confess I don’t love Slaughterhouse 5 with the same fervour that a lot of my peers do, but saying that, in a day and a half I was finished with it. It’s an anti-war novel, put simply, but cast as a work of science-fiction, a juxtaposition that is really well explored. So it goes...
Carson McCullers – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
If you haven’t read any Southern Gothic literature then please go and find some now. Not only this brilliant story of a small town in the deep south and one lone mute whom everyone gravitates around, but writers like Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. It’s all great, all freaks and moonshine and twisted moral fables, all set in the shadow of slavery and the civil war. The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a beautiful novel that puts its characters and their relationships right at the heart, then breaks yours.
John Updike – The Witches Of Eastwick
Roy Hodgson’s favourite author John Updike may be, but I struggle to imagine him poring through the pages of this sexually charged story of three New England witches and the man who comes between them. Updike has a fantastic way with language, perhaps more ostentatious and flowery than some of the other writers I’ve mentioned, but always in control, like watching Lionel Messi do keep-ups. In fact, most of Updike’s stories are pretty sexy...Roy, you dirty bitch.
Patrick Suskind – Perfume
The second story of murder I’m putting in this list, and yet weirdly one thought kept occurring to me throughout reading this book: this is perfect for children. It is! It reads like a fairytale, and I don’t mean a sanitised Disney fairytale, I mean a properly dark, malevolent fairytale, in the same vein as Angela Carter or the Brothers Grimm. Funny, twisted and a breeze, even for those long morning commutes when you’re not properly alive.
DBC Pierre – Vernon God Little
Vernon God Little is a hilarious, thrilling dark comedy that both satirises and celebrates America. At its core it’s an adventure story, about a boy on the run fearing the death penalty after he’s linked to a high school massacre. Pierre really takes this story as far as it can possibly go, always leaving you wanting more. Werner Herzog is attached to direct the film. It’s going to be fucking insane.
Herman Melville – Moby Dick
Finally, my own favourite novel, and the one that I’m going to use to sum up my point (that’s why I’ve put it last guys, see? I got this). Before I read Moby Dick I was told of how dense and how difficult a novel it was to read, how so many people had tried and failed with it, how you really had to plug away at such a weight tome. The people who think that are the same people who wrote that Guardian list. Moby Dick is a joy, an absolute majesty of a book, an action-packed yarn about the madness of man. It’s funny, it’s rich, it’s tragic, it’s clever, and yes, occasionally it will break off from the narrative to teach you about whales in rather meticulous detail. It’s long, sure, so it’ll take time, but all books take time, that’s half the beauty of reading them.
The classics are classics for a reason, it’s because loads of people couldn’t take their eyes away from the page. There may be more ways to distract us nowadays, more engaging and immediate forms of entertainment that are just as beautiful and powerful as the novel, but that doesn’t mean that the written word should be restricted to an elite few. These 10 stories all resonated with me, and because of that, yeah, they were pretty damn easy to read. If you think I’ve missed something out, chances are I haven’t read it, so don’t get too pissy, just tell me what it is and I’ll stick it on the list.
Oh, and one more thing, that Guardian thing didn’t have William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom”. No fucking idea what’s going on in that. Not one.