5 books that are most important to me.

The Collected Stories of Anton Chekhov

The greatest short story writer the world has ever seen.  Stories, well over a hundred years old now, that read as if they were written for 2007: dry, absurd, resolutely secular — the most honest clear-eyed look at the strange tragi-comedy of our lives.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

A unique novel made up of a 2000-line poem and its hopelessly wide-of-the-mark ‘scholarly’ notes. Phenomenally clever and incredibly funny.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Dickens’s last completed novel and his perhaps his greatest. Certainly the great novel of London: dark, wise, unsentimental.

Couples by John Updike

Not considered to be Updike’s best but, for me, reading this novel in my late adolescence opened my eyes to the rich potential of literature. Here was the adult life, it seemed, in all its subtle nuances — brilliantly, sophisticatedly depicted.

Ulysses by James Joyce

I go back to Ulysses again and again. The precision of the language is breathtaking — the ultimate writing masterclass.

Which classic did I find disappointing?

Ernest Hemingway’s novels (without exception) preposterous, self-important, strutting nonsense. And almost all of Henry James: here, the overripe, endless qualifications of the prose, the footling periphrasis, drive me mad.  Most disappointingly, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. I loved this novel when I first read it as a teenager but trying to re-read it recently was a disaster. I stopped after 40 pages, not wanting to tarnish my first rapt encounter with the book.

Books for children.

The first book I remember reading was The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. It never fails to enchant. Empathy is the first emotional connection children have with literature and Scott Fitzgerald’s Basil Duke Lee stories are small masterworks of the adolescent life.

Certified “important” book I have not read.

Too many to mention: all Tolstoy, all Dostoevsky. I don’t like ‘Magic Realism’ so that rules out 100 Years of Solitude (and many other South American fantastical tales). The list is very long.

Book I’ve repeatedly tried to read and can’t deal with.

Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. I’m fascinated by Powell, the man, and have read his journals and memoirs avidly. But I just cannot get on with his avowedly great novel-sequence. Deadly dull, I say. Not a patch on Waugh, not within shouting distance of Proust.

Contemporary authors who will endure 100 years.

We’re on safer ground with poets than novelists, here.  I think we will still be reading Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin. Perhaps Paul Muldoon and Craig Raine — nobody quite writes like these two.

Written for Newsweek Magazine January 2007