1. When in Rome by Ngaio Marsh.
This book was housed in the small brown bookshelf in the part of the passage where I used to dry my hair. I read a lot of it when I was nine years old to impress the skinny brown boy with round glasses who belonged to our lift club. The book did its thing. He remarked on it when I climbed into the car with it clutched under my arm, despite an empty school bag. I doubt I finished it and I’m certain I didn’t understand it. I do, however, remember a whiff of radicalism, and my first glimpse of Rome. I can still smell the dust jacket that became the scent of that scrawny boy and his warm skin as we sat together on the back seat.
2. The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My mother bought this book for my grandmother when it first came out in 1983. Or maybe it was the other way round. I was twelve. It was talked about over tea in china cups in a cool house with a wide veranda that looked out at the sea. The title stayed with me until I read it years later. It was memorable in contributing to the formation of my sense of humanity.
3. We the Living by Ayan Rand
I’m not sure that I should be admitting this one publically, but there you go. An Ayan Rand book is on the list, memorable mostly because in my sixteenth year it opened my mind to the possibilities of both philosophy and ideology in literature. I’ve been interested in both ever since.
4. Down 2nd Avenue by Es'kia Mphahlele
As someone schooled under the Apartheid regime, university was the first time my eyes were opened to personal narratives of the oppression of African people through literature written in English. This was the first book I studied in first year. Mphahlele’s writing awakened me to the expression of the political through the personal, and alienation is one of the themes of literature I’m still most interested in.
5. Weaveworld by Clive Barker (not the soccer coach)
I was twenty-three and poor in London. I read this on buses, in tubes and on park benches. I’m not really a great reader of fantasy, but this gripped me and remained in my memory, probably because I was at that stage where insane ideas had me too – like walking all the way from London to Cape Town or sleeping rough and busking for a living (I never actually got to doing either).
6. Talking it Over by Julian Barnes
And while we are learning about politics, we are also learning about love. I was in my early twenties (again) and what goes on a lot then is not just about love, but also betrayal. Barnes’ easy explorations through the technique of the characters speaking directly to the reader was a first for me, and extraordinarily memorable at the time. I read the follow-up to this book, Love etc, only last year, and met Oliver, Gillian and Stuart again. I remain extremely fond of all three characters.
7. The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon
This is really is a landscape of the inner world, and a meaty read. It allowed me to see melancholy for the first time from a multitude of angles through extraordinary narrative. Solomon is a great writer who adds a beautiful poetic flair to the subject of sadness. The book is a weighty journey full of wit, passion and Solomon’s own soul.
8. The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda
Mda’s book must also live on my list of my ten favourite books of all time. The characters contained in it are equally are two of my most remembered. And then of course there’s the whale. Few books have made me sob as this one did. My eyes were peas in the snow.
9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Most memorable because it’s the book I’ve read the most times. I seldom read a book more than once, but I’ve read Bronte’s first and only published novel every five years or so. For the way it feeds the hopeless romantic in me, for how jealousy and vengefulness get their come-uppance, and for the value of the literature, it stands on a pedestal in my mind.
10. Veil of Secrets by Breyten Breytenbach.
First, my copy is personally inscribed. Second, the book was launched during a highlight of my own life, when I was a participant in the Time of the Writer Festival along with Mr Breytenbach, and third, because (for me) the book reached the aim or intention of every writer for his or her work: I saw myself in it. Who was it who wrote that he reads to feel less alone? The blurring of memoir and fiction echoes in my memory, recalling a particular time in my own writing life.
What books do you remember most, and why?