The Guardian ran a five day series of pull-outs last week, which listed, with some comments on each, one thousand novels any reader should read, under five themed sections. I seem to have read a lot of the mandatory crime fiction, but lists like this always leave me feeling under pressure. In some ways, of course, it is comforting to know that lists are so popular (they are the staple of music magazines), since it means that I am not alone in liking them. But at the same time, the sheer threat of mortality implicit in the list is quite intimidating.
Probably spurred on by their list, not that I really need any spurring, I couldn’t resist – especially as I had a book token – a book called One Thousand Recordings You Must Listen To Before You Die, by Tom Moon, which is certainly pulling no punches, and which does an uneasy trawl through a mixture of jazz, classical, popular and unpopular music, in what I would say is a very unhelpful way, but which will doubtless cost me eventually, if I can find something truly unusual (I’ve only skimmed so far). I read another book at Christmas called something like Very Rare Records You Probably Haven’t Heard Of But Which You Should Do, Call Yourself A Record Collector? and that has yielded a couple of gems, like ‘Parallelograms’ by Linda Perhacs. Okay and a few more.
But face it, we can’t read everything, and I can’t actually read to music, any more than I can write to music. So there is a kind of desperate battle with time to explore at least those avenues which have already opened up for me. At the turn of the year, I re-read about ten Nevil Shute novels (last opened when I was in my teens), and was impressed – not least by the fact that he cn hold a story even when his writing goes, technically, to pieces (his narrative point of view is very odd).
My literary equivalent of comfort food consists of the oeuvre of Erle Stanley Gardner (who didn’t get a mention in the crime section in The Guardian). Gardner, who was a good writer, and who also wrote under other pseudonyms like AA Fair, was a lawyer who built a log cabin on his early proceeds, and hired three typists to whom he dictated any novels he had on the go at any one time. His star character is Perry Mason. I was a big fan of Perry Mason, having grown up with the TV series. In it, Mason, the defence lawyer, and played by Raymond Burr, always managed things so that there was a climactic courtroom scene. Usually what happened was that someone we had hardly suspected, and who was sitting amongst the spectators at the trial, stood up and wailed ‘I did it! I did it! I couldn’t help it! I didn’t mean to do it!’ and the credits rolled shortly after this satisfying outburst.
There are well in excess of one hundred Perry Mason novels, and they have a pleasing sameness in their set up. It’s like slipping into an old coat. For a while, having acquired most of the novels at jumble sale after jumble sale, I knew where I was by keeping the read from the unread. But during one house-move, I fatally boxed them all together, and forever afterwards have gone for a comforting browse, only to find that, after 100 pages, I have read the thing before. Disaster.
Anyway, I shall persist with my attempts to reach a thousand of everything. If they come for me early, I will argue the toss. ‘But I haven’t read Cervantes yet!’ (Peter Cook once remarked that he didn’t think Cervantes had read Don Quixote, just written it, and looked at it, and thought ‘I can’t be bothered to read all that.’)
Perhaps this blog is an attempt to say one thousand things before I die, in which case, I have another 885 or so to go. Ermmm….