Penguin Classics, 2000
Joyce came into my life in 1951, when I was 16, in the shape of Ulysses, which I read in sixth form as an optional vacation assignment, and which gave me my first deep introduction to literary modernism and literary Ireland. Both have printed their mark on me ever since. Stream of consciousness was my preferred form of prose for several years – I even used it in the French essay paper for A-level. I can’t think of a better writer in English than Joyce, and the mighty, comic, endlessly inventive Ulysses is probably his best work.
The Making of the English Working Class
E P Thompson
Penguin, new ed 2002
I read this in the early 1960s, around the time it was published – and the time I met Edward at a New Left summer school in west Yorkshire. The book and the man became close friends thereafter. No book has made a deeper impression on my sensibility; no book has enabled me to see my own life and history more clearly. What separates it from most social history is its command of language and – for want of a better word – its poetry. Discussing historical movements and people who ended up getting the future wrong, he argues we must ‘rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity’. Precisely.
The Country and the City
Oxford University Press, 1975
A long, painstaking and beautiful examination of English literature in the search for shifting images of ‘country’ and ‘city’ through history and the often class-freighted and ahistorical meanings we give them. I challenge anyone to read his first chapter and not be eager to go on. As with Joyce and Irishness, so Williams with Welshness: two national cultural elements in my own background that have resonated within my own thought and work.
Vintage, new ed 1991
For me one of the most important English-language novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse 5 tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a US soldier who survives the Dresden bombings and becomes ‘unstuck in his time’, living his life in a random order and repetitively. It combines an extraordinary realism with a wild and dangerous delight that possessed me in the 1970s and beyond like a virus and still hangs on, unshakable, in my writing and thinking and feeling. Years later, trying to write The Gulf Between Us, about three Brit workers trapped in Baghdad during the first Iraq War, I slowly realised it came straight from Kurt Vonnegut. I challenge anyone to read the final chapter and not weep.
Vintage, new ed 1993
As the 1970s’ promise of a scruffy utopia gave way to the buffed dystopia of the 1980s, I decided to look for a second (shorter) creative form and lighted on photography, a search that brought me face to face with Barthes’ masterpiece. Ostensibly a philosophical analysis of photography, it resolves halfway through into a deep and painful examination of Barthes’ long dependent relationship with his recently dead mother. No one of a certain age can read this book and not feel a memoir coming on.
The Rattle Bag
Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (eds)
Faber and Faber, 2005
Five hundred and more poems from four corners and five continents make up the best poetry anthology you’ll ever encounter. I send copies of it out each Christmas; and there are three copies strewn about the house in case I feel a sudden need of it. In the words of the editors: ‘This anthology amassed itself like a cairn … each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big voluble world.’ A gem.
A Life in Letters
Penguin Classics, 2004
I’ve been reading Chekhov (letters, stories, plays) since the 70s, when Richard Eyre bought me his Selected Letters as companion on my travels into my new English version of The Cherry Orchard. This new volume, much enlarged and with excellent notes in a brilliant translation, confirms that Chekhov is in the first rank of writers, thinkers and human beings.
The Angel of History
HarperPerennial, reprint 1995
Forché is the founder of a movement known as Poetry of Witness. Some years ago I encountered her work (Gathering the Tribes, The Country Between Us, Against Forgetting) and knew at once it was important and would last. The Angel of History, published in the mid-90s, is a scarifying account of the bloody horrors that are the 20th century: war, genocide, holocaust, nuclear destruction; but one filled with love and tenderness and a warm awareness of the smallness of things. These are poems that make the earth a better place.
Radical playwright Trevor Griffiths’ A New World: A Life of Tom Paine was at the Globe theatre this summer and his Comedians at the Lyric last month
Josie picks the eight books she'd take to the ends of the earth with her
Owen Jones picks the eight books he’d take to the ends of the Earth with him
Celia Mitchell picks the eight books she'd take to the ends of the earth with her