I’m going to start with Dante. If I were only allowed one book on a desert island (or a space flight), I would go with the Bible. If I got two, the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Divine Comedy would be fighting it out. If I got four, obviously Boethius. If I got five … well, I’ll just list them below. These aren’t in any particular order, just some of my favourite books. I’ve already discussed my love of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, so …
The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. I’ll argue anyone that this is the greatest poem ever written. It’s got love, romance, God, history, philosophy, natural science, music, friendship, fan-fiction, adventure, ghosts, prophetic visions, adventures, moments of extreme beauty, moments of extreme horror, moments of humour — and it’s an optimistic view of the nature of things by a man who was really rather bitter about his life. I learned Italian so I could read it, did a PhD in Medieval Studies so I could study it, and fully intend to spend the rest of my life slowly unpacking its wonders. I currently own three Italian and six English editions. Yeah, I know. Everyone makes fun of me. One day I’ll do a comparison of the English translations.
When I feel like something a little less classic, I turn to Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a romantic time travel comedy of errors. An homage to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Jerome K. Jerome, eccentric Oxford dons, the love of literature, history, philosophy, classics, oh, and don’t forget chaos theory, Lady Godiva, Oscar Wilde, and cats. And a paean to springtime in England. I would quite probably take this to the desert island with me.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first adult novel I remember reading — I think I was seven. I certainly remember reading it on a school trip to Waskisu National Park in Saskatchewan, where we learned about bogs. (I loved the bog walk, too.) The copy I had then was an all-in-one paperback with a cover tie-in to the old movie version (a disappointment when I finally got to it). I used to think it was far too long and wordy but then I went into Medieval Studies and even though I barely flirted with Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies, I learned enough to see what Tolkien was doing and be impressed. I’ll tuck The Hobbit in here as well: I love moments of it, but generally favour the LOTR.
The Odyssey, by Homer. One of the first and still one of the best works of literature. Do I need to argue for this one? I don’t think so. I like it better than the Iliad, but that’s because I’m like adventure-and-fantasy more than politics and war. Though the ending of the Iliad is one of the resoundingly great lines: “such were the burial rights of Hector, breaker of horses.” I started to learn Greek for Homer — one day I’ll re-learn it so I can read more than the two books of the Odyssey I have so far struggled through.
The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold. I keep being told I’ll love the Miles Vorkosigan sci-fi adventure series by Bujold, but so far these three fantasy novels (loosely connected but standalones) are my favourites by her. The Curse of Chalion is a superb book: great characters, a cool story, very good pacing, a fascinating religious system, a superb world, and enough meat that I find myself thinking through my own problems using the language and ideas her characters do. I’ve also stayed up very late finishing it more than once. A book to study for its craft as well as enjoy thoroughly for its story.
Pretty much everything by Dorothy L. Sayers, but of her novels, Strange Poison, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, The Nine Tailors, and Busman’s Honeymoon stand out. (Which is to say, most of them.) I also very much like her nonfiction and plays, particularly (of the latter) The Man Born to be King and (of the former) The Mind of the Maker. This latter is a book on the nature of creativity I come back to again and again. I found it extremely dense and difficult at first, but it has repaid further reading.
Again, pretty much all of C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction, but of his fiction The Silver Chair and The Horse and his Boy stick out for me. Especially The Silver Chair. There is something about that story that speaks very deeply to me — probably the same something that made me write as my first novel a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Till We Have Faces is a superb novel as well, but one I don’t love in quite the same way; same with Perelandra.
G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. A story which, I have heard, was the reason Orwell set his dystopian future in 1984, because that is the year Chesterton’s book is set. It’s not a dystopian future; it’s a future I rather wish would happen, wild and strange and paradoxical and peculiarly Renaissance as it is. A jester becomes the despotic monarch of England, and makes everyone dress in heraldic costume to meet with him, revelling in the contrast of the ordinary modern businessman and the rich raiment. One young man takes it seriously, and reshapes the kingdom.
Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy. I love most of her books, of her later ones especially The Bell at Sealy Head, but the Riddle-Master books (The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) were my first and remain my favourites. Like the ones above, I have multiple copies of these — ones for me, and ones to give away.
I have a lot of favourite books. Gordon Korman’s Son of Interflux, for a silly high-school story written more for middle graders. My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, about a boy who runs away to live in the woods. Oh! Christopher Brookmyre’s The Sacred Art of Stealing (a Surrealist bank robber falls in love with a cop in Glasgow); All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye (a James Bond-type story involving a young grandmother); One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night (terrorists take a high school reunion hostage) … Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs Pollifax books, about another grandmother who becomes a CIA agent in her retirement, much to everyone’s bemusement. — The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley — Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede.
These are all books I have read at least ten times, often more. I could keep going … but this is probably enough.
No, I must mention Stardust, by Neil Gaiman. Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Most of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, particularly Night Watch and Going Postal. Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (especially Life, the Universe, and Everything, and So Long and Thanks for all the Fish). Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle. Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. … Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar … Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven. Donald E. Westlake’s What’s the Worst that Could Happen? … These aren’t even all my bookcases, and I haven’t really even touched on nonfiction …
What are your favourites?