Into The Silence – Wade Davis
Taking the early Everest expeditions as his starting point, Davis spins two threads – a description of nature and how we respond to it, and our response to trauma. This book takes place on a vast canvas, from the Himalayas to the trenches, but Davis never loses the personal touch – for this blend of high narrative and sensitive biography it’s one of the most astounding books I’ve read. The final paragraph, setting out the possibility that Mallory might have somehow reached the Summit- and explaining why he would have continued walking – is both shocking and inspiring. Much like the rest of the book, it leaves the reader in two minds – awed at the achievements of its subjects, whilst saddened by the events that drove them.
The Once and Future King – TH White
This is almost certainly my favourite book, but I’d struggle to say exactly why. In technical terms, it’s a brilliant work of fantasy- marked by a light touch and emotional heft, and worth reading for the writing alone (I challenge anyone to read White’s description of a Spring night and not feel a shiver down the spine). But there’s also a personal attraction- I read it in my final year of school, mostly on afternoons off in the spring, and with its themes of universal change, loss, and the need to keep one’s head, it struck a chord. White’s philosophy is simple; might, no matter its intent, can never make right. The whole series is, in part, Arthur realising this, passing from triumph through tragedy before it all comes crashing down against Mordred. I read the final volume on a riverbank in May 2016- it was dusk on a Sunday, and across the river I could make out a recently extended badger sett and watch as the birds danced under a white cut sky. It was a beautiful evening- I reread those passages and find myself back on that bank.
A Month In The Country and How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup – JL Carr
Two wonderfully written books which strike a personal chord. A Month in the Country is almost elegiac- it depicts a world even the protagonist struggles to remember, and deals with how we situate ourselves in relation to the past and loss. Whenever I pass a doom painting, I always think of Birkin, up in the eaves with his tools to bring out the past. Steeple Sinderby is a deranged sporting fairytale- a Fenland village team propelling itself to the FA Cup title, aided by an overenthusiastic teenage reporter, the goalkeeper and Milkman Monkey Tonks, and the indescribable creature of the Fens that is Chairman Fangfoss (I made the mistake of reading the chapter in which he is interviewed for TV while on a bus. Ended up laughing so hard I had to stop reading and bite my lip). I was introduced to Carr by a former teacher- for the hours of reflection, entertainment, and sheer awe at Carr’s writing that led to, I owe him a debt.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle – William Ernest Bowman
Gut-bustingly funny. The most unqualified climbing expedition in history, 30,000 porters, and the worst cook in the world, trying to climb a 40,000 (and a half) foot mountain, dealing with a language reliant on indigestion, gymnastics in tents, and the threat of the Atrocious Snowman. Monstrously irreverent, utterly unsuitable for reading in public, and quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever read.
The Adventures of Tintin – Hergé
If I ever go on Mastermind, this would be my specialist subject. Worth reading not only for the art and thrill of the narrative, but for their strength as a social document- we see Tintin’s views age with Hérge’s, and the Ruritanian fantasies of the 1930s volumes give way to the paranoia of the Cold War. Hergé’s work is of its time- but that only makes it worthier of analysis. In Tintin, he created a protagonist who seems to defy time: the indestructible boy-scout trying to keep his head when all around are losing theirs.
History and Idealism – Robert Birley
I was fortunate to attend Sixth Form on a Scholarship named after Birley- knowing nothing about the man save that he had once been the school’s headmaster, I read this collection of his essays. They are grounded in liberal principles, with a distrust of authoritarianism (in all its forms) mingling with the idea that change for change’s sake is to be distrusted. The essays range from an analysis of authoritarianism to Birley’s thoughts on history, passing through sermons and Anti-Apartheid articles in the process. They are a defence of liberalism: of individual freedom, and of the institutions that facilitate that freedom.