Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

A playful celebration of the magic of language.

Take Away the A, which is sheer delight in its totality, comes from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion, maker of such timelessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the BirdThe RiverLittle Boy BrownMister Horizontal & Miss VerticalThe Jacket, and Wednesday, and a strong presence among the year’s best children’s books

Throughout the story, there is also a subtle, wistful lament about our relationship to animals, its only protagonists. A monkey sits atop a cash register, collecting change, because without his K, he makes money selling bananas; but monkeys — as well as their primate relatives, chimps — have a long and heartbreaking history of being abused as money-makers in the hands of humans, from circuses to labs to the illegal pet trade. Having lost their O, a party of four — a duck, a zebra, an antelope, and a wolf — are fur-clad at tea time; the cruel price of fur garments, of course, is always animal lives.

In another vignette, the polar bears lose their E and find themselves at the zoo, behind bars, as a human father and child ogle them while enjoying their ice cream, sold to them by a displaced penguin.

But rather than embitter the story, these subtleties only enrich and elevate it by offering possible topics of education and conversation so understated as to offer parents the choice of whether or not to gently broach these darker issues with the child-reader. What remains at the forefront is the irreverent sweetness of the story, full of fable-like characters — there is the wolf, and the fox, and the ant, and the mouse — who behave in delightfully unfablelike ways.

A touch of continuity tickles the masterful pattern-recognition machine that is the human mind at any age. I was especially charmed by the ample and imaginative cameos of the orange octopus, always cheeky, and the little white mouse, a perennial cautious bystander and occasional bold partaker in the quirky alphabetic adventures.


The Short Stories Behind 10 Famous Films


Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now, famous for its realistic sex scenes between stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, looked to Daphne du Maurier’s 1971 short story collection Not After Midnight to inform the emotionally devastating tale. Both versions follow the unraveling of a married couple who retreat to Venice after the death of their daughter, but the causes of the little girl’s demise vary. The Guardian wrote of Du Maurier’s dark story:

“‘Don’t Look Now’ is a deeply unsettling story. Its power arises in part from its few supernatural effects, but is more a function of the slow, inexorable accumulation of incident and feeling that almost imperceptibly acquire a kind of critical mass, to the point that tragedy inevitably occurs — and when it does, it leaves the reader both shocked and relieved, for an intolerable tension has at last been relaxed. This is narrative control of a very high order.



Total Recall

Philip K. Dick’s library has been mined by just about everyone in Hollywood looking for a sci-fi hit. His short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” first published in the 1966 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, centers on a narrative about a protagonist implanted with false memories. Paul Verhoeven brought the story to the big screen in 1990, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Quaid (changed from Quail). Originally, no one wanted to touch the screenplay, so Verhoeven had a hard time getting things off the ground. At one point David Cronenberg was going to direct the adaptation, but producer and co-writer Ronald Shusett had a particular vision for the film — which Cronenberg related in an interview with Wired:

I worked on it for a year and did about 12 drafts. Eventually we got to a point where Ron Shusett said, ‘You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.’ I said, ‘Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?’ He said, “No, no, we want to doRaiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.”



Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir mind-bender Memento comes from a short story written by his younger brother Jonathan Nolan, “Memento Mori.” The idea was born after taking a psychology class at Georgetown University. Guy Pearce’s Leonard is named Earl in the book and is confined to a mental hospital. Listen to the younger Nolan read his story in the above clip.



Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick optioned the rights to Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novellaDream Story in the 1960s. According to the director’s daughter Katharina:

He obviously thought that it was a subject matter close to anyone who’s ever been in a relationship of whatever persuasion. I don’t know what his intentions were, I know that he wanted to do it for over 30 years, and that when he first found the story he decided along with my mother that they weren’t old enough or wise enough to deal with such a powerful subject matter.

Both stories capture the rift in a marriage, sparked by insecurities, obsession, and sexual jealousy. Schnitzler’s tale takes place in early 20th-century Vienna, but Kubrick’s version captures a similar decadence — particularly in the masked orgy scenes, which also occurs in the book.


Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Read Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashōmon” (which also inspired Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog) and Akutagawa’s early modernist story “In a Grove,” which inspired Akira Kurosawa’s stunning Japanese drama:


In order to somehow get through his “hopeless situation”, the servant might have to set his morals aside. If he refused to do things that he thought were morally questionable, then he would only end up starving to death under a roofed mud wall or on the side of the road. And then he would be taken to this gate, to be discarded, like a dog. “If I am willing to do whatever it takes to survive…” His thoughts had circled through his head a number of times, and they had finally arrived here. But this “if” would always remain a mere hypothetical. For although the servant acknowledged that he had to do whatever he could to get by, he didn’t have the courage to bring the sentence to its foregone conclusion: “I am bound to become a thief.”

In a Grove

Little did I expect that he would meet such a fate. Truly human life is as evanescent as the morning dew or a flash of lightning. My words are inadequate to express my sympathy for him.



2001: A Space Odyssey

Fascinated by the idea of extraterrestrial life, Stanley Kubrick approached science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke about a film collaboration. (There’s a funny story leading up to their meeting, in which Kubrick thought Clarke was a recluse. And Clarke had his own choice opinion about the director.) Kubrick wanted to make a movie that would “arouse the emotions of wonder, awe, even, if appropriate, terror.” Clarke suggested his short story “The Sentinel” as a starting point. Elements of Clarke’s “Encounter in the Dawn” also made it into the movie during the memorable “Dawn of Man” sequence. The men simultaneously developed a novel, which turned into the screenplay.Said Clarke of the collaboration:

I am continually annoyed by careless references to “The Sentinel” as “the story on which 2001 is based”; it bears about as much relation to the movie as an acorn to the resultant full-grown oak. (Considerably less, in fact, because ideas from several other stories were also incorporated.) Even the elements that Stanley Kubrick and I did actually use were considerably modified. Thus the “glittering, roughly pyramidal structure … set in the rock like a gigantic, many-faceted jewel” became — after several modifications — the famous black monolith. And the locale was moved from the Mare Crisium to the most spectacular of all lunar craters, Tycho — easily visible to the naked eye from Earth at Full Moon.



The Fly

George Langelaan’s “The Fly” was first published in a 1957 issue ofPlayboy (winning a Best Fiction Award by the magazine, too) and has since been adapted for cinema a handful of times. We’re fond of David Cronenberg’s 1986 release, starring Jeff Goldblum. Copies of Langelaan’s story seem to be scarce, but online devotees have published a few.



Rear Window

Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder” caught the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, giving us one of the maestro’s best movies — 1954’s Rear Window. In the film, a housebound photographer (James Stewart) watches his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them is a murderer. Woolwich writes:

I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.



Cat’s Eye

Stephen King’s 1978 short story collection Night Shift, his first ever published, contains some of his best-known works in the form — many of which became movies. An incidental feline character from “Quitters, Inc.” and ”The Ledge” became a main character in the 1985 film Cat’s Eye — an anthology meant to showcase baby Drew Barrymore after her appearance in another King adaptation, 1984’s Firestarter.



All About Eve

Mary Orr didn’t receive credit for her contribution to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Bette Davis vehicle, All About Eve — about an aging Broadway star (Davis as Margo Channing) and the ruthlessly ambitious ingénue (Anne Baxter’s Eve) who tries to replace her. However, Orr’s short “The Wisdom of Eve,” which first appeared in a 1946 issue ofCosmo, formed the bones of the story. Orr based it on a real-lifeincident:

Contrary to popular belief, Margo Channing is not based on Tallulah Bankhead. The film was adapted from an original story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr (uncredited in this film), based on a real-life incident involving Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner during her run in the hit stage thriller “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” in 1943-44. Originally the lead was, like Bergner, a foreign actress named Margola Cranston before it was changed to Margo Channing. However, the story about it being based on Bankhead persisted, and when Bankhead heard it, she reportedly told a live radio audience that the next time she saw Bette Davis, she would “tear every hair out of her mustache.”

Another version of the incident goes something like this:

In an introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies in November 2008, Robert Osborne said that everyone assumed that Bette Davis had based her characterization on Tallulah Bankhead, even Tallulah herself. In fact, Bankhead even considered suing Twentieth-Century Fox, but decided not to, because Bette Davis “did such a good job. I’ve just been witched out of $1,000,000 by Bette being as good as me.” But in 1952, Tallulah Bankhead starred in a radio adaptation of “All About Eve” which featured in the supporting cast Mary Orr, author of the original story “The Wisdom of Eve”. According to Robert Osborne, during a rehearsal Tallulah asked Mary Orr: “I was the prototype for Margo Channing, wasn’t I?” and Orr set the record straight and said “no”. Tallulah reportedly never spoke to Mary Orr again.


50 best cult books

Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are among the authors chosen by our critics for the 50 best cult books

Cult books: Joseph Heller, Albert Camus, Hermann Hesse, Dr Spock, Naomi Wolf, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon and Hunter S Thompson

A cult book may be hard to define but one thing is for sure: you know a cult book when you see one.

Cult books are somehow, intangibly, different from simple bestsellers – though many of them are that. And people have passionate feelings on both sides:

Our critics present a selection of the most notable cult writing from the past two centuries. Some is classic. Some is catastrophic. All of it had the power to inspire . . .

19th CENTURY . . .

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)
A Calvinist convinced of his indefectible election to salvation is led to acts of murder by Gil-Martin, his devilish doppelganger. More a myth than a religious satire, it vividly survives James Hogg’s not entirely satisfactory manner of recounting it. Consider this: there may be a Gil-Martin near you. Christopher Howse

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám tr by Edward FitzGerald (1859)
This is among the best-selling volumes of poetry of all time, and does all that a translation should: it introduces the idea of an exotic, different culture; and it expresses what its readers feel, but lets them blame it on someone else. Here, in an age of doubt, aesthetics and Darwinism, these mysterious verses, drawn from 11th-century Persian, stand as little examples of how to celebrate life even as it slips away. TP

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1883-85)
Incendiary declamation through a megaphone. If only one knew what he was on about. Put six Nietzscheans in a room and it ought to be a bloodbath; except, since they’re all nancies who fancy themselves as Supermen, there wouldn’t be one. Nietzsche was brave and mad enough to kill God: but look what happened to him. His acolytes are, largely, less brave. Andrew McKie

A Rebours by JK Huysmans (1884)
Plotless, morality-free salute to decadence. An individual based on its French author lounges about his luxurious home indulging in pursuits such as embedding gemstones in the shell of a tortoise until, loaded down, it expires. Dripping with Baudelairean ennui (and not a little dull itself), A Rebours was a bible for the Symbolists, Oscar Wilde and alienated creative types everywhere. Serena Davies


 Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)
Hermann Hesse’s allegorical novel sounds a bit Buddhist but is actually saying that experience (including of wealth), rather than contemplation, is the key to enlightenment. It’s persuasive, especially if you read it, as many do, chillum in hand, in the Himalayas. Although, thinking about it now, profundities such as “the secret of the river is there is no time” don’t make much sense out of context. SD

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1923)
Pocket-sized set of aphorisms that sound like they were written by a medieval monk but were actually the product of a Lebanese-American alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1931. The Prophet is a beautifully phrased exercise in pointing out the obvious but Sixties hippy kids loved it. SD


Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
Céline’s vile political views are well documented but his first novel, Journey to the End of Night, was a groundbreaking modernist novel and a fine satire on war and the medical profession. Céline is considered one of the great French prose stylists of the 20th century. Martin Chilton

 Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
A record of a lost generation in the shape of the contemporaries Vera Brittain loved and lost in the First World War, this memoir is also a poignant, passionate and perfectly poised study of a woman trying to find her place in a changing world. A bible to the generation who read it on publication, its influence continues thanks to a Virago reprint. Sarah Crompton

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)
Modern travel writers such as Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin were inspired by Robert Byron. Travelling through the Middle East and Asia in the 1930s, Byron provides detailed descriptions of Islamic architecture, with pungent asides: “The Arabs hate the French more than they hate us. Having more reason to do so, they are more polite; in other words, they have learnt not to try it on, when they meet a European. This makes Damascus a pleasant city from the visitor’s point of view.”Sameer Rahim


The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The beach, the sun, the Arab, the gunshots, the chaplain: the stuff of millions of adolescents’ fevered imaginings. If you don’t love this when you’re 17, there’s something wrong with you. In the film Talladega Nights, Sacha Baron Cohen’s snooty French racing driver reads it on the starting grid. Strange but true: George W Bush read it on holiday when he was President. Dominic Sandbrook

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
Bewilderingly popular and extremely silly Nietzschean melodrama, in which Ayn Rand gives her mad arch-capitalist philosophy a run round the block in the person of Howard Roark, a flouncy architect. Loved by the kind of person who tells you selfishness is an evolutionary advantage, before stealing your house/lover/job. Tim Martin

 Baby and Child Care by Doctor Benjamin Spock (1946)
Childcare experts go in and out of fashion, but Dr Benjamin Spock remains the daddy of them all. From his reassuring first sentence – “You know more than you think you do” – he revolutionised the way parents thought about their children, asserting the right to cuddle, comfort and follow your instincts. He also tells you how to deal with croup. SC

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)
This heady mix of romance and reality opens with its teenage heroine Cassandra Mortmain writing while sitting in the kitchen sink. It ends with the words “I love you” scribbled in the margins of the imaginary journal that forms the substance of the novel. In between a story unfolds that feeds the fantasies of every lovelorn young girl; but its status owes much to the way that, as in life, things don’t end happily ever after. SC


Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health by L Ron Hubbard (1950)
Do you often feel unhappy? Depressed? Ill at ease with others? You will if you read this. Creepy bit of mind-mechanics by the indifferent sci-fi novelist who founded Scientology. TM

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Ur-text of adolescent alienation, beloved of assassins, emos and everyone in between, Gordon Brown included. Complicated teen Holden Caulfield at large in the big city, working out his family and getting drunk. You’ve probably read it, be honest. TM

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley (1954)
The book that launched a thousand trips. William Blake said that if we could cleanse the “doors of perception” we would perceive “the infinite”. Huxley thought mescalin was the way to do so. In this essay, he pops a pill, goes on about “not-self” and “suchness”, and decides love is the ultimate truth. He also took LSD when dying, but hardly stuffed it down the way his fans did. Jim Morrison was one: he named the Doors after Huxley’s book, gobbled mouthfuls of acid and was dead by 27. SD

Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954)
Deliberately discomforting, Story of O takes as its subject the objectification of women. O is a beautiful woman who submits to the sadistic whims of various men after she is kidnapped and taken to a chateau to be blindfolded, whipped, branded and pierced. It ends with an odd sense of triumph, O wearing nothing but a mask before a group of strangers. Bewildering, creepy and joyless, it’s a guaranteed detumescent. Toby Clements

The Outsider by Colin Wilson (1956)
Required reading in the coffee bars of the East Midlands in the late Fifties; unbelievably, some people paid good money for this study of the outsider figure in Western literature. The TLS found 285 mistakes in a sample of 249 lines, but in its young author’s eyes, it confirmed him as “the major literary genius of our century”. Modesty was not one of his virtues; nor, sadly, was literary ability. DS

On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
Supposedly filled in under three caffeine-fuelled weeks, the roll of paper on which Kerouac typed his seminal novel recently sold for more than two million dollars, and has spent the past few years on the road itself, travelling from museum to museum in the US, where it attracts queues of bearded jazz fanatics. It is the result of seven years of road-trips across America during the 1940s. Initially it celebrates the alternative lifestyle, although by the end it is coloured by disappointment. In November 2014, A long-lost letter sent to Keroac from writer Neal Cassady was found after more than half a century. After reading it Kerouac ripped up an early draft of On the Road and spent three weeks re-writing the novel to mimic its stream of consciousness style.

The note – an 18-page rambling stream of consciousness written by fellow writer Neal Cassady to his friend in 1950 – had been considered one of the greatest losses in literary history. TC

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1958)
A thing of beauty, the sole bequest of the last in the line of Sicilian aristocrats on whom the novel is based. An ineradicable elegy for a vanished society, and, despite its risorgimento setting, still the best psychological and botanical guidebook to parts of southern Italy. TM

TM The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60)
The great modern Baroque novel. Made it possible for the middle classes to embrace the Mediterranean. No such Alexandria ever existed, nor did the potboiler thriller plot of space/time exploration, Kaballa, sex, good food and drink (it came out during rationing) or philosophical enquiry. Some beautiful sentences, sure; but lots of them don’t make sense. AMcK


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Economical Deep South drama around perennially hot-button racial questions, further exalted in literary mythology by being the only thing its author ever wrote. Even those who think they haven’t read it often have.TM

 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Bitterly bouncy military farce, responsible for inventing the dilemma to which it gave its name: you’re only excused war if you’re mad, but wanting an exemption argues that you must be sane. Literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book. TM

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
Anti-hero Randle Patrick McMurphy will forever be associated with Jack Nicholson, the actor who won an Oscar for portraying him in the film, but he is the brilliant creation of Ken Kesey in this novel set in a mental institution. Through the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, the novel explores the theme of how individuals are crushed and of rebellion against conformity. MC

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)
Miniature literary mindwarps from the world’s most famous blind librarian, a writer – like Kafka – whose work, once encountered, adds a new adjective to the mental lexicon. Unforgettable stuff, after which mazes and mirrors will never be the same again. Often beloved of the kind of person who agrees with its author that “there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition”, and none the worse for that. TM

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
In one of the original misery memoirs, Sylvia Plath delivered an intense, semiautobiographical story of growing up at a time when electroshock therapy was used to treat troubled young women. The narrator is a talented writer who arrives in New York with every opportunity before her, but buckles. The Bell Jar became a rallying call for a better understanding of mental illness, creativity and the impact on women of stifling social conventions. Plath killed herself a month after its publication. Ceri Radford

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)
Sandworms, ornithopters, Atreides, Harkonnen and spice: chop and blend for sci-fi fantasy, strangely like an intergalactic cousin of James Clavell. The first in an increasingly soap-operatic sequence. Equally cultishly adapted for the screen by David Lynch, and the root of many a lifelong passion for complex character names and/or arcane ceremonial weaponry. TM

The Magus by John Fowles (1966)
Posh young teacher goes to idyllic Greek island, there to be exquisitely tormented by young women and a Prospero-like figure. Like most John Fowles, this is solid middlebrow dressed as highbrow, but stunning setdressing, TS Eliot quotations and a twist at the end guaranteed a lifelong place in the hearts of a certain type of bookish male. TM

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
Satan live and in person, a mansized black cat, a magician and his helpmeet, Pontius Pilate… Classic text of dissident magic realism, banned for years under Stalin: now you’ll struggle to find a Russian who hasn’t read it. Essential stuff, and with the finest description of a headache yet committed to paper. TM

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken (1968)
Those Easter Island things, they’re blokes wearing space suits, aren’t they? Er, no. Hugely influential work of mad-eyed fabricated Arch & Anth, responsible for decades of pub pseudoscience as well as for splendid stuff such as The X-Files. Increasingly common at jumble sales these days, though Von Däniken happily got another 25 books out of the idea. TM

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe (1968)
New journalism, non-fiction novel – however you define it, Tom Wolfe’s 1968 account of the novelist Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus ride across America with his “Merry Pranksters” established a style of free-associating, hyperbolic writing (count the exclamation marks!!!) that spawned countless imitations. To a generation of readers it fostered a burning envy that they had not been in San Francisco when the Kool-Aid dispensers were being spiked with “Purple Haze”. Now a vivid social history of a period that seems as remote as Byzantium. Mick Brown

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Sideways fantasy from the Diogenes of American letters, a comic sage who survived the firebombing of Dresden and various familial tragedies to work out his own unique brand of science-fictional satire. Like much of Vonnegut’s stuff, this is savage anger barely masked by urbane anthropological sarcasm. Very much a defining cult novel. TM


Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and Russell Munson (1970)
The book that gave 1970s idealism a bad name, the nauseating story of a seagull who defies his fellows to soar into the heavens. “The only true law,” the bird solemnly tells us, “is that which leads to freedom.” Richard Nixon’s FBI director, L Patrick Gray, ordered all his staff to read it. Later, he resigned for gross corruption, a fitting punishment for his dreadful taste. DS

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)
Women should taste their own menstrual blood to reconcile themselves to their bodies, declared Germaine Greer in the seminal feminist text of the 1970s. Greer told a generation of women that society had turned them into meek, self-hating, castrated clones. The book was an international best-seller which earned Greer a mixed but enduring legacy. CR

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971)
Blame a burgeoning mistrust of conventional psychiatry for the immediate impact of The Dice Man – a novel whose hero, a disillusioned psychiatrist, vows to make every decision of his life according to the roll of a die. As one might have expected from the times, chance sends him into violence and anarchy, which also explains the book’s enduring appeal. Alex Clark

 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson (1971)
Needs little introduction. Bad craziness as the Duke of Gonzo and his helpless attorney blaze a streak of pharmaceutical havoc across 1970s California, all in demented bar-fight prose and fever-dream set-pieces. Now also a core text for ex-public school drug bores, which tends to obscure the anarchic excellence of HST’s journalistic talent. TM

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
Europe-hopping comic metanovel of war and power, stuffed with maths, shaggy-dog stories, childish humour and ravishing sentences. And lots of rockets. Genius, though long enough to lie unfinished. TM

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973)
More 1970s searching for “authenticity” and “selfhood”: a housewife has an affair with a radical psychoanalyst (“Adrian Goodlove”, geddit?) and fantasises about sexual liberation. At the end, though, she goes back to her husband. John Updike called it the most “delicious erotic novel a woman everwrote” – but really, what on earth was all the fuss about? DS

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Valuesby Robert M Pirsig (1974)
Burnt-out hippy takes son on bike trip. Remembers previous self: lecturer who had nervous breakdown contemplating Eastern and Western philosophy. Very bad course in Ordinary General Philosophy follows. If he’d done Greek at school and knew what “arête” meant, we could have been spared most of the 1970s. AMcK

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979)
A book composed of the first chapters from other invented books. Either a classic work of literary snakes and ladders or a tiresomely recursive bit of postmodern sterility depending on your interlocutor. Italo Calvino was arguably better elsewhere. TM

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Forget Asimov or PKD. Douglas Adams was so brilliant a visionary that even in the late 1970s he was able to foresee a time when digital watches would look pretty silly. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – a radio show before it was a novel, and a film, and a game, and a TV show – was incredibly clever and wildly funny. Thanks to the Guide, an entire generation of Britons was nursed to adulthood with the phrases “Don’t Panic” and “Mostly Harmless”, and the number 42. Sam Leith

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter (1979)
About what it means to think, and how that happens, this is written in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Pattern recognition in the work of geniuses. Loved by maths geeks and anybody with Asperger’s syndrome and anyone with sense. But at root a chess textbook. AMcK


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
Ignatius J Reilly is a fat anti-hero to thwart Promethean selfdramatisation in any reader. With the medieval poetry of Hroswitha swirling in a head jammed into a green hunting cap with earpieces, Reilly eats steadily, despises modernity, seeks solace in canine fantasies and remembers with terror his one experience of leaving New Orleans. CH

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (1982)
Similar territory to The Da Vinci Code but earlier, less balefully stupid and with the nerve to claim factual accuracy (its authors took Dan Brown to court and lost). The usual song and dance about Templars, bloodlines of Christ and global conspiracies, but somehow still chilling for all that. Staple text of the bonkers brigade. TM


Iron John: a Book About Men by Robert Bly (1990)
For decades, the cowed menfolk of the world ambled about in pinafores, dusting ornaments and saying “yes, dear”. Then Robert Bly wrote Iron John, invented mythopoetic masculinity, and the daft creatures all rushed off into the woods together, hugged, bellowed, wept, painted their furry parts blue and felt re-empowered to wee standing up. SL

 The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1991)
The woman who made feminism sexy by being gorgeous and shaving her legs also taught her readers to eat a hearty meal. This book argues that a cult of thinness has desexualised and disempowered women just when, after the acceptance of free love and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the opposite should have happened. The most important feminist text of the past 20 years. SD

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1993)
Deep in the South American jungle an intrepid explorer is about to stumble on a sequence of ancient prophecies that could change our way of living, even save the world. If only we didn’t have to buy the other novels in that the series to find out what they were! For a similar effect on the cheap, rent an Indiana-Jonesalike film – Tomb Raider, say – and ask a hippy to whisper nonsense in your ear while you’re watching it. TM

21st CENTURY . . .

No Logo by Naomi Klein (2000)
Few books have caught a political moment better than Naomi Klein’s stylish and impassioned report on the abuses of brands, and the activists who fight them. It was published in 2000, just as “antiglobalisation” crashed into the mainstream, and Klein was adopted as its poster-girl. SL

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
In the Sixties and Seventies, McCarthy was a cult figure with a reputation as a writer’s writer. Yet despite all the success and the film adaptations, McCarthy somehow remains a writer of cult classics, even if they are bestsellers. The Road is his bleak masterpiece about a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic world (“barren, silent, godless”). MC

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (2011)
You could say that Haruki Murakami has always been a cult writer, even though he is now a novelist who sells millions, both in translation and in his native Japan. The two-volume 1Q84, set in 1984 but with a Q in the title to emphasis the question marks hanging over the lives of characters in his epic romance novel. MC


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This year’s Booker Prize Winner, this novel comes with a pretty strong recommendation: a lot of people who know what they’re talking about think it’s the best thing written this year. But is it? In parts, it is very good. The chapters which deal with what happened in the Prisoner of War camps that served as forced labour for the construction of the Burma Death Railway are compelling reading: what happened there, the conditions in the camps, the construction of the railway by slave labour, were all truly awful and can’t but inspire the reader’s emotional engagement. And it is all dealt with very well, which is quite an achievement. However, the novel as a whole is poorly put together, mainly because of the pretty unconvincing love story that we are served up with that runs in tandem with the main story of what happened in the POW camps. It is mainly unconvincing because of the way Flannigan throws every over the top literary cliché and splurge of emotional bombast at it in order to give the relationship a significance that can compete with the main story of unimaginable pain and suffering, endurance and cruelty, survival and death. The reader might well spend a lot of the novel fearing a truly awful and over the top saccharine conclusion to the love affair, a fear which might spoil the novel as a whole, but one which proves ungrounded in the end. The best novel of the year? No. A good novel? Yeah. A poorly conceived attempt? Definitely.

Mr A

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Perhaps the novella he is most famous for, it seems the ghost story is the form that James’ gloriously ambiguous style suits best, at least in terms of what the reader wants: not knowing what’s going on in a ghost story? Yes please. A range of emotions and thoughts that you can’t put your finger on and reduce to a few pithy aphorisms when exploring complex relationships? No thank you, Mr James. The reader likes her sentimental novels crystal clear, just in case they miss the moment that something definite definitely happens in the heart, soul or head of the heroine, but with ghost stories, anything goes: the reader loves mystery piled on top of mystery, and a style imbued with ambiguity is just fine.

Mr A

The British Travel Bucket List For Booklovers

1. Whitby

Bram Stoker’s time spent on holiday in Whitby informed much of his gothic classic, Dracula. Hike along the West Cliff, where he stayed, and take in the atmosphere that inspired the original vampire novel.

2. The Elephant House, Edinburgh

The Elephant House, Edinburgh

Most famous for being J.K. Rowling’s go-to writing spot in the early days of Harry Potter, the Elephant House’s cosy atmosphere, delightful menu, and stunning view of Edinburgh Castle has been enjoyed many respected writers, includin Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith.

3. The British Library, London

The British Library, London

The British Library at St Pancras is the home-base for the national library, and provides over 150 million titles in most known languagesfor research and exhibition.

4. Carmarthen, Wales

Carmarthen, Wales

Myth and legend lovers can’t miss a trip to Carmarthen, the supposed birthplace of Merlin the wizard, King Arthur’s most famous advisor. Stay in the Merlin Hill Centre Bed and Breakfast on site and explore the mystical area to soak up the atmosphere of Britain’s most famous legend.

5. Jane Austen Centre, Bath

Jane Austen Centre, Bath

Jane Austen lived in the charming city of Bath for several years in the early 19th century. The city now honours her with a permanent exhibition and hosts the annual Jane Austen Festival on her birthday.

6. Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

Writers' Museum, Edinburgh

Tucked away from Victoria Street (a must-see in itself for Harry Potter fans, since it inspired Diagon Alley) is Ladystair’s Close, home of the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, which features a glorious bookshop, a tribute to the evolution of printed books, and an exhibition onDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde author, Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent many years in the city.

7. Hill Top, Hawkshead

Hill Top, Hawkshead

Beloved children’s writer Beatrix Potter did most of her writing, and set many of her stories at Hill Top farmhouse. She was also a talented visual artist, and the National Trust offers a gallery of her watercolours and drawings at the Beatrix Potter Gallery.

8. Broadstairs, Kent

Broadstairs, Kent

Broadstairs provided plenty of inspiration to Dickens classics. Dickens House is a tribute to all things Charles Dickens, and located on site in a cottage Dickens often visited with his son, and used as inspiration for the cabin of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. The real life Bleak House, also in the area, inspired Dickens’ Victorian epic of the same name.

9. Stratford-upon-Avon


Shakespeare’s birthplace is both beautiful and steeped in literary history. Not only did the town provide the setting for Shakespeare’s early years, but remained an important location throughout his life. See his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage, his mother’s childhood home, and the house where he spent his late years.

10. Ashdown Forest, East Sussex

Ashdown Forest, East Sussex

Ashdown Forest serves as the true life inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood in A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie-the-Pooh stories for children.

11. English Riviera

English Riviera

Agatha Christie was born in Ashfield, Torquay on the English Riviera, and the area is is full of locations which inspired, or are featured in, her mystery novels. Most famous is the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, which inspired the fictional Majestic Hotel that appeared in two of Christie’s novels.

12. Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth

Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth

The childhood home of Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë has been converted to a memory in honour of the sisters and their work and features a massive library.

13. Hardy’s Cottage, Dorset

Hardy's Cottage, Dorset

Tess of the D’urbervilles author Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset and wrote several of his early pieces from the cottage in Bockhampton. The small house was built by Hardy’s grandfather and is protected by the National Trust.

14. Culloden Battlefields

Culloden Battlefields

Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will recognise the Culloden Battlefields near Inverness as a spot of significance for Jamie and Clair (no spoilers for the TV crowd!). Outlander fans should checkout Visit Scotland’s tailored map for more Scottish locations related to the books and TV program.

15. Laurel Villa, Magherafelt

Laurel Villa, Magherafelt

This poetry-themed bed and breakfast in Northern Ireland is located only a few miles from poet Seamus Heaney’s childhood home. Heaney’s work, which focuses on working class and life on the Irish countryside is much informed by his upbringing, and visiting his roots gives his poetry new depth.

16. Oxford University

Oxford University

Oxford has bred some of the greatest literary minds of the modern era. Authors such as C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, William Golden, and Lewis Carroll have studied or lectured at the university, and there’s a spectacular library worth visiting as well.

17. Brick Lane, London

Brick Lane, London

Monica Ali’s novel surrounding the arranged marriage and cultural adaptation of a Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen takes place in East London, and is titled after the iconic Brick Lane.

18. Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Jamaica Inn, Cornwall

Daphne du Maurier’s novel about smuggling on the Cornish coast, Jamaica Inn, was inspired by her real-life stay at the Cornwall-based establishment.

19. Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Thought to be the burial place of King Arthur, Glastonbury Tor is an ancient, beautiful, and haunting spot for lovers of myth and legend to visit.


The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James

No one writes novels as perfectly executed as Henry James; the subtlety of every sentence, character, situation, exchange is simply staggering. So why don’t more writers write like this? Because they can’t? Because it’s old fashioned? Tired? Too difficult for the reader? Surely the sophistication that James revels in is superior to the fumblings of so many modern authors who only have an eye for the shallowest of readers and the easiest of paydays? Or maybe not. But this novel, one of James’ later novels, and so one of his more challenging, is a mastercalss in what can be done by an author at the top of his game.

Mr A