A few months ago, a colleague asked me what my favourite book was. She was looking to put together a display of the different books staff read, while encouraging literacy amongst the students. I struggled to pick just one book. Eventually, I sent back a student ‘safe’ suggestion, aware that I might not want younger students to be reading some of my favourite books, yet.
Below are my top five favourite books, but if you asked me on a different day, you may get a different list. I’ve struggled with which ones to add to this list, for example, I have left off several classic books. Those missing out include the ‘Mars’ trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I love these books for the depth they include, not just hard-sci-fi, but also the Cold War inspired political backdrop. The gruesome ‘Rats’ trilogy, by James Herbert, probably the first horror books I really enjoyed, are also left out. I’ve even left out the ‘Commonwealth’ saga by Peter F Hamilton and the newer ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy by Liu Cixin. So what have I included?
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I first read Shogun in the mid-1990s and was soon drawn into its complex plots and vivid storytelling. This was one of several large books I read during the 1990s. But that didn’t stop me, and I soon flew through ‘The Asian Saga’. Rarely have I seen Clavell’s depth of world building outside of science fiction and fantasy. I suppose I could have added any of Clavell’s saga to my list of favourite books.
‘The Reader’ was a novel I read while undertaking postgraduate study in history. It was a fascinating reconciliation of Germany’s guilt regarding the Holocaust and the war with Germans born after the war. Simply asking whether Germans should be guilty for the sins of their parents and grandparents, and how should they post-war Germans relate to their elders. These where important questions at a time of German reunification as Germany confronted its past.
This is the only non-fiction book on my list and is one of the most influential history books I have read. I first read it not long after it was published, the final part in Hobsbawm’s Ages series. It was revealing, as Hobsbawm was one of the school of British Marxist historians and had continued to favour communist principles despite the collapse of the Soviet bloc. This book was the first occasion I came across the concepts the ‘long’ 19th and ‘short’ 20th centuries, an idea which has become central to many interpretations.
While the ideas of the British Marxist historians seem a little dated now, they were essential to the opening up of historical debate within the UK. These historians were part of a broad movement which looked beyond elites, the upper classes and political history, instead focusing on the experience of the everyday man and woman. It was exciting time to be studying history as the story of the everyday person was being revealed, even if Hobsbawm himself focused on traditional political narratives.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, and in a family with strong military connections, I was extremely aware of the Cold War. I spent a lot of time around military bases. When I got ‘Red Storm Rising’ as a Christmas present, I soon got into the story. By the time I read this novel, I had already played the PC game ‘Harpoon’, which had been used to play test aspects of the novel. I’ve always kept a soft spot for Tom Clancy novels even though they are mass-market. He uses great pace, plotting, and continuity of characters. This led to me reading a series of other Cold War-gone-hot style fiction. Included among these were ‘Team Yankee’, ‘Chieftain’, and ‘The Third World War’ by John Hackett. The later is one of my favourite counterfactual books.
While at university I finally branched out my interests in history, which had mainly been focused on World War II, the Cold War, and the Industrial Revolution. I became quite interested in late Victorian and early Edwardian history. This 1903 novel was extremely influential before the First World War. It tapped into the popular invasion fears which were being fed by both the British popular tabloid newspapers and the changing balance of continental power.
With the growing threat to British naval supremacy, especially Germany’s construction of a modern battle fleet, coupled with the revolutionary dreadnought design of battleships, Britain felt a growing threat from Germany. They had based most invasion fears prior to this around the French, and even occasionally Czarist Russia.
Childers came up with this classic, drawing upon his own knowledge of the North Sea German islands. The novel was a great success, even adding to the political debate on the Royal Navy development and the shifting continental alliances. To me it is an important book, as it led me to investigate the naval arms race in my undergraduate dissertation. It was also consciously in my mind as I wrote the first draft of my last Royal Zombie Corps book.