- 04 Sep 18
A selection of leading Irish authors pick the best books for students to read, so that you'll know your Dostoyevsky from your Tolstoy during those 3am dorm-room discussions.
One Shakespeare play, such as Hamlet
I’m resisting the temptation to include a Collected Works as one of three book recommendations, partly because I don’t want to be that person, but also because the biggest barrier to accessing Shakespeare is the intimidation factor. I came to love Shakespeare by reading one play over and over again, because the writing is a magical substance that endlessly replenishes. Shakespeare is what prevents you from emptying the trash on your Mac because ‘an item is in use’. Its resonance is unwipeoutable, unshutdownable, unforcequittable, un-time-stamped. I tend not to re-read things. I’m far too slow a reader and there are so many books! But Shakespeare is the exception. (And all good poetry books. But then, Shakespeare writes only poetry.) Pick one play whose synopsis is most appealing to you. (For me, the right play was Hamlet.) Get a paper copy of that play as a single volume. Let it take hold.
Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter
This is a Collected Stories, but not a Collected Works! Some of these stories will not be for everyone, but the beauty of this volume is its scope and variety. It ranges from surreal to mythical, realist to absurdist, gothic to biblical, and from reimaginings to the heretofore unimaginable. It will blow any student’s mind what one writer can accomplish – how much knowledge, inspiration, wisdom, aesthetic integrity, interest and ambition one book can embody. It also doubles up as a philosophical text, a study of aesthetics, folklore and mythology… And if this sounds a bit heavy, it is. It’s as dense a collection as they come. So don’t try and read it all in a row. The joy of the short story form is that each can stand alone.
The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I received a box of banned books for my 17th birthday, and The Master And Margarita was among them. My whole first year of university was imbued by the head-spinning atmosphere of this novel (and maybe also a few White Russians). It took Bulgakov ten years to write it, and only a minute to burn it… in a grim moment of certainty that such a manuscript would never see the light of day in Soviet Russia. Astonishingly, Bulgakov then rewrote the novel from memory, completing it just before his death in 1940. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the full, uncensored text was published. A spectacular, singular, satirical, metaphysical, unforgettable novel that reimagines tales of Faust and Pontius Pilate, and features the devil, a beautiful naked witch, and a vodka-drinking, chess-playing cat.
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Some will say that youth is a season of fun and adventure – and it ought to be! – but for many of us it is also a time of intense angst. The college years can be confusing and painful, heavy with dark thoughts and ominous questions. In 19th century Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky entertained the darkest thoughts and asked the deepest questions on behalf of all mankind. It is not only young readers who will be fascinated by the tormented, arrogant, murderous student Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment, but they will feel closest to his agonies of doubt and alienation. A gripping crime thriller with great philosophical depth.
The Fall by Albert Camus
By now it’s clear that I’m projecting my own gloomy college years onto students everywhere, because the second book I want to recommend is Albert Camus’ short novel The Fall. The most popular Camus texts among students – to the point of cliché – are his essay on the absurdity of existence, The Myth of Sisyphus, and the novel which gave it dramatic expression, The Outsider. In The Fall, however, Camus offers a damning portrayal of human hypocrisy and the hollowness of virtue that can entrance those still on the threshold of adult society.
You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier
Let’s leave the angst of the 19th and 20thcenturies behind and consider a book from our own disorientating age. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget pleads not that we should renounce the internet, but that we should demand more of it, insist that it raise itself to our level rather than shrink ourselves to fit it. Lanier is a tech-insider, currently employed as an ideas man at Microsoft, and his criticisms of social media platforms are always well-informed and motivated by a progressivist spirit. He eloquently urges us to rethink our relationship with the internet, and his suggestions may offer solace to those who are coming of age in these extraordinary and frightening times.
Down & Out In Paris & London by George Orwell
Robbed of his money by a hooker in Paris, and forced to work as a “plongeur” (dishwasher) in a restaurant, Orwell documents his descent into poverty and hanging out with the working and underclasses in this brilliant could-be-memoir. It’s scary how little things have changed since the ’30s: crap working conditions, housing crisis... I lived in London in the ’80s/’90s, had in excess of 20 addresses in seven years, and was never able to find stability financially, so I completely related to this book. Writers are used to having little money, students even more so, and this book just brings it all back home: how easy it is to fall beneath the cracks, to become invisible. Despite the future echo (from the past) contained in this book, I continued on and made a lot of the same mistakes. After being rejected for publication by Jonathan Cape in 1931 and Faber & Faber a year later, Victor Gollancz was prepared to publish the work, subject to the removal of bad language and some identifiable names, and offered an advance of £40. That’s a decent advance for the time. The Times Literary Supplement dubbed it ‘a vivid picture of an apparently mad world’.
Ariel by Sylvia Plath
I was obsessed by Sylvia Plath all through my twenties – her grasp on language and ability to cut through the BS made her far superior as a poet than the yoke she married, in my very humble opinion. The Bell Jar has one of my favourite openings ever (‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York’), but I really love Ariel, published two years after her suicide in 1965. Brutal, honest, powerful, just brilliant. I began to understand the potential of metaphor in eliciting real emotion (compared to when we learnt that blokey rebel poetry in school). Even something as abstract as the ‘moon’ could now be made relevant to my life. I’d read her poem and stare at nothing for an hour: “The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right. White as a knuckle and terribly upset.” I loved her so much I tried to write poetry for a while, and failed miserably. But then that misery made me feel happy, so I knew I had it in me to be a writer.
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs
I don’t much care for the Beats, they were mostly a bunch of sexist drunks, but Burroughs is the one I can stand to re-read. Despite his misogyny, the work is fresh and still original. ‘Loosely connected vignettes’ – Burroughs hoped that the chapters could be read in any order, but so brainwashed are we, I still read them chronologically the first time, which I regretted. It’s very kaleidoscopic and weird, will probably give you headaches, and you’ll tire of all the swearing and madness, but the good thing is it’ll probably turn you off the idea of being a serious stoner. To amuse yourself before trying to read it without flinging it at the wall, look up Goodreads for the slick bitching comments, like: ‘this is a cry from the very depths of hell, and the last time I checked the most successful account of it was by a man named Dante Alighieri’. Fair to say it’s a Marmite experience.
The Life Of The Cosmos by Lee Smolin
Okay, this book is hard chewing. There’s a lot of physics in it. It has a terrible cover, the print is too small, and there is no ebook available. You have to read hundreds of pages on the history of physics and cosmology before Smolin’s own mind-blowing ideas get explored. Indeed, in many respects the book is a failure: in it, back in 1997, Smolin tried to explain his revolutionary theories to the general public, but he couldn’t find a way to dumb down his ideas enough for the mass market. Nonetheless, it contains the best (and most exciting) new theory physics had had in 50 years, and it will totally change the way you look at the universe.
All About Love by Bell Hooks
The greatest failure of western civilisation is its inability to take love seriously. From the Catholic Church to the sexual revolution, from the Magdalene Laundries to YouPorn and Tinder, we’ve consistently missed the entire point of human relationships; and as a result we’ve built an unhappy, anxious, stressed society that fails to prioritise, encourage, and protect love. Universities are part of that failure: it’s quite possible to major in Gender Studies, and never once deal seriously with the subject of love. This magnificent book, by a brilliant and original thinker, puts love back at the heart of life, interrogates it, thinks about it; takes it seriously. Read it.
The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil
This book has influenced our modern technological world more, perhaps, than any other. It explores the implications of the fact that technological change is accelerating, and that the rate of that acceleration is itself accelerating. That sounds dry: in fact, the book is a messianic, visionary work which predicts that human consciousness will soon meld with technology, to create a hybrid consciousness that will convert the entire universe, atom by atom, planet by planet, star by star, into thinking matter: into consciousness. Every major figure in Silicon Valley has read this book, and been influenced by it. Knock off Netflix, and give it a lash.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Just as some books – such as The Catcher In The Rye, or On The Road – should only be read when one is young and angry, some novels work best if read while one is sharing something of the experiences of their characters. Tartt based Hampden College, the setting for her first novel, on Bennington in Vermont, where she studied in the 1980s, which makes me very glad I never went there. The six classics students at the heart of the novel are pretty insufferable, even before they turn murderous following a disastrous Bacchanal. A fellow Trinity student gave this book to me as a thank you for something or other. If there was a coded message to the gift, I’m glad I missed it.
Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe
Sharpe was an English satirist of a fairly brutal stripe, who favoured caricature over character, but Porterhouse Blue, although published in 1974, might still spark the odd laugh of recognition from anyone attending one of our older universities. When I was at Trinity, I tried to stay on the right side of the college porters, most of whom had fairly short fuses. In the figure of Skullion, the head porter, Sharpe gives us the original of the species: a man so blindly loyal to his college that he would rather see it burn to the ground than be disgraced.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
I imagine that I may not be the only one to select this, but if some college novels work best if read at college, so too are some college novels best written in the white heat of recent college memory. Rooney studied at Trinity, and wrote Conversations… while studying for her Master’s in American literature. She captures brilliantly the kinds of conversations, and interactions, between students that I can now only vaguely recall from my own student days – although, in my defence, Rooney was aided by the fact that she was probably still having those conversations while writing the book.