Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Five enriching reads that span more than a century

The dilemma is whether to choose the books you really enjoyed most or the ones you want people to think you enjoyed most. I’ve tried to err on the side of the former

'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy published by Modern Library Classics. Courtesy Penguin Random House
'The Mayor of Casterbridge' by Thomas Hardy published by Modern Library Classics. Courtesy Penguin Random House

With an exercise like this, the dilemma is whether to choose the books you really enjoyed most or the ones you want people to think you enjoyed most. I’ve tried to err on the side of the former (there’s no place for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which utterly confounded me). But given one of my selections remains unfinished, maybe I should have thrown in a Dan Brown.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886)

This was my English literature book at O level (that’s GCSE in modern parlance) so I must have read it about eight times in my teens. The tale of the jealous merchant Michael Henchard and his blameless nemesis Donald Farfrae is told to the sound of Hardy’s captivating evocation of rural Dorset in the 19th century. I only got a C grade, mind you.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)

This remarkably prophetic reimagining of US history has a racist populist coming to power in 1940s America and chronicles the impact this has on a persecuted Jewish family. It was a joy to read 10 years ago but I’m not sure how it would feel to pick it up again now that Roth’s fictional President seems to have been made flesh.

Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene (1980)

Lakeside life in taxhaven Switzerland might sound idyllic but not through the jaundiced eyes of Greene, who uses it as the canvas for a story of money, mourning and morality. Guests of the eponymous doctor are given the chance to pick one of six envelopes – five contain two million Swiss francs each, the other a bomb. What are the odds?

The Inimitable Jeeves by PG Wodehouse (1923)

For a more agreeable vision of moneyed life, there’s always Wodehouse. I could have chosen any of his 11 Jeeves and Wooster novels (to the uninitiated, that’s Wooster, the feckless aristocrat, and Jeeves, his save-the-day valet). But this stood out for quotes like: “Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps.”

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)

Weighing in at 1,079 pages, with 388 footnotes, many of which have additional footnotes of their own (all integral to the plot, so no skipping) – well, I had to set aside a two-week holiday to conquer this dazzling work. Even then I fell 20 pages short. Now, a few years on, I’ll have to start all over again. Perhaps I’ll never finish it – and that’s why it’s called Infinite Jest.

Dan Gledhill is deputy editor-in-chief of The National

Updated: August 8, 2019 05:03 PM

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