Someone asked me the other day: ‘If you could only read five books for the rest of your life, which books would they be, and why?’
Just five? Have mercy.
An awful proposition, but an interesting one to consider, and now that I’ve had a good think, here is the list. (Seriously though, no way, josé!)
Dracula – Bram Stoker
This was probably the first adult classical text I read? I say probably. I’m fairly sure. I read this book when I was ten, and hated it. I read it again when I was fourteen, and thought it would be pushing things to say 3/5, but then I read it a third time in my nineteenth year. I don’t know what changed, but something had. Third time’s a charm, and it certainly was.
Hyperbole isn’t my style, but it’s no exaggeration in this case to use the word love. Dracula did for me what catnip does for cats, and it was one of my biggest disappointments when I read The Jewel of Seven Stars, and found that it wasn’t as good. I’m still mustering the heart to try The Lair of the White Worm, and I don’t have high hopes. I suppose the trouble is that if an author says everything they want to, the only way from there is down.
I like Dracula because of Mina, because of Lucy and Dracula’s brides. For me, the women make this book a great one, but there is more to it than that. I like the blue fires, the wolves, and the chase. When I read this book it has movement, and whilst it’s easy to say that the classics are dry, I always feel like this one still has something to say. Maybe even (and I don’t expect you to forgive this) a bit of bite…
Grimm’s Fairy Tales – The Brothers Grimm
So this is slightly cheating, but the many tales are in one volume, so I’m going to say it counts. I would choose this book because I grew up on fairy tales. Neither of my parents are what you’d call ‘massive readers’, but short stories were always fair game, so these were what I tended to get for bedtime in my early years.
My first copy of this book was my mother’s, a remnant of her childhood. It has no spine, less than half of the stories, and most of the pages are falling out.
And if I had to choose my favourite story? ‘The Goose Girl’, because of Fallada the talking horse. I’m also very partial to ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, because who doesn’t like a few cannibals in the yarn?
The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey
If I describe it in a sentence: this is the book that made me believe literature can be as great today as it was a hundred years ago. I feel like this is the sort of book you encounter once every few hundred reads, and never forget.
The Snow Child is on a different level to the average novel, and utterly, utterly magical. I like my books full of description, but light to read. This can be something of a contradiction, but this one resolves the paradox. As a piece of writing, it is nothing short of beautiful, but as an emotional punch, it also delivers.
Soulfinder Series – Maria. V. Snyder
Now I’m going to unravel all my airy-fairy flouncing about quality writing and be honest here. These books are shockingly awful. The protagonist is the fairly standard tortured-past-magic-girl, and the plot is predictable at best. The actual writing is readable, but nothing more. You may be wondering why this makes the list. I’m surprised myself, but the truth is, this series is what I turn to on bad days.
There was one thing Snyder did get right, and it was the romance. The love interest is Valek, and he’s a ruthless assassin with a gorgeous face and mysterious past. In short, he’s a walking cliché, but it works, because I have wanted few things from a novel more than the consummation of love between him and Yelena.
I’m not even going to count that as a spoiler because of how obvious the blooming passion is with this one, but I adore it. The rational half of my mind screams ‘what are you doing?’ when I pick out Poison Study from its place on the shelf, but my mushier side craves slop like this, so if I’m only going to have five books, I need this series for rainy days.
A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov
I like Russian Literature.
To cut a long story short: when I was about sixteen one of my best friends got into Chinese culture. I decided to find a culture of my own to become informed about, and I chose Russia. Why? To be shamefully honest, because I have a thing for Russian accents. Something about the velvety purr of a Russian man rolling his r’s turns my heart into noodle soup.
To help me in my quest for knowledge, my best friend’s mother jettisoned her entire collection of well-thumbed Russian novels into my keeping. A Hero of Our Time was one of these I particularly liked the look of because the spine was thin, but having read it, I wish it had another eight hundred pages.
Lermontov’s style suits the novella, I think, but I wish he had written a monster novel, because even in translation his voice is beautiful. I’m not doing it justice by saying this, but he had a way. A way with words that defies all reason and holds my soul’s attention.