So far I’ve lived in three different countries—New Zealand, the United States and Australia—and each move has necessitated shedding some books while keeping the ones that matter. I always retain at least two large bookshelves: a collection of classics and contemporary literature, anchored by the Odyssey, Iliad and Shakespeare, and topped by Dickens, and a bookshelf for fantasy, speculative fiction and mystery.
But why stick with these books?
For me, the books of a lifetime are those that create an entire immersive world: vivid and concrete as you imagine it. These books, in reading, generate the sensation of presence, of the outside world receding and the fiction living around you. I remember reading the mesmerizing opening chapters of Our Mutual Friend on a rainy winter’s morning in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the feeling of being on that dark London riverside, amongst the mud and coal-smoke, was acute.
Dickens, from the legal and spiritual labyrinths of Bleak House to the prisons of Little Dorrit and beyond, has that power of conjuring an entirely realized world. This lies in the scope of his imagination, the heightening effect of his descriptions, his abundant language and vibrant characterization.
Joseph Conrad wrote that the aim of the writer’s art, above all else, is to make you see. I think this does not mean simply to visualize but to comprehend the whole in the parts the writer can present, to see it clearly, illuminated by its own light. Conrad, who bridges the Victorians and modernism and joined the adventure story to something morally complex, is an often overlooked master. Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and Lord Jim maintain their hold on me.
Many works with the same compelling quality come crowding in, as I think on it. Tolkien is rightly understood as a master of world-building, but the impression of vast depth he creates is the key to his magic. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy sings through the clean, evocative beauty of its language, whereas Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast sequence is concrete due to the architectural detail of its stunning, elaborate, Dickensian prose.
I would add these novels, which draw on and embed history to create unique worlds: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (which brings to mind Borges and his labyrinths of thought and memory).
From my other shelves, the clarity with which P.D. James writes, and the way she uses mystery to pick apart the subtle contradictions of British society, makes her detective novels particularly intriguing. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose intricately combines so many literary traditions (mystery, history, Borges and the intellectual thriller) within a precisely realized, intellectually complex setting that it continues to resonate.
But every author I believe has one more bookshelf, a shelf for impossible books they dream of reading and books they want to write. Reading brought me back to Dickens and Dickensian mysteries for my Ph.D. thesis. So Dickens was still with me, years later, when I began my historical mystery, The Raven’s Seal. I was conscious of not trying to imitate the inimitable Dickens but of drawing on the strengths of his style. Creative writing classes instruct us to show and not tell, and aspire to a spare, minimalist style, but Dickens demonstrates that writing can show and tell, and joke and instruct and misdirect and even rage, and above all else entertain.
Similarly, contemporary literary fiction is suspicious of plot because life is not so constructed, but Dickens used plots, and particularly the mystery plot, as hinges for meaning, and I wanted to pick up on the same impulse in a mystery story. And, like Dickens in his last mystery, Edwin Drood, I created a world of my own, a fictional city and a prison, to frame my mystery so that I could focus on the story rather than the details of a real place which would be familiar to many readers and historians. I doubt if I can ever match Dickens’s genius, only acknowledge his influence.
Reading is an experience, and the books that mark you for life magnify experience. That quality of vividness and presence always brings me back to certain authors. For better or worse this makes itself felt in my own work, a lifetime’s effort among books.
Andrei Baltakmens is the author of The Raven's Seal. You can read an excerpt here.