40 novels I aim to read by the time I’m 40

by Stephen Tall on September 12, 2016

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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

My must-reads this week September 9, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 9, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Why I think Theresa May is pretty much the ideal prime minister for our times

by Stephen Tall on September 6, 2016

Theresa May is pretty much the ideal prime minister for the times we live in. Not because she gives every appearance of being reassuringly tough, shrewd, hard-working and very clearly competent but because she’s no ideologue. And that’s just as well because re-ravelling what Brexit unravels will not just define her period in office, but fully occupy it. Years and years of leading a government ram-packed with pain-staking multilateral trade negotiations would exhaust a visionary politician. But this enforced boondoggle could be the making of St Theresa.

As Donald Trump used to say, just look at the polling numbers. Survation finds she has a +33% net favourability rating. No surprise that 80%+ of 2015 Conservative voters like the cut of her gib. More of a surprise, perhaps, that 69% of 2015 Lib Dem voters do. Even 2015 Labour voters are more likely to like her than not. Mrs May is that rarest of creatures: a Remain politician trusted by Leavers.

Of course this is the honeymoon. Even ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ Brown managed a few months of popularity before he dithered it away over the 2007 election-that-never-was. For the moment her deliberate eschewal of the Blair / Brown / Cameron hyperactive PR-schtick is the perfect PR for a nation fatigued by daily politics. The risk is yet to come, as the relentless grind of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ becomes more tediously apparent (and why there remains some plausible doubt that Brexit will ever actually become Brexit).

But the political field is clear. Labour is doing what Labour now does… internally wrangling how to reconcile its irreconcilable internal foes: deluded left-wing activists battling pragmatic social democrat MPs. The less said about Owen Smith’s lamentable leadership bid – the mis-judged ‘banter’, the hasty bandwagon policies – the better. It existed solely to lure the soft-left Corbynistas away from the cult and will deservedly be extinguished for precisely that reason. Perhaps next time the sensible, moderate wing of Labour (that of it which remains) will have the courage to stand up and be counted and explain how it can become electable again. And if they can begin to explain it to themselves, maybe they can then explain it to the voters.

Then there’s the Lib Dems. Here I find myself conflicted. I voted for Tim Farron as leader, still like him, and sympathise for the difficulties that come with the job – either actively scorned or passively ignored by opponents and media alike – so much tougher than he could ever have imagined when he dreamt of doing it pre-May 2015. He has made unnecessary mis-steps, notably ignoring education when first identifying his priorities before, now, rightly deciding to place it front-and-centre.

But the biggest risk is that the Lib Dems slouch into comfort zone politics. Ironically the influx of 17,000 new members attracted by Tim Farron’s impassioned defence of the EU makes it tougher: the bulk of the party membership expects doughty defence of all things Europe from its leader. The public – including the one-third 2015 Lib Dem voters who plumped for Leave – expects the Brexit mandate to be respected.

Yet worryingly, Tim is still making speeches with duff, headline-grabbing lines like “We’ve been made a laughing stock abroad”, implying Leave voters have betrayed their country. (Though even that was preferable to Paddy Ashdown’s stupidly offensive accusation that hardline Tory Brexiteers are “brownshirts”.) Thankfully, more specific policies are promised imminently, designed to hold the Government to account and ensure a ‘soft Brexit’. Or, as Tim has put it in a line which would focus group brilliantly at a Lib Dem conference and bomb anywhere containing normal people, the party is aiming for “as much Europe as humanly possible”.

Unwisely, Tim has committed the Lib Dems to campaigning for EU membership at the next election: which was viable in the event of a snap poll (which is now unlikely), but will be a hostage to fortune if we end up fighting the 2020 election on a pledge to lead the UK back into the EU once we’re (on our way) out. Except, that is, for those Lib Dem masochists – they do exist – who want to campaign on a platform of single currency membership, free movement of people, and cash transfers to poorer parts of the EU.

Bluntly, I’m a bit depressed. I’m a liberal Eurosceptic, who voted Remain as much to protest what Leave represented as to stay in the EU as it is. As such I’m pinning my hopes on Theresa May, that she can wrangle some kind of passable deal out of the rubbish hand she’s been dealt. Which doesn’t feel like the most optimistic future for which to hope.

My must-reads this week September 2, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 2, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week August 26, 2016

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week July 29, 2016

by Stephen Tall on July 29, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week July 15, 2016

by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Labour moderates, it’s now or never. Forget Angela Eagle and fight for yourselves

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2016

In happier, boringer days I once wrote: ‘election results are usually a lot more dull than the speculation which precedes them’. With that kind of prophetic insight, it’s little wonder I ended up running naked down Whitehall.

The Lib Dem collapse, the SNP surge, Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph, Brexit: I predicted none of it because I assumed business as usual would, well, continue as usual.

So I hesitate even to try and imagine what might now happen to Labour, with Corbyn confirmed in his incumbent place on the leadership ballot. It seems likely he will win again. If he does that poses big questions for the 172+ Labour MPs who no-conned him last week.

Can they seriously continue to sit on the benches behind him? If they do, how can they possibly fight an election urging the public to vote for Corbyn as PM? If they don’t, do they go for the nuclear option (an apt choice for Labour moderates fighting the hard-left) and set up a new centre-left party, Progressive Labour, and elect someone plausible as Leader of the Opposition?

I know what would have happened in the old, happy, boring realm of politics: nothing much. New parties go up like rockets and fall like sticks, sage commentators agree. I’ve already seen folk dismiss the chance of a new Labour party as a dead-cert failure “like the SDP was” — seemingly forgetting that the SDP won in the end, it’s just that it was called New Labour.

The political space clearly exists currently, though the signs are that Theresa May has every intention of closing it down. Which means sensible Labour needs to act now if it’s to stand a chance.

But the first step is not to break away. It is simpler than that. Moderate Labour MPs need to choose a leader who can inspire, help him/her put together a post-Brexit platform rooted in progressive values, and stand against Corbyn to fight for it.

They’ll probably still lose, just as the Gang of Four felt they had in 1981. But at least they’ll go down with their heads held high — and, more importantly, demonstrate they’re willing to stand up for their beliefs. They’ll feel a whole lot better doing that than spending the next three months devising the question to which Angela Eagle is the answer.

Theresa May has the endorsement of the Tories – and progressives should be worried

by Stephen Tall on July 12, 2016

Politics isn’t just fluid, it’s runny.

A couple of weeks ago, I almost took the time and trouble to write a ‘Boris v Theresa’ piece – just as well I didn’t, as it also would’ve ended up spiked by Michael Gove’s knife. I think what I thought then, though to be honest it’s hard to keep track, is that, for completeness’ sake, it should be Boris on the “you break it, you own it” principle; but, for the nation’s sake, it had to be Theresa, the only plausible candidate you’d actually trust not to entirely flunk negotiations and accidentally give away Wales when facing Angela Merkel.

Well, now we do indeed have our very own Mutti. The Brexiteers, who’ve perfected the quitters’ aptitude for utterly shameless irresponsibility, have fled the scene of their crime. The grown-ups are back in charge.

I guess the dream Lib Dem scenario was the triumph of Angela Leadsom, whose epic unsuitability for major league politics, let alone Number 10, was exposed within days of her rise without trace. The spectre of her versus Jeremy Corbyn (whose claims to infamy can now also include a level of sub-Leadsom self-awareness that failing to have the confidence of three-quarters of your work colleagues is actually a bit of a problem) might well have driven moderate voters into my party’s grateful embrace.

But, to be honest, my heart was never in it. Some things are bigger than tribes, and the imminent self-immolation of our economy is sufficient, for the first time, to make me grateful the Tories have re-discovered their ruthless determination to grip power tight by choosing the one leader they have capable of resolving this huge Brexit mess of their own making.

Gone, then, is the brief chimera of a new ‘Free Liberals’ centre party embracing the sensibly pragmatic parts of the Tories and Labour alongside the Lib Dems. Theresa May may be many things — authoritarian, anti-immigrant, centralising — but she is not an extremist. Indeed, she has already made a plausible land-grab for moderate Labour votes by swearing fealty to Milibandism’s vague notions of industrial democracy. If she does backtrack on her promise not to go to the country in the autumn to establish her own mandate, it’s quite likely the Tories coasting on a May honeymoon would win a landslide majority against a terminally split Labour party.

So what as a Lib Dem do I want to see, other than the schadenfreude of public opinion accepting that what the Lib Dems did in Coalition, 2010-15, was a near-remarkable salvage job which thwarted Tory-led disaster until the voters ungratefully tossed it away?

Well, what I’d like to see is the triumph of the liberal mainstream – as I described it last summer:

… to put it another way, that the party should remain committed to ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society’. Partly because it is a belief which genuinely springs from the party’s philosophy. And partly because it is precisely our liberal, rational, pragmatic, flexible, grown-up, balanced, centrist (yes, the C-word!) disposition which gives us the voters’ permission to get a hearing on those outlier enthusiasms which drive many of us activists — wealth and land taxes, civil liberties, drugs legalisation, the EU, environmental sustainability, localism, immigration, prisoner rehabilitation, constitutional reform — but about which the voters tend to be at best lukewarm.

The temptation for the party is, however, pulling it in the opposite direction: to assert dogmatic positions which at least offer the possibility of building a core base of support (understandable enough if you’re polling 8 per cent on a good day). Thus we lay claim to be ‘the voice of the 48%’ — as if, in any way, those 16 million voters are a unified bloc rather than a loose collection of groupings spanning a range of enthusiasm which were persuaded to vote Remain.

It’s a canny enough electoral tactic — witness the 15,000 new party members who’ve rallied to the cause — though I’m a lot less convinced by a strategy which pledges a British return to the EU at the next general election. Not least because, assuming Article 50 has been triggered and seen through by then, our only route back into the EU is likely to be on terms no party would wish to put to the electorate: joining the Euro, return to full freedom of movement, budget contributions that might, actually, this time be at the NHS’s expense.

That, I can only guess, has been reckoned to be a problem for another day. Until then, if you want a party of EU-fetishists, we’re your guys. It’s a USP, for sure, just not one that floats my boat.

Perhaps whatever new SDP Mk II which rises from the ashes of Corbyn’s scorched earth Labour leadership might offer a rallying point, as well as some tempering restraint; just as its original incarnation did to some of the more, erm, idealistic Liberal party policies in the 1980s. But, overall, that decade isn’t one many progressives want to see on a political tape-loop.

The Brexit rupture: sorry if I take it personally. But it is.

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2016

Honestly, I’ve not known what to write this past fortnight: so much things to say.

But, then, so’s everyone else. I was at a big dinner last night in the Remain stronghold of Oxford (numerous ‘in’ posters, and even a pristine EU flag, still defiantly displayed), saying farewell to my old boss, Tim Gardam, principal of St Anne’s. Lots of people I knew, but hadn’t seen in some time, which is usually the cue for amiably redundant small-talk.

Yet, without exception, the conversation turned immediately to Brexit and their wretched dismay. Of course if Leave had won, plenty of their voters would also have been despondent; but they at least would have taken solace in gallant defeat.

For those of us who voted Remain — the majority of working Britain — there is instead just grim dejection. The 23rd June represented a rupture: not just from an institution which, however imperfect, has helped bind together the UK with our neighbours; but also from our fellow citizens.

Suddenly those of us who would regard ourselves as non-judgemental cannot help ourselves: we know that Leavers walk among us – they must do, they won – and we start instantly sizing up total strangers, wondering if they can be ‘one of them’ based on nothing more than crude stereotyping.

It’s not pretty, I know. But I can’t apologise, I’m afraid: if you voted Leave you’re diminished in my eyes.

Because for me it’s personal. My partner is Spanish. She first came to England on an Erasmus scholarship. She later returned to work as a teaching assistant in Oxford, where we met. In a parallel Brexit universe we would never have got together. In the Brexit universe to come, we will have to queue separately in the airport, she with our son who (thankfully) also has a Spanish passport. She wasn’t surprised by the result – she’s endured enough xenophobic backchat over the years, experienced a side of our nation I haven’t.

I know, of course I know, that plenty of Leave voters (and certainly not those of you I know personally) did not do so out of spite. There were valid reasons for voting to leave the EU — its remoteness, indirect accountability, over-reach — I’ve even said (and I meant it) that I could imagine doing so myself.

But, then, I also explained why I knew in the end I couldn’t: because of whose team it would place me on: Farage, Galloway, Trump. For every person motivated solely by the respectable principle of sovereignty, who simply wants to ensure the UK parliament makes our laws, there was at least another one who just wants to see those bloody foreigners sent packing. And in the end your votes counted equally for the same side.

Unfair? The decent Leavers, and I know there are lots of you, will say yes. But this is how it feels for we Remainers who were defeated. We didn’t just lose an intellectual argument; we lost a slice of who we are.

When he’s older I’ll have to explain to my son why we voted to leave the EU. Perhaps by then everything will be sorted. Once the high emotions of the last couple of weeks have subsided, Theresa May will patch together an agreement with Angela Merkel, and there will be some limited restrictions of free movement in return for the UK retaining access to the single market. It’ll all be sensible enough and we’ll muddle along okay.

But I know, you know and he’ll know that’s not what motivated 17 million to vote Leave on the highest turnout in a generation. For a lot of those people — I don’t know how many, none of us does — it was simply that they didn’t want more immigrants, people like his mother, in this country.

I’m not sure how he’ll take that. I’m still shocked by it. The depressing thing is: I don’t think he will be.

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