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Chris Smith

picks the eight books he'd take to the ends of the Earth with him

September 27, 2010
4 min read

The Prelude (1805 version)

William Wordsworth

Oxford University Press

For me, this is the greatest poem in the English language: a long, compelling account of Wordsworth’s own life and growth, charting the development of his mind and soul and their interaction with the natural world and with the tumultuous political events of the time – all told in rolling, lilting poetry that takes your breath away. Wordsworth was the first great environmentalist, who saw clearly how interdependent the worlds of humanity and of nature are. It’s the early 1805 version that has to be read, though: it is full of freshness and vitality, which were lost by the time he revised it all for publication in 1850.

Equality

R H Tawney 1931

Unwin Books

This book, probably more than any other, made me realise what democratic socialism meant and why it was important. It’s a marvellous account of the intellectual and philosophical underpinning of the European left over the past 80 years. And its central thesis is that the ‘freedom from’ is a necessary precondition for the exercise of the ‘freedom to’: the freedom from want, disease, hunger, poverty, idleness or discrimination having to be secured before the freedom to do things, seize opportunities or achieve successes can be delivered. It’s a book I would prescribe as required reading for anyone aspiring to be a progressive MP.

No Ordinary Time

Doris Kearns Goodwin 1994

Simon Schuster

Doris Kearns Goodwin has become an indefatigable chronicler of American politics and history, and this is her best book – an account of the life, challenges and decisions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. It’s a fascinating story of the noble ideals and grubby compromises that combine together in any great political endeavour. It shows us exactly what torments and triumphs Barack Obama is enduring, right now.

Ring of Bright Water

Gavin Maxwell 1960

Penguin

I loved this book when I first read it as a teenager. I still do. It’s the tale of someone who renovates a tumbledown cottage by the sea on the west coast of Scotland and shares his life there with two otters. Its evocation of the land and seascape, the rhythm of the seasons, its perceptions about the natural world, its empathy with the lives of animals, its hilarious stories of adventure and accident and tragedy, are perfectly done. Maxwell quotes a Louis MacNeice poem at the end that says ‘thank you … for making this life worth living’; and it is indeed a book infused with the spirit of life.

Undiscovered Scotland

W H Murray 1951

Diadem

Bill Murray was one of the formidable group of mid-20th century Scottish mountaineers. He wrote his first book, Mountaineering in Scotland, in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany and after it was confiscated had to write it all over again. This is the sequel, and for someone like me, who has spent a lifetime tramping the hills and glens of Scotland, it is a perfect gem. It is passionate about the beauty of the hills and mountains; it captures the sense of the infinite that lies beyond the landscape; it reminds us, deep down, why we love this wild and wonderful country.

King Lear

William Shakespeare 1608

Methuen (Arden Shakespeare)

Lear is the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The play tears at our hearts, brings rage and pity, exposes the elemental forces of all our natures, renders us baffled and exhausted by folly and cruelty alike, and does it all in words that are unsurpassed. We emerge from the play feeling as if our emotions and understanding have been wrung dry. A critic once wrote that the catharsis at the end of Lear doesn’t come because we know that good has triumphed over evil – it hasn’t – but because we know ‘that it is better to have been Cordelia than to have been her sisters’.

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