books on the shelf

books i've read recently. favourite quotes, comments and thoughts.

As is evident, my focus is on classics, as I wish to read through these before moving on to the great breadth of modern literature available. Whenever I run out of something to read I often turn to this list.

war and peace|swann's way|anna karenin|dorian gray|churchill|william pitt|white mughals|a christmas carol|jane eyre|oliver twist|crime and punishment

  • leo tolstoy: war and peace
    War Peace is described as 'A complete picture of human life; a complete picture of the Russia of that day; a complete picture of everything in which people place their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation.'. War and Peace was indeed an intense book: it took me a year to read, and was my first historical novel. Tolstoy's talent lies in paying attention to every detail whilst writing a comprehensive account of life at the time. Whether he's describing the details of a battle scene or the relationship between courting couples, the characters feel truly alive and the text rings true. It may seem ironic to say that I associated with the characters, as they lived in the 19th century, but their feelings are so well described that I did relate to them. Pierre is the obvious choice in this context, and many people reading this must relate to his search for 'meaning'. In relation to his later novel, Anna Karenina, this is Tolstoy trying to write the definitive novel, and whilst not always concise or elegant, surely he must be judged to have come very close. Daunting but excellent.
  • marcel proust: swanns way
    Proust's first title is 'Du Côté de chez Swann', which was translated by Moncrieff as 'The Way by Swanns', but has been translated more recently as 'Swann's Way' by Lydia Davis. I began my Proust journey with the new translation, wishing to get closer to the 'true' French, with no hope of ever reading the original. After reading War and Peace, approaching a long novel was not daunting, but I was taken aback by the density of Proust's text. You really do have to slow your reading pace in order to cope with the sheer quantity of thoughts. However, once you've got to grips with this, Proust offers many treats throughout his first novel, and it must contain some of the most sublime cerebral writing I have read to date. This is not to say that it has long sections towards the end of which you are praying for some dialogue. You have to work at Proust, but the rewards are worthwhile. I didn't realise this until the first few chapters of 'In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower' during which I think I finally understood what all the fuss was about. Approaching the next volume at the right pace, and in the correct frame of mind meant it was vastly more enjoyable, and working through all of the volumes now seems like a manageable task. If you're doubtful about reading six volumes of writings on how to rediscover past memories, translated from a French work written by one of the most eccentric writers of the 20th century, then at least buy the first one and go from there. Even if you don't read them all, the first one will change your perspective on literature, and prove very satisfying. Here is one of my favourite quotes from the first volume, which frames perfectly why we can never satisfyingly re-visit places we once loved. For me this frames my feelings about returning to my university town.
    "The reality I had known no longer existed. That Mme Swann did not arrive exactly the same at the same moment was enough to make the avenue different. The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions that formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is only regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years."

    'Swann's Way' translated by Lydia Davis. Penguin.
  • leo tolstoy: anna karenin
    After completing War and Peace, Anna Karenin seemed like the next logical step; from a epic, to a much loved, more subtle novel. Anna Karenin is certainly much shorter, and reads as a window on a small part of Russian life. The focus on individual characters is greater than in War and Peace, and the description of the central characters, Anna and Levin, brings them to life. Levin's struggle through life, into marriage, echoes of Pierre, and again for me one of the most captivating parts of the novel was an association with Levin. One of the more touching moments is when Levin gives his private diary to his new wife, knowing that honesty is the best choice, even though it will cause her great pain. It is said that Tolstoy did the same thing upon marrying, and whilst reading about Levin you do feel as though this is a reflection of Tolstoy and his views on marriage and Russian life. This comes highly recommended to everyone, and would be a great place to start on Tolstoy, before moving on to the epic of War and Peace.
  • oscar wilde: a picture of dorian gray
    Geoff recommended 'A Picture of Dorian Gray' to me, and whilst we're all a little dubious about sexuality, I thought it was worth a read as he does cite this as the best book he has ever read. It certainly isn't the best book I've ever read. Oscar Wilde came up with a wonderfully gruesome, original story, and apt ending but I felt it lacked more substance than the basic playout of the plot. It was a joy to read in places, and the development of characters and description of London were well executed. It should stand out as a classic due to the controversy it caused and the original nature of the ideas it hosts, but for me it doesn't hold the beauty of other novels.
  • roy jenkins: churchill
    Roy Jenkins is well practised in political biographies, putting him in the perfect position to take on arguably the most daunting work facing any political biographer today. As one critic commented 'No one will be able to write another Churchill biography for a very long time.'. Being reasonably high profile, and on many a Christmas list I'm sure this will have been the first political biography for many readers - what a wonderful introduction. Jenkins sustains such quality down to such an exhaustive level of detail, throughout the work, that it is always interesting and easy to read. The great advantage of reading a biography on Churchill is that his involvement with such a wide range of affairs during his lifetime, raises the readers knowledge of 20th century history by such a degree. Churchill's sheer enthusiasm and deep involvement in everything he did give life to the reader and encourage them to do the same in their life. This book had me getting up an hour before work to squeeze in a few more chapters, and encouraged me to continue on the policital biography route. Hence the next book of choice.
  • william hague: william pitt the younger
    Being read in the shadow of Roy Jenkins' 'Churchill' meant that William Hague's biograpy of William Pitt was always going to suffer. It should be borne in mind that this is Hague's first book, and although I know little of the period of history which it covers, appeared to give a terrific account of the time, and a wonderful portrait of probably the greatest British Prime Minister. The book runs with such energy for the first two thirds, covering in such wonderful detail the time at which Pitt lived and making all of the detail so clear, that it is in stark contrast that it falls down towards the end. The organisation of facts and commentary wanes, and Hague appears to have temporarily driven himself to the same exhaustion that Pitt faced towards the end of his life. Bear in mind that Hague wrote this biography, for which a great deal of research was required, in only a year and a half. Aptly for my reading list, and for Pitt, Hague was encouraged to write this by Roy Jenkins, against the backdrop of Brook's club (Brook's was much frequented by Pitt). 'William Pitt the Younger' is no 'Churchill', but it is no doubt well worth reading and an enjoyable introduction to 18th century history.
  • charlotte bronte: jane eyre
    As part of my Open University English course, I needed to read this as a background to Jean Rhys' 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. This is my favourite English 19th century novel to date, with the most energy and the best plot. Jane finds her own way through life, and treads a rough path before the novel closes. Simpler in plot, more subtle in style, but similar in theme, this echoes of Oliver Twist.
  • william dalrymple: white mughals
    William Dalyrmple takes us back to the English Imperial days in India. This historical novel tracks the life of James Kirkpatrick, an employee of the East India Company. It's incredibly rich detail makes it a slow read, but it is worth trawling through some of the more verbose sections to find some fascinating stories, and a taste of Imperial English life.
  • charles dickens: a christmas carol
    After pronouncing 2006 as my year of Dickens I started with the seasonal choice of A Christmas Carol. Although this story is very well known it was still a joy to read. I would certainly recommend this for a festive read by the fire.
  • charles dickens: oliver twist
    As one of the five Dickens that I planned to read this year, I didn't expect Oliver Twist to be so enjoyable. I think its reputation, for me, is severely blighted by my memories of the musical. However, it is just a terrific story. The characters are unforgettable, the description and narrative rich in detail, and the plot pacey. I read this against the backdrop of a beach in Madagascar, but Dickens still managed to transport me to the dark and dingy back streets of 19th century London. Although obviously wishing to expose the cruel standards of the Victorian poorhouses, Dickens can't help but find cheer in every character he portrays, be them villain or hero. Well, well worth it.
  • fyodor dostoevsky: crime and punishment
    I decided to read Crime and Punishment because I had enjoyed the Russian novels of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina' so much, but Crime and Punishment proved to be very different. I found this work much less neat, as a whole, and in some places not as much of a joy to read. It certainly managed to portray the harrowing nature of a murder's thoughts as their guilt leads them to self destruction, but the plot felt at times disjointed and patchy. Despite this, I would like to read more Dostoevsky, and so have 'The Idiot' on the shelf to read next. Crime and Punishment was well worth the effort and contained some pieces of sublime writing, so I would strongly encourage everyone to include it on their bookshelf.
  • charles dickens: great expectations
    I approached Great Expectations knowing that is was one of Dickens' greatest classics. I therefore approached it with a little foreboding, but great excitement. As a testomony to Dickens' craft at plot and characters I read it through very quickly. From the start the reader is able to engage with Pip's early beginnings, and the description of his upbringing and characters such as Joe do not feel like a background, but fundamentally part of the novel. Which of course they are. When Dickens transports us to London, with thickening plot, it was nice to see a weaker side of Pip's character develop, which was a surprise to me, as from reading Oliver Twist I had believed that the author always lavished the greatest praise on his hero. However, through Pip's troubles we engage further with his character, and of those around him. I developed a great love of Mr. Wemmick and his situation. It was refreshing to know that people in Dickens' day also lived quite different private lives to those they are required to live at work. This, of course, deserves its reputation as Dickens' classic novel. Well worth picking up, and not worth putting down until its finished.
  • claire tomalin: the unequalled self
  • robin shelton: allotted time (twelve months, two blokes, one shed, no idea)
  • mary shelley: frankenstein
  • ivan turgenev: fathers and sons
  • d h lawrence: love among the haystacks and other stories
  • jane austen: pride and prejudice
  • charles dickens: a tale of two cities

    books to be read shortly

  • boris johnson: the dream of rome
  • moazzam begg: enemy combatant
  • fyodor dostoevsky: the idiot
  • virginia woolfe: to the lighthouse
  • the war of wars: history of napoleonic wars
  • fyodor dostoevsky: the brothers kamarazov
  • gunter grass: the tin drum
  • madame bovary
  • james joyce: the portrait of the artist as a young man
  • ian mcewan: on chesil beach