Books At The End Of The World
A selection of our authors tell us which book they'd save if the world as we know it was ending.
Posted on June 20, 2017 in Author Q&A
I’d save The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch, the best novel ever written – best, wisest, deepest, most mysterious, and most fun to read. It’d be a good basis for starting a new world, I reckon!
I’m going to assume someone else has saved ‘How to Survive the Trumpocalypse’ and ‘Armageddon for Dummies’. In which case I will save Catch 22 by Joseph Heller – a novel that depicts the insanity of war and laughs as it rages. I’m not sure it would offer much hope at the end of the world, but it does show how to confront despair. (Going quietly mad is definitely one option.) Given how things stand I think I’ll pack it now, just to be ready.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt simply because everyone I know loves it but I’ve had it for three years now and for some reason not read it, and the end of the world would probably give me the kick up the backside I need to make a start.
Lolita by Nabokov. Monstrous hero, unspeakable crime, sublime writing.
If I could only save one book when the end of the world arrives then it would be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. After all, it has already survived for nearly one and a half centuries as a record of the complexity and inter-relatedness of small-town life. I have to admit that I slogged through it originally as a student, impatient with the characters’ illusions and failings, but each time I re-read the novel I appreciate its insight more and can only smile wryly at my youthful inexperience. Middlemarch is about making mistakes in the full glare of both local and family politics and gossip. It’s also about love, passion and marriage, aspiration and failure, sympathy and intelligence, and the difficulties and consolations of living life with other people. If the tribulations and emotions of characters such as Dorothea, Casaubon, Lydgate, Rosamund, Mary, Fred and Bulstrode endure, then it won’t quite be the end of the world yet. Something human, something of us, will live on.
If I could save one book it would be The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It’s set in a prison specially designed for scientists, imprisoned for their political beliefs, who are forced to work on inventions to aid the USSR under Josef Stalin. This sounds grim, but Solzhenitsyn writes with such humour and empathy, both from the point of view of both inmates and staff. The book also has the best final line of any book I’ve read – devastating for its poignancy and irony.
S D Sykes
The book I would save is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It’s a book that I regularly re-read, and each time I find something different and new to admire in Waters’ exceptional writing. Firstly, and most importantly for me, I never tire of the story, which is the mark of any truly great book. Secondly I love the tone of the novel – the creepy, gothic feel of the setting – a rambling country house that’s slowly slipping into disrepair and neglect, against the wider backdrop of a society that’s changing in the post-war years as the old way of life dies along with the house. And lastly, I love the malignance at the heart of this novel. It’s ordinary yet extraordinary, supernatural yet believable, and always leaves me pondering on the nature of greed and ruthless desire.
My book would be Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake because it’s the perfect novel – complex characters, a cracking plot and evocative writing. Set in a possible future, it shows you everything you need to know about humanity at its best, and worst.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. Published in 1987, its exploration of family, trauma, repressed memories and ultimately, the resilience of the human psyche to fight oppression – regardless of the personal consequences – would be the reason why I would save this book if the world as we know it was ending.
The Big Sleep – the book that changed crime fiction by proving crime doesn’t just have to be a whodunnit. In fact, famously, when it came to the murder of the chauffeur in the book, Chandler himself didn’t even have a clue who did it. For Chandler, finding out who the bad guy was was a flourish for the end of a book, not the whole point of it. A crime book’s denouement was, he once said in a perfectly Chandleresque phrase, ‘the olive in the martini.’ So instead the emphasis was on the other bits. The setting and character. The language and wit; (interesting that Chandler went to the same school as PG Wodehouse, Dulwich College, and within a few years of each other. Something went on there that must have taught them both the magnificent trick of how to be economical and flamboyantly witty at the same time.) And finally the exploration of morality. As one of the cops explains to Philip Marlowe, he is “as honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where its going out of style.” The Big Sleep showed that the real drama in a crime novel isn’t the chase at the end, but the struggles each character deals with in trying to find their way in a dark world.
The sensible answer is books along the lines of The Ultimate Survival Manuel by Rich Johnson or Be Ready When the Sh*t Goes Down by Forrest Griffin (though I’m not sure I’d put my faith in an author too coy to say shit). But when the chips are down and the balloon goes up I’ll lose myself in a book from my childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It is a novel with enough jeopardy to keep the reader entertained while giant mushrooms bloom beyond the window. Living in Glasgow, not far from Faslane, I won’t get beyond the first paragraph before my eyeballs melt.
Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems – because once the world’s ended, you could re-imagine a missing England from his verse.