Article published on December 18, 2017.
I own several hundred books, so choosing ten that could be highlighted is a difficult task to be fair, but choosing those ‘certain’ ten that I have acquired over time meant perusing the shelves quite seriously. Perusing is a wonderful pastime for me, it takes an age as yet another book has to be investigated first and as the day progresses, and I don’t, time passes. These are ten books that are perhaps a mite more special than average, to my way of thinking. Most are not new at all, but that is what makes books so marvellous. An old junior school teacher said to the class one day “Everything is in a book somewhere, the fun part is finding it.” I follow that line of thinking voraciously.
1. Chambers Biographical Dictionary – This was a glorious find in Lincoln, when my wife and I spent a couple of days there back in the 1990s. This particular example was printed in 1993, but it has been around for years. Edited by the late Magnus Magnusson, it has over 1600 pages crammed with information pertaining to the great and mighty. I adore biographies anyway and this second-hand example is a dip in read anytime for me. There is always something to learn afresh, whatever the page turned.
2. Mayhew’s London edited by Peter Quennel – I have a couple of slightly different versions of this book, but they tell more or less the same facts. Another book is entitled Mayhew’s Characters; someone else edits this one though. The original book, Mayhew’s London, was published back in 1851. The author contributed to Punch, and also carried out great works for the poor. He collated the myriad occupations that abounded back in those far-flung days, writing them down for posterity, which is what makes these books invaluable. We shall not forget now, the Street Folk, the varied Costermongers that frequented the streets. In the days of horses, somebody had to pick up behind them, also lead ladies across roadways, sweeping all before them so as to keep their dresses clean. The ratters, the hat sellers, the second-hand clothes businesses, the street sellers of drink, water carriers, the list is endless. A short precise of what these people actually did, with some ink drawings make up these brilliant books. Again, these are dipping into books, my first one was gifted as a present to someone back in 1949, and I really love reading these penned sentiments at the beginning.
3. Grande Horizontales by Virginia Rounding – Another few days spent, this time in Oxford. I had a wonderful, uninterrupted chance to visit a big second-hand bookshop as we walked back to our hotel. My wife continued on, I stayed put. Deep in the bowels of the basement, I found amongst thousands of decent books, Virginia Rounding’s book Grandes Horizontales. First published in 2003, it tells of several well-known courtesans of the ‘Belle Epoque’ period in Paris. The book itself was, for me, an incredible read, the carrying on that took place amongst the mega-rich and these ladies of social extravagance. What a revelation this first of many books on the subject was to me. It exposes immoral behaviour, together with expensive frittering away of fortunes to keep these women satisfied. There is no coarseness, no ribald commentary, just plain factual evidence of how they lived, loved, won, and lost, and became the earliest celebrities that gained notoriety.
4. Death’s Acre: Inside The Legendary ‘Body Farm’ by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, with a foreword by Patricia Cornwell – First published in 2003, my book however is from 2004. It tells of a patch of earth near Knoxville, Tennessee, which became the only institution in the world that is dedicated to research into the timing of post-mortem human decomposition. I appreciate this is not for everyone, especially the photographs, but how and why this establishment actually came about as well as how it is assisting forensic evidence from its inception back in 1988 is superbly written. I found the book fascinating, the subject is macabre but compulsive, humankind make far better non-fiction stories than fiction authors sometimes. I purchased this book with the aid of Birthday Book Tokens; I had several that year and gained many books as a result.
5. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler – Dictated by Hitler to Rudolph Hess, whilst both were imprisoned in 1924 in Landsberg prison after the failed Putsch, which has gone down in history as the beginning of Nazism. I do not hold any affiliation with any of the writings within, but it is indeed an incredible ‘tour de force’ if one can possibly get into it. I admit quite freely that it took me some years to finish it. The almost maniacal ramblings, with an almost paranoiac fervour, appear quite frequently, but at the same time, a modicum of common sense weaves its way through the narrative. I came across this book quite by accident when a nearby church held a ‘bring and buy’ stall. Various books made up a substantial weight on the trestle table, together with iced buns and sponge cakes. I purchased the Mein Kampf book, and another all about Catherine the Great. Strange the things one buys at church fetes.
6. Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson – A near on 600 page tome that covers most of the Frank Zappa’s canon from the earliest days, right through to about 1995. It attempts to explain the compositions, and how, why and when each song/tune was constructed as well as a disconnected writer can do. I first read this book as a hardback library copy some time before, and yet again, I found this later issue paperback version, and purchased it with the aid of Book Tokens. I am a great fan of the late Frank Zappa, warts and all. This book both reminds the reader what he did musically, and also lays a great many myths to sleep. Not for everybody of course, but this is a book close to my own personal musical heart.
7. Spy Catcher by Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass – When this book first came out, it caused any amount of controversy. Peter Wright spent many years working within the Secret Service known as MI5. He retired in 1976, eventually left Merry England to live in happy retirement in Australia, where his memoirs were first published. The British government pulled incredible strings to suppress the release of the book in the United Kingdom, but ultimately they failed. The book went on to be a bestseller. I asked for my copy during the fiasco as a present from my mother-in-law, I had to purchase it myself though, because of all the fuss about it. The book tells of the inner most workings of the spy network, the espionage details, the secrets that expose wrong doings, listening in to governments, meetings and such like. It is quite the dossier on how things are actually done on behalf of our so-called caring ministers.
8. The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser – A writer that commands attention. Although I have any number of biographies about people of history, this book, purchased in a Falmouth charity shop many years back, tells the reader virtually everything known about this rather splendid king short of digging him up and asking him. The details are astounding throughout, many pictures show us how things were. I greatly enjoyed this particular book; it prompted me to trawl through many, many more books about our royal past. Published in 1993 in hardback.
9. The Roy Strong Diaries 1967–1987 – Sir Roy Strong, first he was in charge of the National Portrait Gallery, then the Victoria and Albert Museum, he now reigns as a writer, gardening expert and historian. I found this book at a Bantry Bay market stall in Ireland some years back. A hefty book for the unseasoned aircraft traveller, I had to bring it back as hand luggage (I had never thought of that dilemma). I read it with growing admiration for his style of wit and observation, many times would I actually laugh out loud at some improbable event as it occurred. The rather upper crust, social whirl that he was drawn to within his life, also proved to be a fertile hunting ground for his sometimes raucous humour. I have read many of his later books, but the first is quite possibly the best, but that is just hero worship perhaps.
10. Empire, The Life, Legend and Madness of Howard Hughes by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele – My copy was published 1979, purchased in Cambridge 1980. A cracking book, which sometimes exaggerates, but in the main is honest, and above all, decent. Many other books I own about Hughes tend to make things up, unless it serves them better, but I enjoyed this book. I suppose this may well appeal to those of an older age, those that perhaps lived through the WW2 years, and better understand where Howard Hughes, the billionaire, fitted in. The story of the massive seaplane the ‘Spruce Goose’, or Hercules 1 airplane, both flying, and the accompanying court case. The many casinos he owned, his film production career, his TWA airline and other things. Having read most of the available books on Hughes, or own them, I was saddened by the way he was portrayed in the film ‘The Aviator’ in 2004. It sticks crudely with the story, but makes many assumptions about the factual reality. Yes he was a remarkable aviator, but there was more to him that just that. A fascinating read from beginning to end, and it inspired me to invest in other books about him.
You can submit your own Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them list here.
Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama