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The horror of Breaking Dawn made me think about books I love. Specifically, what ten books I would take with me on a desert island because I could read them forever and not be tired of them.



Naomi Mitchison, Travel Light
A fairy tale of sorts, about a girl who is rescued from certain death by her nurse and goes to live with dragons and fights against heroes and sees the emperor in Byzantium. In the end she finds out what it means to need nothing. I read it once a year and it is my favourite book in the world. It might not sound like much but Mitchinson make this story work and be beautiful and sad in startling ways.

Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma
If you’ve ever read a Victorian novel this is the sort of French novel they mutter about. A beautiful woman falls in love with her nephew. Yes, her nephew. Along the way she becomes a duchess by marrying a man suggested by her lover, he becomes a priest and falls in love with a woman who becomes his mistress. This is the only novel I’ve ever read in French for pleasure; I wanted to read Stendhal’s actual words so much.

Doris Lessing, The Making of the Representative for Planet 5
I don’t really know how to describe this. It’s science fiction but not science fiction. It breaks your heart about twenty different ways and ends up somewhere you never expected. Theoretically about a planet that suddenly undergoes rapid climate change and what happens to the people, in reality it’s about how you save what you can from a doomed society and what is the value of memory. (The rest of the series this is a part of – Canopus in Argos - is great, but this one is a standout.)

Haruki Murakami, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Two stories in alternate chapters. I fell madly in love with one, about a man stranded in a strange city who has to read dreams from skulls and falls in love with a librarian, and had no idea how on earth the author could connect it with the other one, set in a strange version of modern Japan. I should never have doubted him: how he connects the two and the sacrifice and love involved at the end of this book broke my heart and made it beat faster at the same time. It’s honestly beyond belief how beautiful this book is.

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones
Rolicking good times in the 18th century.

Homer, The Iliad
The greatest epic ever. I don’t care about Patroclus and Achilles; I’m all about Hector and Andromache and Sarpedon and Glaucus and all of those other people Homer lavishes little moments on. And, okay, I’m a little about Achilles' choice and the loss that will always be his mother’s.

Anthony Trollope. Barchester Towers
Perfect Victorian fiction. Politics and love in a cathedral town.

Virgil, The Aeneid
Most people hate Aeneas. But I love how this is a poem about a man who loses or gives up everything – country, wife, the woman he falls in love with – for an empire he doesn’t want, a wife who doesn’t love him, and a mother who would trade him in for his son in a heartbeat. Yes, that’s depressing, but it’s also astonishing.

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution
The greatest book ever written about the fall of the Roman Republic. Syme is not just a great historian but a great writer. Plus his refusal to write great man history leads to some astonishing moments (such as when Caesar is killed between chapters and the next one opens with “Caesar lay dying on the Senate floor”). Written in the 1930s, his portrayal of Augustus is influenced by the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, but that just gives the book even more power.

The Tain
Irish epic about a heroic battle over a....cow. Well, a bull. HEY, IT’S A PRETTY FINE BULL. With Queen Maeve kicking ass and Cuchulainn killing his best friend and all sorts of other misery and good times along the way.

(Other people who almost made the cut but in the end I couldn't decide on a work: Raymond Chandler, Cicero and Sheridan Le Fanu. And Isherwood's Berlin Stories for that scene right at the end where the narrator realises heartbreakingly how, if he had read an offer better, he could have saved someone. And maybe it would have been love, who knows?)
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August 2011

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