Why eleven? Because I like to go one step beyond 😉
Well, that’s what Nostalgia Critic used to say in his “top eleven” lists. Me, I was inspired by Ola’s challenge, despite, and some people would feel really hurt in a situation like this, not being included there. But it made me think, and create my own list.
I wasn’t sure how to go about it. There are books I clearly remember were very important to me, but I’m no longer sure why. And they are books that really resonated with me in the last couple of years, but only time will tell if they will stay with me for the rest of my life. So, I decided to go with these representatives of the first category that I still find important. These are all books dear to me, and don’t pay close attention to which is first, and which eleventh… they are all near the top. And, just as Calmgrove observed, a list like that, if constructed tomorrow, might look slightly different… it’s all very subjective.
Please remember, much of what you’re about to read is how I saw certain topics 10-20 years ago, now I’m slightly more nuanced, or maybe hypocritical 😉
I will limit myself to fiction, because it is supposed to be eleven books, non-fiction of all sorts would be at least twice as much. So, maybe another list some other day?
1. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954)
An obvious choice, but no less significant. It was a small scandal in my family, with its traditional Polish literary tastes, when they discovered the Trilogy for me is LotR, and not this guy. Well, Tolkien is a much better writer, and his books made me a fantasy reader. I’m not sure how old exactly I was when reading them for the first time, it happened relatively late, probably around 1994, when I was eleven… but it stayed with me, and I’ve read LotR several times since then. Tolkien is one of the gods of fantasy, unrivalled storyteller and worldbuilder, and, frankly, this is the mythology closest to my heart. Other mythologies, and even the other gods of fantasy, don’t come close.
BTW, the marvellous bookmark is something you can buy from this great little place online.
2. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
1954 was a good year for books, apparently! I don’t remember when the first reading of this one took place, but it’s one of my most important books since forever. One of sources of my famous cynicism, distrust of human nature that is a nice contrast to Ola’s cheerful idealism… or maybe it just solidified something I always had in me. My staunch belief in the importance of civilization and fear of its fragility, when the mob lets itself be led by a demagogue. Disdain for the ease with which superstition replaces reason.
And I was quite militant about all that, I had to read a bit of anthropology to cut the humanity some slack 😉 With books like de Waal’s I might even come to believe, one day, that Rousseau wasn’t a total idiot.
Look at the Folio edition, isn’t the cover hypnotic? Good thing there is a slipcase to hide him most of the time.
3. Andrzej Szczypiorski, A Mass for Arras (1971)
There was this one literature teacher in my High School days, he wasn’t normally teaching our class, but from time to time we would have a lesson with him, and the one thing he always said was: guys, this is one book you have to read. I did, and I agree.
A plague in a French city of Arras, in XV-century, leads to religiously motivated violence directed against a small Jewish community, and later also against whoever among the Christians is perceived not to be zealous enough. Seen through the eyes of a young, educated man, whose faith is put to a test when he has to cope with the cruelty of the entire ordeal. Populism, fanaticism, ignorance, prejudice, fear.
Of course, it was really all about the Polish March of 1968, with its anti-Jewish smear campaign, quite a different 1968 than the one in the West.
For me, personally, a great vaccine against any allure participation in mob activities might have, and the specific blend of catho-nationalism so popular in my country. With a bonus – powerful, emotional refutation of what we know from XVII century onwards as Pascal’s Wager.
4. Joan Aiken, A Room Full of Leaves and other stories (1972)
The only translated collection of Aiken’s stories, read by me… definitely before my tenth birthday, possibly earlier, and the source of my love for mysterious and melancholic stories. That’s where my road towards fantasy began, and I’m forever grateful. Recently I started reading some more of her writings, but for all things Aiken go to Calmgrove 🙂
5. Xenophon, Anabasis / Zbigniew Herbert, Anabasis
Thucydides would win, by himself, but another Athenian has support of one of my favourite XX-century poets, Herbert.
Anabasis or The March of the Ten Thousand is a story about hardship, leadership, war, democracy, desperation and looting the dwellings of strange far-away peoples. It inspired many people for centuries, go to Swords & Spectres for a review of a modern historical novel retelling the adventure. But I will always see it through the poem. I couldn’t find the complete translation, only a small part missing my favourite verses, but here it goes:
the famous shout on Mount Taches
is mistakenly interpreted by sentimental poets
they simply found the sea that is the exit from the dungeon
So that takes care of three authors in a few short sentences!
6. Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)
Another of my beloved classics. Politics, war, space, ecology, heroics, different faces of religion… I used to say that my love for genre literature stand on two legs, one is LotR, the other – Dune. Great epic, and a warning against unleashing forces beyond your control, a mistake many politicians continue to make.
It’s also many more things, but this post is already getting too long, so I’ll just recommend a very unique tumblr page that combines Calvin & Hobbes with Dune quotes (it works!).
Just admire another Folio:
7. Milan Kunder, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
A beautiful love story set against a very hostile historical background of communist Czechoslovakia. There is a movie, and there are some similarities with a great Polish 2018 movie that got some international recognition (including a Cannes award for its director). What does the tile mean?
Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
Kitsch is the inability to admit that shit exists
Change is one constant we can count on. The change of the guard is a frequent topic of genre and non-genre fiction alike. Great many novels were written, and even here we reviewed excellent gunpowder fantasy by one of our blog’s favourite writers, Brian McClellan. I was actually surprised not seeing his face (and rating) on Leopard’s Goodreads page, because this is a book that offers a different perspective on revolutions that shaped Europe in XIX century. McClellan in his fantasy novels, and the likes of Dickens earlier, wrote mainly from the perspective of the new world, its winners and, if they were feeling generous, its losers. Lampedusa offers the perspective of the outgoing land aristocracy.
The world they know is ending, and they can pretend they don’t realise that, or join and secure their positions in the new unified Italy, because:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
It should be a compulsory reading for HP fanfic writers who want to tell their stories from Pureblood society’s POV. It’s not enough to see one Austen adaptation 😉
Oh, but there’s a superb Visconti’s adaptation of this one 🙂
9. Roger Zelazny, Chronicles of Amber (1970-1991)
Ok, lets go back to the genre lit. Chronicles of Amber by one of fantasy giants, and another Re-Enchantment’s favourite, Roger Zelazny, is one of the big epics that firmly belong to my personal canon. I really wish a better edition was available, ideally a Folio one…
I hope no introductions are needed, for me as a teenage reader Amber was a great adventure, a birth of my interest in books combining fantasy with modern world, and a book that was just being published in Poland for the first time, so I had to wait years to finish it!
10. Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951-53)
And by Foundation I mean the original trilogy. It might actually constitute the third leg of my love for genre lit. It ages most gracefully out the s/f classics, in my opinion. Arthur C. Clarke I’ve read with great respect for his vision, but here I actually had fun! Some Heinlein novels might be jut as good, but Heinlein I discovered much later.
These books are about a plan by Hari Seldon, a genius who created predictive science – psychohistory – to shorten the Dark Ages that are to come after the inevitable collapse of the dying Galactic Empire. There are perils, but also hope, and belief in human ingenuity, in progress, in a better future. Book after book, crises after crises, Foundation carries the torch of civilization.
Until Asimov introduces the concept of Galaxia in the second-to-last volume. A super-consciousness robbing people of individuality to merge them with fauna, flora and planet itself into one super-organism.
I was so annoyed I refused to read the final book. It’s been waiting on my shelves for 16 years. Why so emotional? Previous instalments were so important to me, I took the destination Asimov took his series into as a betrayal. Now… I might be getting ready to finish this, but I’ll probably hate Foundation and Earth anyway.
11. Terry Pratchett, Discworld (1983-2015)
Last, but not least, Pratchett. Small Gods is my favourite Discworld novel, but I’m going to treat the entire series as one entry on this list. I’ve read almost all the books, some – a few times, now I’ve reached Small Gods in my comprehensive re-read (audio) of the entire series.
I just love satire. I’ve collected satirical cartoons since I was in school, and I’m an eager reader of anything satirical. Pratchett makes me smile, a lot, but he also makes me think. With Colours of Magic – mainly about the tropes of fantasy. With Making Money – about fairly complicated aspects of recent crisis of capitalism. The list goes on…
Unseen Academicals was the last book of his I’ve read, and I’m so happy I still have something new to discover!
That’s it… but many great titles had to be removed from the list only because of lack of space. Adventure & historical novels I’ve read as a kid, Le Guin, Eco, Llosa, White, Vonnegut, Hesse, some Polish guys you’ve never heard of…
And I’ve spent a few hours writing this, remembering how it was to read all these for the first time, as a young and fierce reader. Now I can only see glimpses of that in my niece’s first encounters with Potter and Tolkien… oh, to be young again 😉