Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
I've just been rereading this with Leo. We take it for granted now, so familiar is the genre of pirates, hidden treasure and adventure on the high seas. We forget what a groundbreaking novel it was at the time. It still has a pace and a life to it that makes it a joy to read. What makes it so special, however, is its portrayal of the central characters. These are not simple one-dimensional figures but complex, shifting in their behaviour between the noble, the treacherous and the misguided. Long John Silver is not a plain, simple baddie, but a man capable certainly of badness but also of a certain code of honour. Captain Billy Bones, Squire Trelawney and even Jim Hawkins himself have strengths and weaknesses that Stevenson describes in a way that makes each character memorable. Above all, even today, it's a great story, beautifully written.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
In my view, for the scale and majesty of the invention, the details of the imaginary world created by Tolkien and the rich and deep themes of good and evil, nothing compares to The Lord of the Rings. It is, of course, first and foremost an epic tale. Though Tolkien was always dismissive of the parallels with the Nazis, their rise and defeat, you can't help believing that in some degree the darkness of the times through which he was living reflected itself in the book. It has its wicked force – Mordor. It has its ideology that drives it – symbolised by the Ring. It has its share of wizards who become collaborators, good people who fall from grace, and those who are in some sense redeemed, like Gollum. And in the end, the mighty are defeated by the ordinary folk – the Hobbits. Most of all, The Lord of the Rings draws you into the world of the Shire, Middle Earth and Mount Doom; of orcs, balrogs, ents and elves; and of the quiet courage and determination of Frodo to do his duty and destroy the Ring. You become engrossed; the imaginary world becomes real – surely the mark of the great fantasy novel.
Germinal by Emile Zola
I read Germinal, a novel about the struggles of 19th-century coal-miners in northern France, having grown up in County Durham, also famous for mining and its miners. I read it in French to improve my French. The tale is, in one sense, conventional. The miners live and work in dreadful conditions. A new employee, Etienne Lantier, comes to work at the mine, gains the respect of his fellow workers and then, shocked at the way miners are treated, incites them to strike. The strike continues for months. Starvation sets in. The travails of the families are seen through the eyes of the Maheu family, which loses its children, and finally the father is shot at a protest rally. What makes the book remarkable is the vivid description of not just the life of the miner but also of the mine itself – a bestial place of misery of many, for the profit of a few. Yet though harrowing, the title implies that out of the struggle, a better world will come.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
It was my old housemaster at school, Eric Anderson, who went on to become headmaster at Eton, who introduced Sir Walter Scott to me. I was resistant at first. His novels can take time to engage you. The language and descriptions are in a style far from the staccato bluntness of today's writers but the reader should persevere – it's worth it. Once hooked, you realise these are the words of genius. Ivanhoe is actually the most readable Scott novel, a fabulous adventure, love story and moral tale. It is set in the time of Richard the Lionheart, when there was a battle still raging between Saxons and Normans. There are jousts and tournaments, fights and action to satisfy those wanting a thriller, but for me, the depth of the book is revealed in the love triangle of Ivanhoe, Rowena, the Saxon princess, and Rebecca, the beautiful Jewess. Read it and see if, like me, you are sure he should have defied convention and eloped with Rebecca!
The Prophet: Trotsky 1887-1940 by Isaac Deutscher
This book may seem an odd choice for an originator of New Labour, which is about as far from Trotskyist politics on the progressive political wing as you can be, but it was, curiously, the first political book I read and the one that got me interested in politics. It is in three volumes. It was, for its time, hugely significant. In that era, the Soviet Union was supreme: Stalinism had crushed all dissent in the communist empire; Trotsky, one of Lenin's original lieutenants in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, was an outcast. Deutscher's trilogy was a powerful counterblast. It described Trotsky as the true revolutionary who stood out against the cruelty and oppression with which communism came to be associated. Trotskyism and its fight with the official Soviet-style left defied student politics in the 1960s and 1970s, and no one who lived through that period can forget it. But the most interesting thing for me is the character of Trotsky that Deutscher reveals. For all his faults and inconsistencies, the range of his thinking and the energy of the creativity were remarkable. And ultimately, despite his rigid adherence to Marxism, he was moved by an impulse far more moral than scientific.
Jesus Was a Jew by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum
This is a fascinating book, engrossing but also troubling for Christians. Because of the way we Christians are brought up and because of the way the early Church distanced itself from Judaism, we can sometimes overlook this simple fact: Jesus was a Jew. What Fruchtenbaum shows, is that he was not only a Jew by ethnicity, he was a fully practicing Jew, a rabbi who saw himself absolutely in the line of the great prophets of Israel. Of course, he also had deep and penetrating criticisms of the Judaism of his time, though many of those criticisms were shared by previous prophets and his basic call – for Jews to return to what their faith truly means – stands firmly in the prophetic tradition. The joy of the book is in the clear and accessible way it is written, in its scholarship and its objectivity.
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf and Jon Rothschild
As the title suggests, this is not meant to be an account from both sides of the Crusades, but specifically a subjective account of how it seemed to the Arabs. As a result, and because it is well written and well researched, it has had a real impact on a number of levels. It shows how the Crusades look to Muslims: as a brutal invasion for motives of religious persecution. It neatly corrects the myth prevalent in the way that history used to be taught in the West – that we were the civilised folk struggling against the barbarians. It describes how the scientists and the medics of the time, who were at the forefront of advanced medical thinking, were Arabs. There are great stories about how the Christian doctors of the day with their spells, leeches and blood-letting, appalled their savvy and cultured Muslim counterparts who then frequently were called upon to heal Christian knights and kings. So it's an instructive read, but Maalouf is also a great writer. Thus it is an enjoyable one, too.
Shoemaker of Dreams by Salvatore Ferragamo
This is a real speciality and I don't even know if it is in print or wide circulation. A few years ago I met the widow of Ferragamo, who gave me his autobiography. I was on holiday then, otherwise I don't suppose I would have had the time. Now, what I know about fashion could be written on the heel of a shoe. But I know something of motivation, determination and ambition bordering on obsession. This book is a gem, an extraordinary story of one person's fascination. In this case, it was an obsession with creating the perfect shoe. For Ferragamo, the pain and discomfort of poorly made shoes was an outrage; preventing it was a lifetime's mission. From the age of nine, through many ups and downs, he dedicated his life to that mission, inventing along the way the cage heel and wedge. He was a designer to the famous but his drive came from nothing to do with power or wealth; it was a love of artistry for a purpose. It is his description of that purpose that makes the book so special.
Muhammed by Martin Lings
This is also an unusual book. Martin Lings wrote a biography of the Prophet based on the most early sources
of information, some shortly after the Prophet's death. The result is
a fascinating account of the life of
a man who changed history and changes the world still. It describes the way he was brought up, the extraordinary revelations that began when he was 40 and
led him on a mission to both modernise his region and return
it to what he thought was its true faith. He was disowned by his home city, fought constant battles against the interests and ideas aligned against him but finally triumphed by the simple, direct
but profound force of ideas. The authenticity of the text makes the book both moving and instructive.