“Culture is perishing in over-production, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity.” - Milan Kundera
If days are where we live our lives then stories are where we remember them. And tonight is apparently the night to seek sanctuary, solace, escape and wonder in one story selected from 20.
The call to turn to the good old fashioned book is one I’ll happily take up – and one that, tellingly, I only chanced upon scouring through the Twitter feed, thanks to Creative Boom’s update about World Book Night. It called a halt to my frenzied effort to catch up on the latest and the new, and prompted me to dig out old favourites and dust off the pile of books I have yet to read.
So what to read for World Book Night?
Do you re-read an old classic, dip into something new, or return to the pile that plagues your guilty conscience from the side of the bed (and the coffee table, and the desk, and the kitchen table, in my case of organised chaos)?
The principle behind World Book Night is an admirable one – 20,000 people give away 20 free books each, selected from a list of 20 titles, to members of their community who may not regularly read.
I had to flick back through several old notebooks and cast my mind back a long way to the last time I properly absorbed myself in fiction to come up with my own recommendations. For the past ten years or so, my reading habits have become arguably worthy and focused on depressing albeit necessary themes of human conflict, disaster, war, disease, science and progress (or lack thereof).
In a bid to find some positivity in what can sometimes seem an irreparably damaged world, I recently picked up Naom Chomsky’s Hopes and Prospects because the blurb on the back cover promised that it’s “essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race and is wondering where to find a ray of hope”.
Sticking with the theme of hope, one of the chosen 20 for this year's World Book Night is Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which I’ll be adding to the guilt pile. I’ve always been a fan of Winterson, even more so since I saw her speak at the University of Manchester while studying English literature there. Just one of the many gems that have stuck with me from her books is this, from Written on the Body, for the way it evokes a sense of the lure and pain inspired by love: “We touch one another, bond and break, drift away on force fields we don’t understand.”
One book I’ve passed into the hands of many (and which inspired a trip to Prague) is Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, something of a cliché perhaps for an 18-year-old aspiring writer as I was at the time, but a beautiful novel from the existential genre that marries a sense of political and emotional revolution, and one I’d still recommend. Its opening did for me exactly what any good book should, which is grip you from the outset - with the magical idea of eternal return, borrowed from Nietzsche.
Kundera’s description of words as “prowling through his brain, tearing at his head, they were his insomnia, his illness” still resonates with me.
This line is perhaps truer today than it was at the time of the book’s release in 1984, or in relation to the intellectual life of Czech society during the Communist period from the Prague Spring onwards: “Culture is perishing in over-production, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity.” It certainly chimes with the idea of selecting a few good reads, and escaping the mass onslaught of information-overload.
From the pile of books that are either half finished or stacked neatly as reminders of the literary pearls within them, and from which I’ll select one tonight:
Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. If you weren't already familiar with the concept of proprioception (by that term at least) it’s a truly mesmerising, heart-breaking and uplifting work in equal measure.
Peter Beaumont’s The Secret Life of War. I’ve read many journalistic biographies, from Aidan Hartley to Janine de Giovanni, Christopher Hitchens to Jon Snow. But Beaumont’s stands out for its straight-talking style and another opening clincher about his motivation to write the book: “I wanted to describe the sights, sounds and emotions [of war] and relate them not to history but to what it takes to be human.”
Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. A convincing take on the reality of life for those trapped in poverty in one of the world’s fastest growing countries.
And from the shelf that holds the unopened finds from one of my favourite Oxfam bookstores, where a stolen half hour's browsing during the working day is never wasted - three novels that chart the journeys of immigrants, peasants, colonisers, heroes and villains: Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Sam North's The Unnumbered, and Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist.
I could go on, and the pile most likely will - but that would would miss the point. And so to Sacks I think, and the disorderly half-conscious meanderings that case studies on psychoses and neuroses will no doubt bring.