Nov 3 2011
I’m putting it up on my site as a Blog entry (which means it will have a “posted” date) but I’m hoping for ongoing feedback—agreement, argument, questions, discussion, whatever. So it won’t be something you should just ignore if you come to it late. If you read it, some time down the road and months from its posting date, and you want to throw in your two-cents’ worth, then by all means jump right in and speak your mind. I’ll still be riding herd on it and it seems to me to be a natural topic for a solid discussion group in the Site’s Forum—What’s your favourite book of all time?
I get asked, all the time, about what it’s like to be a writer, an author, and there are two questions I’m asked more than any other: “What’s your own very favourite book of all time?” and “What’s your personal ‘best’ of all the novels you’ve written?”
Well, the answer to the second question (knock on wood) has always been short and sweet and easy: “My next one.”
That first question, though, is a killer that I simply can’t answer off the top of my head.
“Why not?” you might ask, and this time I’m really going to try to explain it. I’ve been reading voraciously, every day of my life, for more than sixty years. Duh!, says you. And I nod wearily and point out the obvious truth—obvious to me, at least—that after such a long time of reading constantly, I have a virtually endless list of books that I have read over and over again throughout my life.
Even working solely from that list, my selection of absolute, crème de la crème favourites fluctuates hugely all the time, according to my mood of the month or the season of the year. I can even identify variations that have occurred (though it sometimes hurts to admit such hoary antiquity) with the progressively advancing stages of my life. One such book, a failure to survive its own era, was a novel called “Five Smooth Stones” by an American author called Ann Fairbairn. It was a 1960s American Civil Rights drama, the title drawn from the five smooth stones with which David brought down Goliath, and it was one of the few books that I ever started reading again immediately upon finishing it, turning from the last page back to the first. I read it again quite recently, however, and although I still enjoyed it, it was the nostalgia that I enjoyed most this time around; the book itself had not fared well with the passage of time
So what would be my short list of favourite books of all time…?
Well, it was no accident that I became an author of Historical fiction. The books that I have loved most deeply and passionately throughout my life have been, to a major and almost exclusive extent, examples of that so-called genre, and even my favourite Shakespearian dramas reflect the essential element of good Historical fiction: a great, all-consuming story. And that’s what my personal choice is all about. This list is primarily concerned with storytelling; not with “literary merit”.
Every time I start to ask myself about my own favourite books, though—and I have been invited to compile such a list many times over the past ten years–I tend to hum and haw and swither and dither and get nowhere… I start splitting hairs, looking for degrees of preference and excellence. I get bogged down between and among genres, incapable of opting for This over That, or one period or era over another, and invariably I end up walking away with my dilemma unresolved and my “top ten all-time favourite books” list left once again in Limbo. This time, though, since I’m writing for myself, I’m determined to be more decisive and to bear in mind the advice Polonius offered to his son Laertes in “Hamlet”: “This above all, to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man…”
What books, then, out of all I’ve read throughout my life, do I still love as passionately as I ever did? Understand, I’m not concerned with their so-called literary merit in this instance, nor even with their historical accuracy, though that’s important. I’ve simply tried to identify and name twelve books that have been the most memorable for me, personally; the twelve historical novels that I consider to be standout examples of popular storytelling at its best; the top dozen among the relatively few books (and that word “relatively” isn’t there by accident) that have made me think, “God, I wish I’d written that!” The sad corollary, however, considering the time frame involved, is that many of these books are no longer even in print, but that’s purely a matter of changing times and tastes and it detracts in no way from their excellence. And besides, you can still find copies of most of them on-line at AbeBooks.com. Here, then, are my selections, in the order they occurred to me:
ALL TIME FAVOURITES
1. The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas. A story of The Christ and the effect his Crucifixion had on the Romans who carried it out. This book enthralled me from the first time I ever picked it up and even though the Movie they made from it was excellent in its day, it was one of the first instances I ever noticed of the book itself being far, far more exciting and meaty than the Movie that it inspired.
2. Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace. Another story of The Christ and another superb example of consummate storytelling, despite—and maybe even because of—the archaic 19th-Century language in which it was written. The language seemed too ornate at first, I remember even now, but as I sank into the story I quickly adjusted to the style of the language and lost awareness of its ‘strangeness’.
3. Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliffe. The first book that ever made me think of King Arthur as a living, breathing man. I felt greatly honoured to be invited to write a Foreword to the recently re-issued 45th Anniversary edition by Chicago Review Press in 2008.
4. The Iron Mistress, by Paul I. Wellman. The story of Jim Bowie and the knife that bears his name. Flawed and ‘weakened’ by post-feminist, 21st-Century perceptions and political correctness, it still manages to hang together as one of the all-time great adventure stories.
5. Dear and Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell. The story of Saint Luke the Evangelist. One of the few books that has ever made me cry, and still does. Amazingly powerful.
6. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, Pere. The quintessential story of swashbuckling comradeship, set in the time of Cardinal Richelieu.
7. The Count of Monte Christo, by Alexandre Dumas. The best of all stories about the destructive effects of revenge.
8. All Quiet On The Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. A story of the First World War, from the German perspective, that gives the modern reader a fascinating, soul-sickening idea of the appalling tragedy of the whole thing.
9. The Viking, by Edison Marshall. The story of Ragnar Lothbrok, the great Viking, this was the first novel ever to transport me back into 9th-Century Medieval Europe and show me that people who lived then faced the same fundamental, life-threatening problems that affect people today.
10. Shogun, by James Clavell. A story of the first Westerners to reach Japan; remarkable in that it convinces you, as you’re reading it, that you’re gaining an understanding of how the Japanese mind works. Of course, that isn’t so, but the experience is amazing and very real.
11. The First Man In Rome, by Colleen McCullough. The enthralling and awe-inspiring story of Gaius Marius, the Greatest Roman of Them All until Julius Caesar came along.
12. The Fourth Horseman, by Randy Lee Eikhoff. A fascinating novel about “Doc” Holiday, the consumptive, enigmatic Dentist who backed Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral.
That’s all for now, but I could do this again, for different genres (God! I hate that word,) if anyone shows any interest.