Time to read a good long book

The days are long, the sun is high. There is plenty you could be doing, but instead why not sit back and read a decent book

All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.

All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.


You could paint the house, invest in quality exterior paint, feel very worthy and play Maurice Jarre’s inspiring soundtrack from Witness – you know the bit where they are raising the barn? – at full volume, on outdoor speakers.

Let the music travel for miles. Your neighbours may cheer you on, offer to help or more likely, just stare in stunned silence . . . but then the ladder looks a bit shaky and you’ve no head for heights. Even so, you could perhaps mow the lawn, battle the weeds – but they will all grow back with a vengeance.

It makes more sense to just sit in the garden and allow nature to take over while you capitalise on the natural light, now that the days are becoming shorter – and read a book. A long one. Indulge your mind, think of your house as a shelter, a hut, not an extension of yourself. Or perhaps you are about to face a marathon car journey (no, don’t buy an audiobook, it’s soooooo lazy; be a traditionalist, take a book, hold it closely, concentrate as your children or parents snipe and bicker. All those hours in a confined space with your family: a terrifying prospect. Bring a book, a very, very long one; acquire those tablets people use for seasickness. They work, those pills – I know, I’m a qualified sailor. You are about to fly to Australia? New Zealand? Timbuktu? You may need two books, very long ones. Better make that three. Best of all, each one of these books is ideal for reading aloud. Think of it: the return of the shared reading experience. Initiate a new era in civilised living, the return of human interaction. You have nothing to lose except your dependence on electronic devices.

All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.

Independence Day

by Richard Ford

Well, it is the Fourth of July. Frank Bascombe continues his odyssey through life, post-divorce. He attempts to spend some quality time with his surviving son, a teenager with a cavalier approach to personal hygiene; it is a courageous undertaking. Bascombe has a gift for putting the frustrations we all feel into prose so funny it hurts.

East of Eden

by John Steinbeck

A big, unrelenting family saga full of symbolism and featuring one of the nastiest female characters in literature. It is a claustrophobic, heavily plotted, rollercoaster narrative that refuses to let go and is replete with Biblical symbolism. Steinbeck is a powerful, highly moral writer very much from another time; he certainly makes you think about the ways in which people conduct themselves.

Vanity Fair

by William Thackeray

Celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. Becky Sharpe, one of the most astute opportunists of all time, makes her way and fortune through some very murky episodes in post-regency England. Meanwhile, Waterloo helps place it all in perspective.

The Vienna Melody

by Ernst Lothar

Christopher Alt makes the finest pianos in Vienna. He is very rich. His family thrives. Just one problem: his will insists that they all live in the same house.


by Leon Uris

Cast aside your political misgivings as I confirm that, yes, this “thumping good” read, written in cast-iron clunky prose, is about the founding of the modern state of Israel. On publication in 1958 (the year after Doctor Zhivago, the best “worst” Russian novel, which was initially published in Italy – now there’s a thought), Exodus was the blockbuster that matched in sales those achieved by Gone With the Wind. If you haven’t read it, it does cast an emotive, bombastic spell.

Skippy Dies

by Paul Murray

What a way to go? During a fraught doughnut-eating contest. Murray’s tragi-comedy features Skippy, a doomed romantic nick-named after a beguiling celebrity kangaroo, and Ruprecht, one of the most astute representations of a nerd. The things that can happen in a boy’s school in which the sporty boys upstage the clever, quiet swotty ones. I love this book more than ever, having just battled to read Murray’s new one, Skippy Lives – not so sure about the Murray’s banking crisis caper.

The Lord of the Rings

by JRR Tolkien

The most stratifying of all adventures, this is heroism as it should be, featuring a bewildered hero who simply wants to get the job done. Having survived Pete Jackson’s honourable cinematic version (let’s not mention the mess inflicted on The Hobbit) this is the time to revisit the three books (Tolkien insisted it was not a trilogy) and yet again experience its rare quality of always reading as exciting as it did the first time. Now that is the art of storytelling.

The Once and Future King

by TH White

Arthur grows from boy to man in this deceptively learned adventure about all aspects of male society and life itself. It is a wonderful work: slow-moving, intense, singular, dream-like and a yet very practical evocation of the Arthurian world. It’s a book of wisdom and White, author of The Go shawk (a candid account of the difficulties of taming a wild bird of prey), was a genius.

The Alexandra Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

Born in India, Durrell, an Irishman, spent much of his life as a British government official in the Middle East. This highly popular tetralogy, comprised of Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) is lush fare indeed. The characters are vapid and depressed, suitably wanton and express themselves with a mock profundity. “We live our lives based on selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in time and space – not by our personalities.” Should you be on the market for languor in a sultry location, seek no further.

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

This is one of the great multi-mystery stories, and anyone who ever had a grudge against the legal profession will feel their resentments are somewhat appeased. Read it for the first time, or perhaps the 10th, and yet again concede that no one does it better than the frenetic Victorian.

Parade’s End

by Ford Maddox Ford

Even if you don’t really care all that much about an Edwardian Tory named Christopher Tietjens and his valiant efforts at becoming a caricature modern man – enduring war, a dreadful wife and various disasters of the all-to human variety – these four books offer a fascinating study of the transformation of British society between 1910 and 1925. Of such is great holiday reads made, and now more than ever just over a century later.

Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life

by George Eliot

What? You’ve never read Middlemarch! How is this so?? Dorothea is an idealistic young woman living under the well-intentioned care of her dear old uncle. She is doomed for disaster and on cue marries the pedantic Mr Casaubon, who is not only boring but years too old for her. During her honeymoon in Rome, Casaubon announced his intention to write a great work, a “key to all mythologies”, and Dorothea suddenly fears her life may be over. Enter his lively young cousin, Will Ladislaw. Old Casaubon does die but nastily adds an 11th-hour codicil: should Dorothea dare marry Will, she will lose her fortune. Now read on: this could possibly be the great English novel.

The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

Even if it is about three times longer than the yarn actually merits, it is just that, a fun yarn. You may even feel a twinge of sympathy for the lonely narrator.


by Thomas Mann

This is the strongly autobiographical family saga, about the decline of a dynasty, that made Mann famous. Mann was a deeply ambiguous individual. He won the Nobel Prize in 1929, abandoned Nazi Germany and became a US citizen. Preoccupied with the plight of the artist, he somehow could balance ego with vulnerability, as in his masterwork, Death in Venice (1912).

Still, mention of Buddenbrooks is an ideal cue for alerting readers to The Doll, by the Polish master Boleslaw Prus, in which the hero Wokulski a successful businessman falls obsessively in love with the wrong girl, the calculating Izabela.

This is a novel which you will insist upon reading long extracts out aloud to whomever happens to be near you – your family, friends, the stranger trying to sleep in the seat next to you on the flight. It is a communal experience, lively, astute and very funny.

Now is also the time to discover: Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy: The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City Friend and Heroes.

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