Most people who read have an inbuilt system of prejudices and fears. They might dread the thought of feminist writing, or post-modernist experiments. Others are afraid of academic writing, with a footnote being akin to an incoming arrow. These are all reasonable opinions, if you really hold them. But why turn what is great fun into a chore?
I only read what I want to read. Here are some categories and some favourites.
My favourite writer of crime novels is Georges Simenon. I would not waste time on his so-called “hard novels”; hard to read is a fair description. Stick to the Inspector Maigret books. 75 novels and 28 short stories, from 1930 to 1972. Each one intense, exciting and in the place. You are in Paris, or a Dutch seaside village, and there is Maigret.
Maigret is monumental. He, along with his pipe, is immovable, and implacable in his search for understanding. He is not interested in law, but in justice.
He wants to know why, and his observation of time and place is intense. Maigret evolves over the 42 years, but his appeal remains. These books are hard to find these days, but op shops are a reliable source. There are some reprints available. Buy them if you can.
This year I read Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun. “NO, I’m not reading a Norwegian from last century,” I hear you mutter. Read it anyway. Hamsun invented the modern novel.
In this story he follows a young man into the Norwegian wilderness, where he establishes a modest farm, finds a wife, has children, and sees a town established. But Hamsun makes the personal universal. His style is both formal, and insightful. It has a completely modern outlook, especially in its depiction of psychological turmoil. His treatment of human relationships is refreshingly candid. He is simple and direct in his depiction of sexual activity, which can surprise.
If you enjoy trying Hamsun, then there is his masterpiece, Hunger, a tale of a writer’s mad search for love, success and meaning. A forerunner to Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Hamsun introduced the internal monologue to literature. The only caveat is you should find the right translation. Sverre Lyngstad is streets ahead of any other.
History can be an acquired taste. Which is surprising, because history is so regulated by peer review that it is very hard to find a ‘bad’ history. Of course we need to be selective, and to choose history, and not PR hack efforts.
History is usually extremely well written, mainly because historians are highly educated, and they are writing as much for their rivals as for their audience. They also support their arguments with evidence, which can look like academic writing, but it is just ‘quality control’. Curiously open to debate, even from us.
I love to read anything by A.J.P. Taylor, who was something of a ‘rock-star’ historian, who popularised history in Britain with a series of successful television shows. His scholarship remained exceptional, and his “The Origins of the Second World War” is challenging in its ideas, and outstanding in its exposition.
Although not ‘pure history’ Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is challenging, insightful, beautifully written, and a wonderful introduction to English history. Once you dip in, you can be inexorably drawn into many hours of ‘rabbit hole’ exploration.
I cannot separate John Le Carre from Len Deighton in the spy business. From George Smiley (Le Carre) to Bernard Samson (Len Deighton) they have each created a small pleasure-based industry based on larger than life characters, excellent plotting, and a light touch. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is out of favour because of its age, but for all that, high art.
Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana show his range, from realpolitik to somewhat lighter. “Greeneland” is his recurring landscape of disillusionment and despair, but when you finish one of his novels, you know a little more about life, and love.
Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden series is enjoyable, and based on his real life as an agent in post-revolutionary Russia. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has been described as “timeless”. Ian Fleming is surprisingly lean on talent. James Bond comes across as a misogynistic snob, and the holes in the plots are legendary. I would terminate 007.
Other great books worth a look
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler is a great, sparely written, adult book. Set against the background of the 1939 show trials in the Soviet Union, it is both frightening and inspiring. Not a fun read, but it will stay with you forever.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel everyone should read, because it is firstly a decent, courageous, upstanding book, and because it is clear and unambiguous in its message of equality before the law, and the danger of all sorts of prejudice.
It was published in 1960, just before the reaction against the civil rights movement set in. It addresses race, class and the American South, and it is narrated in a visual style. The movie is great too.
So this is pretty much a good place to start, a personal list of books and writers, which I find interesting and well written. There are thousands of good books out there, and millions of bad ones. Choose with care.