Even if you’re not someone who might describe themselves as a “big reader”, I am sure that, for most people, there has been a book or books (however broadly you want to define “book”) that has had an enduring impact. Whether it was the pacing of the narrative, the style of writing, the characters, the setting, the emotional impact, the philosophical musings, or the facts and history revealed, books of both the fiction and non-fiction variety have the power to stay with us and continue echoing through our lives. As someone who has read voraciously the whole of my life, there have been many books that were briefly entertaining or engaging, but which were soon forgotten. But there were others that have had an enduring impact; this is my list of the top ten in no particular order of importance.
1. The (original) Earthsea Trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) by Ursula Le Guin.
Set on Le Guin’s perfectly realised fictional world of Earthsea, these books not only sparked my love of reading and writing, but their Taoist/anarchist philosophical architecture and compassionate response to human frailty made a huge impression on me when I first read them as a young teen. Re-read constantly in subsequent years, they have neither lost their appeal nor their impact.
2. The Roman Britain Novels (The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, Dawn Wind) by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
Also read when I was a young ‘un, these lovingly crafted works of historical fiction are not only filled with flesh-and-blood characters, they evoke the distant past in such sympathetic and human terms as to fill one with a love for history and the world of yesteryear – well, they did for me, anyway!
3. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Originally published under the title Im Westen nichts Neues (Nothing New In The West), this book about the First World War, written from the perspective of a young German soldier, had a devastating impact on me when I first read it – and it continues to move me with its haunting evocation of an entire generation existentially doomed by their experience of industrialised warfare. Thoroughly deserves that over-used title “modern classic”.
4. To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.
This book was almost too perfect to be true, and simultaneously charmed, moved, angered, and shamed me with its depiction of small town racism, human nobility, and childhood innocence that redeems the corrupted world of adults. A true gem of human literature.
5. The Rakhat Diptych (The Sparrow and The Children of God) by Mary Doria Russell.
In this astonishing blend of anthropology, science fiction, and a perfectly observed meditation on the movements of the human heart, Russell takes the story of Job and transplants it to an inter-planetary setting through the medium of a Jesuit priest who leads a rogue expedition to the first alien civilization discovered by humans. Beautifully written and heart-wrenchingly poignant, never to be forgotten.
6. The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
One of Banks’ science fiction novels, part of his “Culture series”, this extraordinary depiction of a symbiotic human-robot civilisation, in which it is never clear quite who are the senior partners in the relationship, combines Machiavellian political cynicism, human vulnerability, and existential yearning into a chilling and yet surprisingly moving tale of realpolitik played out on the inter-galactic stage.
7. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Wise, gentle, moving, and deeply human, these personal reflections, maxims, and aphorisms of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180AD) reveal a humble, sensitive mind shaped in the Stoic virtues of patience, generosity, and forbearance in the face of suffering. First read at a critical juncture in my young adulthood, it has powerfully influenced my subsequent worldview.
8. The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World by Douglas John Hall
A concise and lucid summation of Hall’s three volume systematic theology, in which he argues that theology is neither enslavement to sterile dogmatics nor a triumphalist claim to certainty, but a lifelong engagement in disciplined thinking about what it means to be a Christian living out a life of solidarity with the suffering of the world. Brilliant, hugely relevant, a paradigm changer.
9. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, or Murder at the Road Hill House, by Kate Summerscale.
Perhaps because I read this shortly after becoming a father, I was gutted by the terrible fate of 3 year old Saville Kent, almost certainly murdered by his teenage half-sister Constance and her brother William, jealous of their father’s transferal of affection to the children of his second marriage. A chilling reminder of the extreme vulnerability of children to the fallout from “family politics” – and the price to be paid by honest cops who seek the truth in the face of political pressures and public sentiment.
10.A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
From the exquisite (and terrifying) ballet of the cosmic panorama to the mind-bendingly counter-intuitive operation of the sub-atomic universe, Bill Bryson’s compendious exploration of the revelations of science is both a joy to read and an inexhaustible source of interesting facts, side-splitting anecdotes, and sobering realities. Bryson at his very best.
So there you have it – my 10 best. Perhaps some of these chimed with you; perhaps they missed the mark completely. However that may be, hopefully they might give you pause for thought about which books have stayed with you through the years and why. Maybe you might even want to post about it! 😁
Text Copyright © Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.