1. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
It is surely the most beautiful and tragic of novels. Its opening Arcadian pages are infused with such gluttonous nostalgia for the ‘city of aquatint’, my heart aches. Waugh was writing after his Oxford, but to me Cambridge holds that same charm. I may not carry a teddy bear under my arm, or recite passages from ‘The Waste Land’, but I can dream.
2. A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood
It is rare that a novel speaks to me as George does. His interior monologues are as indulgent as melted chocolate, and as melancholic as whisky for one. George gives a voice to my own stifled sadness, as I reassure myself with his affirmative words that ‘waking up begins with saying am and now.’
3. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was a poet, gay liberation pioneer and beard connoisseur. His poetry is at once majestic and trifling, spanning the ‘breadth of the universe’ and a single ‘spear of summer grass’. “Song of Myself”, the centrepiece to Leaves of Grass, has become my mantra, as I too ‘sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world’.
4. “The Unknown Unknown”, Mark Forsyth
Only 23 pages long, this is a delightful pocket essay on the wonders of bookshops. Forsyth’s discussion of the ‘things we do not know we don’t know’ (Donald Rumsfeld) is charming. This little truth is of great consolation when I enter the monument to knowledge that is the University Library and am confronted by its volumes of learning. You need not know it all, but know just that.
5. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
As I was revising this list, I realised that the works I had chosen were all written by men. I might not have asked why had it not been for Virginia Woolf’s polemic. Based on lectures given at Girton and Newnham in 1928, the opening critique of privilege in the University and society is still relevant today. As witty and engaging as it is political, it should have a place on every book shelf.