The past year, in which most of us have been confined to our homes more than ever before, has seen a great increase in reading.
Perhaps that’s a good reason for celebrating World Book Day especially enthusiastically this year. Celebrate it by telling friends and family about books you’ve particularly enjoyed – or particularly valued (not always the same thing). Celebrate by buying, or arranging to borrow, a book you’ve been wanting to read for some time. Celebrate by starting – or continuing – to write your own book, if that’s your inclination. But above all: celebrate by READING.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is probably the classic novel about the value of books. First published in 1953, it is what we would nowadays call a “dystopian” work of fiction, set in an imagined future where books are banned and, if found, burned. Like Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had (see Post 38), Fahrenheit 451 suffers from having made predictions or assumptions about the future which do not take account of how our lives have actually changed since the work was written. Bradbury has no concept of computers, for example, or the internet, whereby whole libraries can be digitally stored on cloud servers for posterity, even if all hard copy books were to disappear. He has some interesting ideas on home entertainment, though! If you haven’t come across it, Fahrenheit 451 is definitely worth a look. It is thought-provoking as well as being a well told story.
Other books to try . . .
Douglas Adams’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became a cult, back in the early 1980s. There are still some people who make knowing reference to 42 being the answer to “life, the universe and everything”. Starting as a radio series, “Hitch-hiker” then became a book (and a series of books) and then a tv series, and eventually a film. Douglas Adams, whose death at a relatively early age deprived us of many, many more wonderful pieces of writing, takes a wry look at the way that the future will alter our perceptions: written at a time when digital watches were new, expensive and quite rare, the book refers to “an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” It’s another classic that deserves your time if you haven’t already read it; it won’t take long to read and with luck you’ll find it still very funny.
Richard Adams (no relation) is best known as the author of Watership Down, a children’s book which was also enjoyed by many older readers. A later novel, The Girl in a Swing, is much darker and definitely for adults. It is well written, of a good length, shows variety in its subject-matter and leaves the reader questioning the strangeness of what happens.
P.G. Wodehouse wrote in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote a great deal, and most of it remains very popular. Light-hearted and with an extraordinary use of well known (or half-remembered) quotations from Shakespeare, the Bible and other works which formed the basis of a boy’s education in literature at that time, Wodehouse’s novels tend to focus on the English aristocracy or well-to-do middle classes in a way that gently makes fun of them. My favourites are the “Jeeves” series of novels and short stories, which were turned into a tv series with Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, some time in the early nineties (and the jazz theme tune is wonderful!). No need to see the action, though – the books are a treat, especially when you feel in need of being cheered up.
Donna Leon has written 30 novels about Inspector Guido Brunetti of the Venice police and his family and colleagues. They are detective stories, but much more than that. The descriptions of Venice are wonderfully atmospheric, and the characters beautifully created. There may be some resolutions of the cases featured, but there is no happy ending to the corruption and self-interest of many of the organisations and individuals Leon includes. The balm of the books is Brunetti’s family life, which restores the reader’s sense of what is essential in life as much as it does his own.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are known and loved across the world. I don’t need to tell you about the massive industry that has sprung from them. What is particularly special about these books is that they started – or re-started – boys reading fiction in a way that nothing else had done. Even the “boys’ own” adventure books of earlier in the twentieth century didn’t have the same mass appeal as her stories of the boy wizard and his friends (and enemies). They are the product of a very special imagination, and the reading the first in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – always impresses me with its inventions. It is easy to take the “world” of Harry Potter for granted now, but we shouldn’t forget all that it has achieved.
Two books that deal with real-life challenges for young people are The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Each deals with reactions to the serious illness or death of a parent, in one case on the part of a young girl, and the other on the part of a young boy. One is absolutely based in real life; the other has a magical element to it but is no less valuable an insight into young people’s lives and emotions for that.
If you want something very lighthearted, easy to read and always enjoyable, try Jilly Cooper‘s novels (which tend to find favour with female readers rather than men) such as Score!, Wicked! and Appassionata. For factual but no less entertaining light reading, any of Bill Bryson‘s travelogues will fit the bill, especially (for my money) the early ones.
Opinions are divided about the work of Terry Pratchett, but I love his use of language, his humour and his insight into human behaviour disguised as the behaviour of the inhabitants of Discworld. Each of the novels tends to have a particular relevance to the time in which it was written, but that’s never made explicit and it doesn’t prevent readers of any period enjoying them.
I could go on . . . but I hope that some of what I’ve written gives you ideas for trying something you haven’t read before.
Have a very happy World Book Day!