by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2016
In six months’ time I turn 40. This isn’t a total shock – the previous 39 birthdays have prepared me pretty well for the eventuality – but it is an unignorable milestone.
I don’t have a “before I’m 40” bucket-list. Just as well: a small child, full-time job and newly-renovated house needing decorating (in order of importance) don’t allow for the “must do’s” that online lists prescribe: visit Australia, start a business, play an instrument, go to Glastonbury, write a book, etc.
But I like reading and I want to make the time to do more of it. After my dad died in April, I found I couldn’t engage with novels. I still read plenty – newspapers, magazines, stuff for work – but somehow wrapping my head around new characters and situations was beyond me. I went four months without finishing a book, though I unsuccessfully started a couple. That’s not normal for me. It was only when I went on holiday in August that I felt ready to pick up the habit again.
And now I want to spend the next six months starting to make up for that lost time, plus my more general lacunae. That’s the reason for the list, below: the 40 novels I want to read by the time I’m 40. Chances are I won’t manage that feat – it’s almost two a week, after all – but “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. By the time I’m 41 anyway.
The list is drawn from a few sources:
An online trawl of “books you should have read” – I’m acutely aware I have big gaps in my reading, as brilliantly represented in Tom Gauld’s cartoon, My Library:
But I didn’t want a list chock-full of drearily worthy literary classics that would make me feel miserable and guilty as I approached my 40th. So sorry, but JRR Tolkein, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Thomas Hardy (to name but three) haven’t made the cut. There’s a few, but not many, canonical works.
Booker Prize winners – I briefly thought about trying to read every winner (I’ve read most of the past 15 years’) then I looked at the full list and realised there were some I just couldn’t face (Ben Okri, James Kelman, Richard Flanagan), no matter how brilliant they are. So there’s a smattering, including short-listees, but not to excess.
Best Books of the Decade So Far, according to The Oyster Review – another list I’d thought of consuming before realising I’d run out of steam and, anyway, life’s too short and six months is waaaay too short.
My bookshelves / Kindle – I buy loads of books and read cover-to-cover probably about one-fifth, dip into two-thirds, and ultimately end up ignoring whatever weird fraction that leaves me with. But there are also some, including a handful of my favourite authors (Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Waters), which I’ve set aside because I want to savour them. And approaching your 40th seems like a good time to raid that bank.
What this list isn’t, by the way, is a “40 novels you must read before you turn 40”. By definition, books I’ve already read are not included here.
This list is, rather, an entirely subjective collection of books that I aim to make the time to read before my mid-life crisis strikes and I end up obsessed by young cars and fast women. And, inevitably, there will also be other books I come across in the next six months which end up elbowing some of these aside.
1. Amis, Martin – London Fields
2. Atkinson, Kate – Behind The Scenes At The Museum
3. Bradbury, Malcolm – The History Man
4. Carter, Angela – Nights at the Circus
5. Cercas, Javier – Outlaws
6. Coetzee, J. M. – Disgrace
7. Cole, Teju – Open City
8. Desai, Kiran – The Inheritance of Loss
9. Dunmore, Helen – The Siege
10. Faulks, Sebastian – Birdsong
11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
12. Fitzgerald, Penelope – Offshore
13. Franzen, Jonathan – Freedom
14. Heller, Joseph – Catch-22
15. Hemingway Ernest – For Whom The Bell Tolls
16. Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Buried Giant
17. James, Marlon – A Brief History of Seven Killings
18. Kafka, Franz – The Trial
19. Keneally, Thomas – Schindler’s Ark
20. Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
21. Lively, Penelope – Moon Tiger
22. Marukami, Haruki – Norwegian Wood
23. McEwan, Ian – Nutshell
24. Munro, Alice – Too Much Happiness
25. Murdoch, Iris – The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
26. Obreht, Téa – The Tiger’s Wife
27. Orwell, George – Homage to Catalonia
28. Robinson, Marilynne – Housekeeping
29. Rushdie, Salman – Midnight’s Children
30. Saah Behr, Conseulo – Three Daughters
31. Smith, Ali – How to Be Both
32. Smith, Zadie – NW
33. Tyler, Anne – The Accidental Tourist
34. Vasquez, Juan Gabriel – The Sound of Things Falling
35. Vonnegut, Kurt – Slaughterhouse-Five
36. Waters, Sarah – The Little Stranger
37. Wharton, Edith – The Age of Innocence
38. Winterson, Jeanette – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
39. Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse
40. Yanagihara, Hanya – A Little Life
And then there were the ones that got away… Even though I thought I’d been pretty ruthless when short-listing it turned out I’d been long-listing. So here’s the 19 that, ultimately, got pruned. Although if any of the above fail the “50-page test” (unless you’re enjoying a book by then, what’s the bloody point?) they may get re-instated.
1. Atwood, Margaret – The Blind Assassin
2. Austen, Jane – Persuasion
3. Carey, Peter – Oscar and Lucinda
4. Crace, Jim – Quarantine
5. Cruz Smith, Martin – Gorky Park
6. Eliot, TS – Prufrock and Other Observations
7. Ferris, Joshua – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
8. Fey, Tina – Bossypants
9. Gardam, Jane – The Queen of the Tambourine
10. Greer, Germaine – The Female Eunuch
11. Kundera, Milan – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
12. Lessing, Doris – The Golden Notebook
13. Morrison, Toni – Song Of Solomon
14. Murray, Paul – Skippy Dies
15. Powell, Anthony – A Dance to the Music of Time
16. Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
17. Tóibin, Colm – Brooklyn
18. Trollope, Anthony – Phineas Finn
19. Wilde, Oscar – The Picture Of Dorian Grey