A reader has asked me to specify my favourite books of the year. I keep a note in my diary of the books I read, and this year I read 42 books in their entirety, plus a few more I didn’t finish.
Here are my top five favourites:
1. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Inexplicably, I had never read anything by this author. I got interested after meeting his biographer, Kieron Pim, at the Wigtown Book Festival where we were each speaking about our books. Over supper in the Authors’ Retreat I heard about Joseph Roth and the fact that Kieron’s is, surprisingly, the first full-length English-language biography of him. I bought a copy of The Radetzy March (widely agreed to be Roth’s masterpiece) and was soon immersed in the last days of the Habsburg Empire. I have since read other books by Joseph Roth, but The Radetzky March is by far my favourite, written with terrific momentum, vividness and magnetic storytelling. Why is it not better known?
2. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (this was a re-reading). It opens with a swing and carries the reader along a twisting path in the company of some of Dickens’ most memorable characters. I read it in a lovely Penguin Classics hardback edition with smooth white pages and crisp black print which added a sensory element to my enjoyment.
3. Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. This ingenious tribute to Dickens’s David Copperfield is set in contemporary America during the opiod crisis. Dickens’ tale is cleverly updated with all the main characters struggling with current societal problems. Lots of people recommended this book to me and I could see why they all liked it so much.
4. The Guru, the Bagman and the Sceptic by Seamus O’Mahony. This is an account of Sigmund Freud (the guru), his disciple Ernest Jones (the bagman) and surgeon Wilfred Trotter (the sceptic), a trio of friends who founded or witnessed the birth of psychoanalysis. I was startled to discover how little scientific evidence there is for psychoanalysis, and how much trust was placed in Freud by countless patients who paid richly for the privilege of lying on a couch and telling him their deepest fears, dreams and desires. Over the years I’ve had many friends who benefited from psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. I want to believe that it works, but have realised that the patient contributes as much to the experience as the doctor does.
5. Dear Me by Peter Ustinov. I picked this memoir off a bookshelf in a cottage in Cornwall where I was staying for a week during the International Musicians’ Seminar in September. I had some free time in the afternoons and enjoyed lying on my bed, reading about Ustinov’s wonderfully international group of talented, amusing and eccentric friends while listening to a Haydn string quartet being rehearsed in the room below me. Ustinov’s descriptions of moving easily between languages, outlooks and countries made his life seem admirable to me.
Wishing everyone a good start to 2024!