My mother used to read books to me. A lot. Often the same book, at my request. Over and over again. When I was five I knew “Jantje’s eerste boek” (H Kaal, 1933) from cover to cover by heart. From that moment on, from the moment I could read myself, I’ve been a real ardent reader. Definitely after I finished Johan Fabricius’ fabulous book for boys, “De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe” (1924. Bontekoe’s ship-boys), which is set in the 17th century and tells the story of a few boys from the city of Hoorn sailing on an VOC ship to the East Indies. I was eleven or twelve years old and it may have shaped my lifetime appetite for literature and Indonesia ;-). Though a few years later there was a serious lull as far as my literary interest is concerned.At the peak of my puberty the dictatorship of hormones directed my attention almost exclusively to the fairer sex.
Back to subject.
Now it happened the other day that fellow blogger, Fallissa Putri, asked ten persons to mention ten books that matter most to them. And to do so spontaneously.
Till now I didn’t respond to her request. Because… Well, just try yourself and you’ll find that it is tough. Frankly, it’s practically impossible to mention those books out of hand, to do so without taking a time out to think it over first.
As a book-lover you’ve read more than ten books which did stick on your mind. Most likely scores of books are or were important and dear to you. And moreover it’s quite a challenge to make a ranking. And of course there are several ways in which books can matter; style, content, emotion, plot, dialogues, intellectual or moral compass quality, whatever. Also for each of them there may be a separate list of most influential first ten books. Last but not least you can’t choose without asking yourself “why?” first.
Yet, after taking some time, I came to a conclusion. Several conclusions actually.
It seems it’s not the plot which is crucial to me. Nor the psychological development of the main characters. And, though it’s very important while reading, not even the style of writing. Rather I tend to get hooked by books’ emotional atmosphere first and foremost. Books which go to my guts before influencing my brains I like best. So I select by using that criterion.
Next I noticed themes matter. Much. Four of them are of utmost interest to me apparently.
As someone who grew up and was educated during ( ’39 – ’45) and in the aftermath ( ’45 – ’55) of WO II, it is not that surprising that that global catastrophe is the first theme. This specific war has been a literary crystallisation point for the largest part of my life ( * – scroll down for my three favourites in this category).
Probably adolescent and student years ( 18 – 25 ) are the most determining stage in one’s life. In my life and times those were the years of high hopes and idealism. Leftist ideals mostly to me. No wonder the second main theme of my reading life is the demise of the great ideals of socialism (social democracy) ( ** - scroll down for my three favourites)
The next, third theme I seem to be obsessed by, is the melancholy of vulnerable people, their human condition ( like Malraux coined it). The attempts of such ordinary people, common people, decent people, to compromise with or surrender to the overwhelming challenges of life. It’s a popular genre, books galore.(*** - scroll down for my two favourites).
My fourth and last theme is also almost obvious: the male perspective. I can’t deny I’m a man after all. Evidently many authors (m/f) have a feminine perspective ( Isabel Allende) and many are as an author of prose or poetry literary androgynous ( Paulo Coelho). But I seem to love those who take a masculine approach to their subjects (**** – scroll down for my two favourites).
So ultimately I found ten novels that constitute the answer Fallissa’s question:
1. Louis Paul Boon : Kapellekensbaan** ( Chapel Road)
2 Willem Frederik Hermans : De donkere kamer van Damocles* (The Darkroom of Damocles)
3. Louis Ferdinand Céline : Voyage au bout de la nuit** (Journey to the end of the night)
4. Primo Levi : Se non ora, quando?* (If not now when?)
5. Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel* (The tin drum)
6. Bohumil Hrabal: Vita Nuova*** (Vita Nova)
7. Brigitte Reimann: Ich bedaure nichts ** (I regret nothing)
8. James Salter: A sport and a Pastime ****
9. Malcolm Lowry : Under the volcano ***
10. Ernest Hemingway: A farewell to arms****