The search for perfection

It is a dangerous thing to ask a literature graduate to name their favourite book. Firstly, there is the possibility of intellectual brinkmanship that may tempt the insecure to name books they don’t even like: I knew a girl at university who used to say that Great Expectations was her favourite book, even though she had only read the first twenty pages and hated them all, because (as well as implying that she had read the whole thing at least once), to misquote Alice in Wonderland, it sounded like a nice grand thing to say. As you’ll see from the books I’m about to suggest, I don’t suffer from a surfeit of respect for the established canon.[1] Secondly, there is the temporary nature of all preferences: I may enjoy Jane Eyre today, but be in more of an LA Confidential mood tomorrow.[2] Finally, there is the impossibility of the task. On what basis can a person (particularly a person who has spent three years doing nothing but reading and giving their opinion on what they have read) choose a single work from the hundreds and hundreds of candidates? What should our criteria be here?

One could choose a book that can be read over and over again without becoming dull or ceasing to give up new and interesting ideas; a book that makes repetition comforting rather than deadening, and which maybe even reminds one of the first time one read it, or the person one was then. For me, this book is My Family and Other Animals, which I think I have read twenty times (or maybe more, as they say in the poorer class of personal ads). Or you could choose a book that changed the way you think about yourself (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit; Surfacing; The Goshawk), the way you think about your relationships with other people (The Flame Trees of Thika; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) or the way you think about literature (American Psycho (see House of Holes); The Writing Life; The Triple Echo; Cannery Row; LA Confidential). There are books that can make you laugh (Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About) or cry (Quartet in Autumn) every time you read them. Then there are books that take on an intense personal significance largely separate from their literary merit, because of a chance conjunction: that book at that moment. The book I chose to read while outside the interview room at Selwyn College, for example, was Rites of Passage (I turned out not to like either very much, but you take my point. Apparently, I needed to learn the hard way that an apt title does not a satisfying reading experience make). There are also those (possibly for reasons of content, possibly not) that go on to warp one’s sexual development (Little Women, which has surely given rise to my weakness for bearded over-educated foreigners; Knowledge of Angels, loaned to me by a scrummy blonde who then conspired admirably in turning my repeated attempts to return it into the early stages of sexual pursuit; She, in retrospect an odd choice for an eleven-year-old).

Finally, there are books that stand alone as works of art: those that come closest to our own internal idea of a perfect book. A perfect idea, perfectly executed. Those that fall just short of perfection still astonish me.[3] Is there such a thing as a perfect book? I wonder if I would actually like The Secret History better if the troublesome repetition of “utter, utter” was removed, or if I would miss that little wrinkle. In a recent edition of Economic History Review[4], the historian Niall Ferguson said that his most recent publication was “designed to be slightly annoying, so that you talk about it”. Donna Tartt, Karen Blixen, John Steinbeck, Jennifer Johnston, Sir Terry Pratchett and T.H. White are all more than skilled enough to have worked this out for themselves and so perhaps they have added the blemishes deliberately. Unlike the categories I have mentioned above where I have given examples to stand for a larger group, the following list of books that fall into the almost-perfect category is exhaustive: The Secret History; Out of Africa[5]; The Grapes of Wrath; The Railway Station ManThud![6]; and The Once and Future King.

If you try to purchase The Once and Future King, you will find that it is often categorized as a children’s book. This is for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom: presumably, since it has King Arthur in it, it must be a children’s book (the very first paragraph describes a red-haired governess offering to show Sir Ector a ‘mysterious wound’, which was ‘believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic’). If so, it is a children’s book about power, adultery, human frailty, animal folklore, politics, tragedy and incest. I don’t cry over books very often (I read Watership Down entirely dry-eyed, even though I was eight), but I did sit down on the bare boards of my study and cry when my aged paperback copy of The Once and Future King, with its ancient advert for Camelot on the front cover, split down the spine and shed the whole section in the ants’ nest onto the floor in a sad, yellowish pile. I wanted to read the description of the King of the Moat to one of my students this week, but of course I had forgotten that the only part of this wonderful book that remains in my house is the quotation I have painted on the wall by the front door (‘…to dig, and love your home. This is the end of all philosophy’. This piece of excellent advice is given to the Wart by Badger, whom we assume is referring to the digging of tunnels, rather than the digging of the vegetable garden, as we have taken it to mean). The description of the King of the Moat is one of my favourite pieces of writing in all the world: the great and terrible pike, suspended in the water, stricken and deadly, while the Wart (in the shape of a perch this time) hovers nearby with Merlin, trying to learn what it is to be a king:

The great body, shadowy and almost invisible among the stems, ended in a face which had been ravaged by all the passions of an absolute monarch – by cruelty, sorrow, age, pride, selfishness, loneliness and thoughts too strong for individual brains … He was remorseless, disillusioned, logical, predatory, fierce, pitiless – but his great jewel of an eye was that of a stricken deer, large, fearful, sensitive and full of griefs. He made no movement, but looked upon them with his bitter eye.[7] 

Marvellous stuff, and of admirable use when teaching a fourteen-year-old. Not to worry, I thought. The Sword and the Stone includes that scene, after all (along with a load of made-up Disneyfied nonsense that White would never have sullied his mind with). I must be able to find the relevant paragraph on the interblag somewhere. Surely, apart from times when only seventeen kinds of porn will do, this is the sort of moment when the web comes into its own? Not so, gentle reader. The top item provided by Google contained the following sentence, which sums up everything that is wrong with modern culture: “The television series One Tree Hill quotes the book in episode 202”.


[1] Notice in particular the total lack of nineteenth-century English fiction. This is because I don’t care who marries whom (or who was formerly married to whom, as in the case of Jane Eyre, thereby rendering it a cut above the rest). Does it really matter so much? Look at Dorothea in Middlemarch expecting other people to care that she’s married the wrong person. I don’t care, Dorothea. If you marry a man on the grounds that he’s about to complete a long and dreary book, I don’t think you should be surprised when he also turns out to be dull.

[2] A mish-mash of the two would be most likely to go to the top of my list: a windswept melodrama set on the Yorkshire moors, rendered entirely in 1950s American street slang; or else Charlotte Brontë’s take on the Bloody Christmas murders (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, that I have no connection to the Night Owl?”). Observant readers will note that, as in Twin Peaks, the presence of an owl once again indicates that murder, death and pornography are about to ensue (see Strigiphobia). Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that seeing the quite brilliant film in any way approaches the experience of reading the even more brilliant book: to get the thing into less than six hours, the adapters have done away with approximately three-fifths of the slang and half the plot.

[3] “Darling!” I say to my husband who is peacefully reading something else and minding his own business, “this is so brilliant,” and I read him some particularly gorgeous passage from a book he has probably read for himself. He nods and smiles and agrees that it is spiffing, and that I am a woman of impeccable taste and judgement. Satisfied, we turn our attention back to our respective reading matter. Just as he has picked up the thread of the paragraph, I interrupt him again. “Darling!” I say … it is a wonder that he hasn’t beaten me to death with a rolled-up copy of the London Review of Books.

[4] Issue 65.3, in Paul Strong’s review of Catherine R. Schenk’s book International Economic Relations since 1945.

[5] I know that I’ve named several works of non-fiction here, and several more that are wedged in the seam between fiction and non-fiction, and I don’t care at all.

[6] I realise that I’m risking having my degree certificate reclaimed by putting Sir Terry Pratchett alongside John Steinbeck, but this is because i. Pratchett is a satirist on a par with Jonathan Swift; and ii. Thud! is masterful. It skims along with such ease (how often I read books where I can hear the twang of sinew as the writer strains to convey something or other. Umberto Eco, I’m looking at you). Pratchett never puts a foot wrong here in terms of characterisation, pacing, structure, language or plot, and the denouement is moving, dark and terribly funny all at once. If you’re wondering, the one flaw (and there is only one, I think) is the title. Why didn’t he call it Mr Shine?

[7] T.H. White, The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 49-50.

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4 thoughts on “The search for perfection

  1. David Scoins January 28, 2012 / 2:11 am

    I recognise the authorship. Good Writing. I shall use it in lessons. Thank you!!

  2. literacywhore January 28, 2012 / 11:42 am

    I am so glad you think so. Yes, do please use in lessons. I think it’s terribly important to develop a sense of one’s own taste, even if to do so one has to read books that one doesn’t like: provided you can say why you didn’t enjoy novel x, this is still a positive (by which I mean learning) experience.

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