Just five? An impossible task. But the process of selection throws something about great literature in a sharper light, that it contains truths for any age. A good book reminds us that the human condition remains the same.
Five Children and It by E Nesbit
Read by me as a child, read to my children, the first of E Nesbit’s trilogy of the adventures of the Bastable children, is as funny, witty and thrilling now as it was when first published in 1902, with plenty of jokes for adults. Nesbit co-founded the Fabian Society and authored more than 60 children’s books. She is even better than J K Rowling (ducks for cover).
We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea by Arthur Ransome
Arthur Ransome’s nautical books are another series of children’s masterpieces that every adult should enjoy. Much later than Swallows and Amazons, this is a genuine page-turner. Ransome’s life is also worth exploring – he reported on the Russian Revolution for the Manchester Guardian and married Trotsky’s secretary.
The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe and others
As a cub reporter on a weekly diet of council planning committees and tombolas, Tom Wolfe’s compilation of the best of what was called “new journalism” was a revelation and inspiration of what was possible with words. Capote, Tomlin, Mailer, Plimpton, Hunter S Thompson. We are standing on the shoulders of giants.
Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
Trapped in a dead-end job, with a long suffering wife, a feckless and unappreciative child and unreliable friends, the pompous but well-meaning Charles Potter is the nobody of the title, but, of course, is also a little of everybody. George Grossmith’s comic masterpiece (his brother Weedon did the illustrations) is as relevant to the pressures of life in 2017 as it was in 1892.
Before the Oil by Susan Hillyard
Brought back into print this year, Susan Hillyard’s account of daily life in Abu Dhabi before the transformation brought by oil in 1958 is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the country and its people, their astonishing resilience, and the long and sometimes arduous road that they have travelled.
James Langton is Senior National Writer