Perhaps the most vital of assets, one of the key markers in social aspiration, is to be well-read – or at least to be perceived as such. But this is the age of rush. This is the age of little opportunity to pause in the forward thrust of life, let alone time to read – what are they called again? – books. So, here’s my plan. I intend to publish at regular intervals (this will probably turn out to be irregular, bordering on the never again) some easily digestible précis of great works of fiction that will allow you to exude an air of education and erudition during conversation in almost all possible social contexts. (I think it only fair to point out that I almost certainly won’t have had the opportunity to read the originals myself, so don’t be drawn into detail!)
Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll – the pen-name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who really should have known better.)
A girl, Alice (believed by many to be Alice Liddel, an eleven year-old acquaintance to whom Dodgson proposed marriage, although he denied this, but then he would, wouldn’t he?), for reasons best known to herself, follows a white rabbit down a rabbit hole and, against all advice, drinks a potion given to her by the author that shrinks her, meets a March hare (mad as a box of frogs), a Mad Hatter (plain mad), a dormouse (slightly peeved) and the Queen of Hearts (apoplectic and psychopathic). They have a tea party and then do stuff with Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle Dee and the Cheshire Cat who, now I come to think of it, might just have been in the other book about chess. At some point, judging by Dodgson’s photographs, Alice’s clothes appear to fall off. The book is full of hidden number puzzles (which remain hidden to me), acrostics (which are clear when pointed out) and symbolism (which is just a little too blatant for my liking). After a number of adventures that I can’t quite recall just now, the author sobers up and returns to his position behind the net curtains.
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
A boy is born an orphan and, after nine years in an orphanage, is sent to a workhouse to eat gruel. The workhouse is run by a Welsh man who sings very loudly and sells Oliver to an undertaker, from whom he runs away because – well, because he’s an undertaker. He is befriended by The Artful Dodger who, despite being English, has the worst mockney accent since Dick Van Dyke, and learns to pickpocket. When he is caught, he is given a home by his prospective victim, and he realises that he wouldn’t have had to go through all those years of gruel if only he’d thought about stealing handkerchiefs sooner. He is then recaptured and taken back to Fagin, a reprobate who hides his money behind the wall in the hope of becoming a Labour Party donor. Fagin sends Oliver to burgle his benefactor’s home, but he is caught. It then emerges that there are more cases of mistaken identity at play than in the average Shakespearian comedy, leaving Oliver a rich man and, if I am not wrong, his own second cousin. Fagin is sentenced to death, but blames everything on Bill Sykes who went on to co-write The Goons.
Nineteen Eighty Four (George Orwell)
In a world completely unlike our own, where the three global superpowers are constantly at violent odds, Winston Smith realises that the government is not necessarily telling the truth – an easy conclusion to reach, as he is actually employed by them to tell lies. He keeps a diary, which is illegal, although he constantly forgets to fill it in and, like everyone I have ever known outside of Adrian Mole, gives up completely before the end of March. He meets Julia, who is a member of the junior Anti-Sex League, and they have an affair. I am not sure how. Eventually, Winston is captured by the Thought Police (who I suppose are a bit like the ordinary police, but with ‘O’ levels) and, having had rats strapped to his face, betrays Julia (which is what tends to happen to girlfriends who join the Anti-Sex league) and is released because he now realises that he loves his older sibling.
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stephenson – who I think invented the steam engine in his spare time)
Jim Ladd (son of Alan) nicks a dead man’s treasure map and sets off to find the treasure, unaware that pretty much everyone on the ship, except for himself and the ship’s captain Smollett, was a member of the original crew of the pirate who buried the treasure, Captain Flint, who is now a parrot. Despite the preponderance of eye-patches, hooks, peg-legs and ‘ooh-aahs, the captain is unaware of the nature of his crew until he is told by Jim, who has heard them plotting from his place in the apple barrel. The chief plotter is Long John Silver, whose son sang Let the Heartaches Begin in the 1960’s. Eventually Jim finds himself on an island with Michael Palin, who has been marooned by the rest of the Pythons. When Silver and his men eventually find the treasure chest, it has already been emptied by Palin, so they nick it from him instead and set off towards Bristol. Silver casts himself adrift with a bag of gold and some nuts for the parrot, whilst Jim sails home in the certain knowledge that crime does pay. Michael Palin spends his share of the loot on a ticket around the world.
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy, before he became Robert and learned to insert his arm up a cow)
Nothing Happens. Often…
*All literature is a footnote to Faust. I have no idea what I mean by that. Woody Allen
A classic is a book that everybody is assumed to have read and often think they have. Alan Bennett
If ever there was a writer who proved that humour is timeless, that writer is probably Stephen Leacock. (I recommend ‘Moonbeams from the Larger Lunacy’, which was first published in 1915, should you wish to give him a try.) Though securely set in its own time, the humour continues to crackle brightly from every page. It is of a date, but definitely not dated. It is to Leacock’s article ‘Our Literary Bureau’ (contained in the abovementioned collection) that this post owes a huge debt of gratitude.