Victory by Joseph Conrad
Helpfully for this article, this book is set on an island, in the South China Seas. I couldn’t be sure if it is Conrad’s best book, but it has a tremendous life-span in the imagination after you read it. I read it in about 1977 and still think about it – Axel Heyst is the hero, a classic Conradian disproved man, trying to locate a proof for himself, for his very soul, again. It’s a book that seems now like something I lived through – it becomes a personal memory, vivid and painterly.
Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne
I keep mentioning this book in the hope that it will become as central as it deserves to be in the canon of western literature. None of it should work really. It is written in a wholly idiosyncratic style, delighting in trenchant and often quite mysterious declarations. It is intoxicating. Browne was also an early scientist, an observer of things as they are instead of as they are claimed to be in books.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Like a real whale, it is very difficult to see this book in the round, from the one vantage point. It is voluminous, enfolding, looming, but marvellous. A marvel of its age, and any age, and oddly enough mocked on first publication. So much so that Melville stopped writing novels, except for the much later short work, Billy Budd. Nevertheless the white whale ploughs on, harrowing and magnificent, indifferent, with Captain Ahab raging at the wheel of his ship.
Personae: Collected Shorter Poems by Ezra Pound
When I was a young man living rather remotely in an old suburb of Dublin, I first read this book, then carried it about with me as I travelled in a sort of creative aimlessness in the Seventies and Eighties. I knew Pound had been arrested for treason after the Second World War and then incarcerated in a mental facility for many years. He had made enormous mistakes, obviously, but also, enormous good decisions, largely embodied in this book, the poems that lie outside his long epic, The Cantos, like so many tents near a field of battle. Not a bad book for a young writer’s vademecum, embodying all manner of styles, and somehow encapsulating the poet better than any biography.
Since these books are going to a desert island, I might as well include a book with as much wisdom in it as the bible, and a good deal shorter, and lighter to carry, and very very beautiful in all its aspects. Shakespeare writing so perfectly that even the language sounds eternally modern, a strange enough matter when you consider he was an Elizabethan.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
This was made into a stupendous film, but the book itself is a text of such integrity that just to read it is a medicine for one’s own efforts. It is very short and very perfect. This sort of book is terribly rare, and one suspects that Daniel Woodrell’s work will endure into the future. He is an American living in and writing about the Missouri Ozarks but his real address is the wide world.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin
To say this book is extraordinary is not even to begin praising it properly. It has the quality of a gospel before it becomes rewritten, retouched, re-imagined into an instrument of religion, or perhaps religiosity. Toibin’s description of Lazarus, for instance, after he is raised from the dead is as pure and astonishing a piece of inspiration as you will ever read. It literally rocks your head back, with its sudden truth and its originality.
Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture is one of the 20 titles for World Book Night 2013, www.worldbooknight.org.
Sebastian is participating in the World Book Night flagship London celebration at Southbank Centre alongside a host of other top authors, poets and performers on 23rd April. Tickets: http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/world-book-night-70566