Books and the Fall

by Maria on March 1, 2012

A month or so ago, in a pub in town, the chat was about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. We were talking about books that transport you. Reading them seems like your real life, and everyday things just a rude irruption into it. It suddenly occurred to me that Lyra’s reading of her alethiometer is like many people’s relationship with fiction. Early in the story, Lyra intuitively interprets the tarot-like symbols of the truth-telling device, but as she matures she loses the gift and must re-learn it the hard way as an adult.

As a child, you can completely disappear into the world of the story and experience an emotional and imaginative totality. Many readers continue with that intense immersion through their teens, often through genre fiction (though all fiction is genre, if you ask me). But the high gets harder and harder to find and is nearly always attenuated in some way, not least by the cares of an adult life.

I got to thinking about how books can re-create that lost paradise for me. There are a couple of ways it can still happen; identifying strongly with the main character, being brought into another world, imaginative or historical, that is just strange and convincing enough to make me wistful for it (the Avatar phenomenon), or simply immersion in a ripping good yarn. Some books that have recently made me feel like that rarest thing, a happy teenager, are Tim Winton’s Cloud Street, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside (which we did a seminar on last year).

I’m curious about what others think. Can you ever go back? What sort of books do it, and how?

{ 97 comments }

1

Don McArthur 03.01.12 at 6:42 pm

Alas, none. I’m 61, and the magic appears to be over.

2

socratic_me 03.01.12 at 6:45 pm

I find I read mostly non-fiction on the intertubes these days, but I recently read (listened to, actually, as I was on the road) Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and found it swept me away over and over again. For me, it was about characters that were not me but were people I understood and liked and the fact that they were incredibly well written and had their own wry wit about them. First fiction book I have really gotten into in a good long while.

3

Maria 03.01.12 at 6:52 pm

Don, that’s funny, as I remembered while writing this comments by male authors in their sixties (names won’t come..) that they just don’t read fiction any more at all – probably for this reason.

Socratic, I did wonder if nonfiction can have the same effect for others. But yes, characters that feel like people you know can do it.

4

J. Otto Pohl 03.01.12 at 6:58 pm

I am currently reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg and I find the underbelly of Scandinavia fascinating. The Copenhagen he describes seems completely different from the one I was in for a mere week some twenty years ago. For the same reason I really enjoyed Stieg Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I always thought of Sweden as a very calm, sedate, bourgeois, and Lutheran country inhabited by people resembling Mr. Rogers. Plus Greenland is cold so Hoeg’s novel lets me vicariously escape from the heat of equatorial Africa a little bit.

5

Soulless Merchant of Fear 03.01.12 at 7:05 pm

For me to get absorbed into a fictional world, the book requires three things: a feeling of truth, that the author understands how people think and feel; a degree of emotional intensity, because otherwise I won’t care what’s happening; and clear prose, because if I have to decode the prose, it pulls me back enough from events to get emotionally invested. (That’s not a dig on ornate language; but its distancing effect is real.) I’m pushing forty, and recently “fiction absorption” has hit me twice, both courtesy of the Old Masters: Great Expectations and Moby-Dick. Holy chocolate-frosted shitballs, the power in those.

Ahab rants: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me?”

That shit’s intense. It’s hard not to get sucked into the adventures of the mothafuckin’ Pequod.

6

Kiwanda 03.01.12 at 7:22 pm

I honestly don’t feel that I was any more “transported” by fiction or music when I was a child than now. The main change I notice is that random sentimental crap that now makes me weepy, which never happened when I was a child (well, maybe the end of LOTR at 14, for very particular reasons). On the other hand, eating is a less intense experience.

7

agm 03.01.12 at 7:22 pm

Hold on, Lyra ages? I totally did not get any sense of aging significantly, the novels seems to me to occur in a very short span of time, only a few months at most. That was a major point to me, that things had to be done now, because the severing tragedy was imminent.

The adult woman in the third novel was not Lyra, is was a scientists from another world.

8

Omega Centauri 03.01.12 at 7:41 pm

I think its tougher to meet Souless’s requirements as we get older. Feeling of truth -we know enough about the world, physics, human nature, probablity, to be so easily fooled. And characters, we require greater depth to find them credible or to be sympathetic to them.

9

Doctor Slack 03.01.12 at 7:43 pm

Soulless Merchant of Fear is right on the money about Moby Dick. One of those books that I always dragged my feet about reading, and then when I got around to reading it: thoroughly absorbing. Even dare I say it an easy read.

I find that the ability to be absorbed by a book hasn’t exactly changed for me, but the kind of book it takes to absorb me is different. As a kid, all that was required was a raygun or a sword on the cover and I was off: the author’s actual story was really just a springboard for my own imagination, and playtime was spent essentially dreaming up fanfics about the stuff I’d read (though the word “fanfic” wasn’t popular yet). As an adult, I require the author to have done more work: I want to learn something, to be surprised or dazzled, to marvel at things like attention to detail or the rendering of characters or a fascinating literary conceit. If it can do that, a good book still gives me the same creative charge I felt when I was a kind — but I can’t get it from pulp anymore. Historical fiction (in the brain candy department), nonfiction (especially ambitious and well-written historical scholarship), or just plain fiction are the main plausible sources of a fix.

10

common reader 03.01.12 at 7:48 pm

The Known World by Edward P. Jones is capable of taking the reader places s/he may not want to go, but should. Although peculiarly American, it may resonate with anyone experiencing the simultaneous crumbling and erecting of walls – emotional, political, economic – in a disrupted society.

11

Steve LaBonne 03.01.12 at 8:02 pm

Music and poetry are as magical and indispensable to me as always (I was so deeply absorbed in the recent Met HD broadcast of Götterdämmerung that the whole thing seemed to go by in barely an hour) but I’ve never been a great fiction reader.

12

Aidan Kehoe 03.01.12 at 8:09 pm

I get it from Bulgakov’s writing, probably because it’s fiction(/magic realism) from a world I know a limited amount about, so it’s a learning opportunity as well as good storytelling. I seem to have the same instincts and tastes as the good Doctor Slack. I’ve only read Hadzhi Murat from Tolstoy, maybe I should move there next.

I find it difficult to go back to that feeling in works set in places and cultures I know well, or, conversely, in works where the writer is creating the background or civilisation out of whole cloth, since I will continually be distracted by inconsistencies or improbabilities. For some reason Iain M. Banks still works, though.

13

Tedra Osell 03.01.12 at 8:09 pm

I still, if/when I am feeling depressed, re-read Watership Down.

Another, more recent book, that had that kind of impact for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also Water for Elephants.

So yes, I think that kind of immersion still happens for me. I very rarely read fiction any more, though, which makes me sad.

14

ingrid robeyns 03.01.12 at 8:20 pm

Bulgakov does the trick for me too – though probably other books may too, if only I had the time to read them. Since work loads are at an all time high and the retirement age will be increased in order to save the Dutch pension funds from collapsing, it’s going to take me while before I can seriously return to fiction, I fear… But when that day comes, I will come here to this tread to find out what I need to read :-) Pullman first.

15

Andrew Smith 03.01.12 at 8:33 pm

I also happily wasted my teenagerhood immersed in fictional landscapes but I have seldom managed the same kind of obsession since. I blame the interwebs and computer games for this – the bath is much broader but shallower now. One interlude that does stand out is ‘Last and First Men’ by Olaf Stapleton. The sheer evocativeness of this old fashioned narrative refuses to leave me.

16

Emma in Sydney 03.01.12 at 8:37 pm

I can still disappear into the books I know well, Austen, Eliot, Trollope and Dickens, especially if I have time to immerse myself and am not grabbing bits on the run. Most recently, I completely regained that utter flow of childhood reading with Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Something about the audacious pov of semi-second person, I think, and a wonderful character. The next one comes out this year.
I recently discovered (maybe even here?) EF Benson’s Lucia novels of 1920s England and read them all in a gulp (because you can find such tings with a Kindle). Different worlds fascinate, as J. Otto noted above.
At 50 I find I can listen to and appreciate serious music that I couldn’t sit still for an a young woman, and that is a whole new thing to learn and look forward to.

17

dbk 03.01.12 at 8:40 pm

I’ve recently discovered the humane and delightful Alexander McCall Smith, and keep up with his prolific production in both the Sunday Philosophy Club Series and the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series (shout-out to J. Otto Pohl: the latter is set in Botswana, and is wonderful). When I was young I was devoted to the great 19th century novelists, and keep trying to return to them – but one finds one’s attention span shortened by demands of daily life. A nice substitute for me has been watching the BBC series of many of these – e.g. Trollope’s Parliamentary series (the Pallisers), which was superb, or the Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy). I read Stieg Larsson’s trilogy last summer and liked all three volumes; I read some of Jo Nesbo’s works recently, and didn’t care for them so much. I do find generally that it’s harder to achieve that wonderful sense of being transported by a work of fiction I had felt as a girl; perhaps the only book from my youth that reliably still transports me is P&P, which I reread fairly regularly.

18

Sebastian 03.01.12 at 8:44 pm

Charles de Lint. I could easily be convinced that he almost lives in the world he writes about. And it is just close enough to the real world that he might be able to send us his books and short stories from there.

19

Merp 03.01.12 at 8:49 pm

The big doorstop Pynchons. Every character feels fully realized and complex; we just don’t get to see a whole lot of many of them. Maybe that’s why they feel that way. Maybe not.

And everyone’s in constant motion without really achieving anything: trying to figure out where they fit in an incomprehensible world, or pursuing things they’ll never get, or doing things they don’t understand for reasons they don’t comprehend, or else after having done understandable things for comprehensible reasons realize there was another dimension to what they were doing that they were completely ignorant of which changes things completely. Of course a few are able to stop doing all that, and achieve a kind of grace.

It’s so much like the actual world how can you not just fall in? Plus there’s a lot higher concentration of puns, dick jokes and crazy sex than in real life. At least mine.

20

mollymooly 03.01.12 at 9:07 pm

Short stories. Carver, Trevor.

21

Maria 03.01.12 at 9:26 pm

agm – sorry, I don’t think she ages much but finds out that (after puberty?) that she’ll need to acquire the formal skills. Apparently there is a follow-up on Lyra in a more recent edition of book III which has her doing a PhD and formally learning the alethiometer. See the wikipedia entry.

22

Maria 03.01.12 at 9:29 pm

Thanks, Soulless. I’d always thought Moby Dick would be too long and difficult.

Oh yes, Bulgakov! Though only Master & Margarita and Black Dog do it for me.

Merp, I enjoyed Mason&Dixon though wasn’t transported. I’m currently struggling gamely through Gravity’s Rainbow and only enjoying the odd bit of it. Too many characters! Too much plot! Overdose!

23

Merp 03.01.12 at 10:11 pm

Yeah, Gravity’s Rainbow has so many different things going on it’s hard to appreciate each thing. Mason&Dixon (my favorite, too) probably strikes the best balance between doing Pynchon things and having enough of a narrative thread that you can sort everything as you’re reading (which is weird, because half the book is just traipsing through the forest having adventures). Against the Day is probably the one that best matches my description though.

And yeah, everyone should at least take a run at Moby Dick. One of those “best of all time” books that is somehow better than its reputation.

24

David 03.01.12 at 10:11 pm

Proust.

25

Another Andrew Smith 03.01.12 at 10:21 pm

I still get that with a really rare book. To the Lighthouse, which I read as a teenage but didn’t understand, was a life changing read for me over the holidays: the perfect book for someone my age and stage of life (30 with kids and a new mortgage). Their thoughts were my thoughts and mine theirs.

Friends of Eddie Coyle did this for me also, though not to the same level.

26

Phil 03.01.12 at 10:28 pm

I loved M&D – and Vineland was wonderful – but when I think of the weeks I spent reading Gravity’s Rainbow it’s a bit like looking back on a debilitating illness. If you get lost in G’s R, you’re getting lost in the noise in Pynchon’s head (or possibly Slothrop’s), and that’s not a lot of fun. (Exhibit A: “You never did ‘the’, Kenosha Kid!”)

Against the Day has sat on my desk unread for some time now.

On the other hand, the Unconsoled is my favourite Ishiguro, and in my top ten favourite novels full stop, so it’s not as if I’m hooked on realism.

I find I get dragged into most novels that I read, while I’m reading them; I’m a bit equivocal about the experience, & don’t read that many. There aren’t many that create an imaginative world that stays with me after I’ve re-emerged, but it still happens sometimes. Wolf Hall was good.

27

guthrie 03.01.12 at 10:30 pm

I think that the immersion gets harder as an adult because you have more experiences and know more, so that either suspension of disbelief is harder or you’ve seen this type of story/ characters/ world before and you lose the feeling of exploration which helps suck you in.

It is still possible to get back, but harder and I at least am pickier about the books I read.
It also doesn’t help that I’ve started writing stories myself, so have fictional worlds of my own in which to immerse myself.

28

JakeB 03.01.12 at 10:31 pm

I have read the Patrick O’Brians all six or seven times nows. I admit I sometimes think of Jack and Stephen as old friends.

I had a similar sense of immersion with Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series although its intensity is such that I haven’t really wanted to try rereading.

Like some others, I found Moby Dick unputdownable. Read it in one or two days. Same with War and Peace. Maybe because I came to them outside of school and just tried them for fun, there wasn’t the heavy-sigh-once-more-into-the-breaches-dear-friends-summoning-up-0ne’s-reserves-to-read-this-damned-thing feeling I associate with some other classics.

One thing that I absolutely can’t tolerate any more is the particular trick of murdering or torturing hero or heroine’s family/friends/lover in order to jack up the intensity. That’s in fact why I decided not to read Pullman any more: he does that garbage in the middle of a series he wrote earlier than Dark Materials. Nowadays, I dump the book as soon as a scene like that comes along. Such events had better truly feel essential and natural to the course of the book.

It’s mostly genre fiction that leads me to that sense of being transported, these days. I prefer to reserve my “serious” reading energy for history books and I hate urban miserablism and time is always short.

I will admit to having gotten that sense of the world disappearing around me from Jack Campbell’s space operas and Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter books. Hrmb. I do see Vasily Grossman’s _Life and Fate_ on my shelves, which I read last fall and found to be exceedingly involving, in that classic Russian novel kind of way. Although exceedingly bleak.

29

me 03.01.12 at 11:03 pm

Ursula Le Guin. When I was a kid I read The Wizard of Earthsea 1000 times and it transported me in a way that LOTR did not (though I read that about 5 times). In my 40s I read The Dispossessed and it did just the same. She is an extraordinary writer, and all the more so because it is a wholly imagined universe.

30

Another Andrew Smith 03.01.12 at 11:25 pm

I still get that with a really rare book. To the Lighthouse, which I read as a teenage but didn’t understand, was a life changing read for me over the holidays: the perfect book for someone my age and stage of life (30 with kids and a new mortgage). Their thoughts were my thoughts and mine theirs.

Friends of Eddie Coyle did this for me also, though not to the same level.

31

Warbo 03.01.12 at 11:27 pm

Nitpick: Tim Winton (not Swinton) wrote Cloudstreet (not Cloud Street).

32

Steve Williams 03.01.12 at 11:36 pm

Am just finishing Master & Margarita now, and it’s been fantastic. Looking online for more information, I discovered the depressing news that Hollywood have got their mitts on it, a script has been written by the woman who wrote ‘Black Beauty’ and they want to Tim Burton to direct it. I honestly can’t imagine anything worse.

33

Sus. 03.01.12 at 11:40 pm

It’s fun to take a minute to consider what it is that’s drawn me into some of my favorite books. My requirements are pretty simple: good writing (an awkward phrase jerks me right back to the present and leaves me looking for my red pen), and strong unique characters. I love a book that makes me laugh out loud no matter where I’m reading it (I recall being on an airplane, reading Stiff by Mary Roach, and trying to explain to my curious seat mate that I was laughing about a passage in a book about how cadavers are used in research; no further conversation was attempted). For me, it can happen with both fiction (Stieg Larsson’s books also comes to my mind) and non-fiction (most recently Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs of growing up and returning to Africa).

34

Alan 03.01.12 at 11:50 pm

I have to stand up for Gravity’s Rainbow; other than SK’s Fear and Trembling (which de-converted me from Christianity), no other book has returned to my thoughts as often since I first read it in 1977. Yes, it’s sprawling and raw and harsh but it’s also extremely intelligent and vivid. Has to be one of my top ten life’s reads whether fiction or non-.

Recent stuff that’s stuck emotionally: The Imperfectionists, Shadow Tag, and especially Olive Kitteridge. The latter contains one story about a lounge piano player that I regard to be (as a self-contained tale) short story perfection.

35

JanieM 03.02.12 at 12:07 am

The older I get, the more of my reading is rereading, and I’m ever less willing/able to tolerate fiction that’s unremittantly dark and depressing; life is depressing enough all on its own.

I first read LOTR when I was fifteen and have “read” it probably once a year since then. I skim fast through certain parts now and still cry at the same places where I’ve always cried. (“I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” “Thus came Aragorn…” “I will not say do not weep…” “We will meet again in the willow meads of Tasarinan.” — Clearly I have a strong sentimental streak. :) (Almost as much as with Shakespeare or GBS, there’s a quote in LOTR for every occasion.)

But other things I loved when I was a kid don’t move me or absorb me any more. I just reread Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, and while I enjoyed it, the first person narration seemed just a little too precious, something I wouldn’t have recognized as a teenager.

Other stuff –

– Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. I get lost in that world and I love the characters (Nanapush and Lipsha especially). She’s an odd writer for me: some of her books I reread every few years, others I can’t even finish.

– Middlemarch — loved it (repeated readings) in college/grad school, couldn’t finish it when I tried in maybe my forties, read it again a couple of years ago and was back to loving it.

I think Erdrich and Eliot pull me into their worlds so strongly in part because they both seem to love the world and everyone in it, in the sense that most of their characters are flawed (like real people), and some of their characters are villainously bad (like some real people), and yet — there’s no judgment. I wish I could love and forgive my idiotic younger self the way Eliot seems to have forgiven hers, presuming that Dorothea is in some sense a stand-in for the younger Mary Ann Evans.

Other books where I can still lose myself:

– Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

– Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and The Children of God. Who would have thought that “Jesuits in space” could make such absorbing fiction? MDR gets a little too sentimental at times, even for me, but not enough to make me stop liking the books.

– Dickens: Our Mutual Friend.

– Pynchon — I really enjoyed Vineland when I read it for a facilitated book group a couple of years ago, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to try the longer ones yet.

36

Billikin 03.02.12 at 12:12 am

Anne Rice is marvelous at creating her own worlds, whether fantastical or historical. Maybe I am easy, but any number of writers come to mind: Rafael A. Lafferty, Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson, John Le Carre, Kobo Abe, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. . . . I still like Thomas Malory. :)

37

Greg 03.02.12 at 12:58 am

How cool to see some of my favourite books already in these comments…

Big shout out for Gravity’s Rainbow – but no, it didn’t transport me, partly because roughly once a page I had to pause for a moment of wonder at the virtuosity of a sentence or the richness of an idea.

Moby Dick I ended up loving but it was a struggle for a period in the middle, somehwere around the chapter about the meaning of white. I’m jealous of those who found it a breeze.

The Imperfectionists didn’t transport me but stayed with me for weeks.

Of all those mentioned, only Wolf Hall really took me somewhere else, and kept me hungrily, blearily going long after lights-out, like every book used to when I was a kid.

And I have to add Neal Stephenson, especially Cryptonomicon, his first that I came across. My beloved and I lived in different cities, she was talking about this great book she was reading, I was skint but couldn’t wait to see what the fuss was about so I skipped a meal and bought it. I caught up with her about 100 pages in, and pretty soon we were calling each other up to talk about what just happened in the book.

(We had been best friends for 14 years before we got together as a couple and fell in love. One of my other friends asked at the time what that was like, and I compared it to having this book on your shelf for years that you know is supposed to be a wonderful classic, but you’re never quite interested enough to actually get around to reading it. And eventually one Sunday afternoon you find yourself slightly bored and in the right kind of mood, and you finally pick it up, and it turns out to be this completely amazing thing that you never imagined.)

I wonder if one of the reasons genre novels still have the ability to transport is that they don’t tend to forget about the plot and the pacing. The greats don’t either, but novelists with pretentions to greatness sometimes seem to think it’s beneath them.

38

Don A in Pennsyltucky 03.02.12 at 1:31 am

At 61, I can recall being dragged into Pern with the dragon riders, and Ursula LeGuin’s later works like Orsinian Tales and Left Hand of Darkness also pulled me into other places. More recently, I have discovered Africa as it appears in Alexander McCall Smith’s books about the Number One Ladies Detective Agency which is probably closer to reality than I think it is but it is still so far away from my world that being transported into that one is a joyful experience and I don’t think I shall ever forget the idea of 97%.

39

TheSophist 03.02.12 at 1:42 am

I am so glad to see LOTR appear so frequently in this thread, and, like JanieM above, I get tears in my eyes every time I get to certain bits (“I will not say ‘do not weep’…” always does it for me. Interestingly, I think I get more tears now than when I read it as a child; I guess I’ve just evolved into a sentimental old fool…

I’ve lucky enough to teach it, and therefore read it, every spring for the last few years. A couple of days ago a student complained “You said Eowyn was one of the strong female characters, but all she’s done is complain about being left behind.” Tonight they read the Pelennor Fields. I am very much looking forward to tomorrow’s class.

I would say that about 3/4 of each year’s class is absolutely passionate about LOTR. The school does an International Foods Festival on the last day before spring break and each year my class does a Middle Earth table, where we serve lembas, miruvor, and other delicacies. Last year two girls baked a cake in the shape of Mordor, complete with precisely sculpted chocolate icing ered lithui and ephel duath (the mountain ranges around Mordor), a graham cracker Black gate, a dark chocolate dark tower (topped by a marshmallow eye) and Mount Doom was a mound of chocolate with a glass of dry ice inside. When water was added, it erupted.

The book I’ve read within the last decade that hooked me was Infinite Jest. The chapters set at the Ennett House House (sic) did an indescribably good job of reaching in to the core of what it is to be a newly sober addict. I miss DFW very much.

40

Matt 03.02.12 at 1:42 am

Bulgakov is my wife’s favorite author, and I’m a fan, too. (Sadly, it turns out, he was a major dick in real life, especially to his wives.) For fans of Master and Margarita, I very highly recommend, if ever in Moscow, following the path of Ivan Bizdomni from the Patriarch Ponds while chasing after the Devil. It’s a pleasant walk and fun to do.

41

32Groove 03.02.12 at 1:57 am

Two novels of late have transported me to an alternative reality. Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” and China Mieville’s “Embassytown”.

42

MPAVictoria 03.02.12 at 1:59 am

“We had been best friends for 14 years before we got together as a couple and fell in love. One of my other friends asked at the time what that was like, and I compared it to having this book on your shelf for years that you know is supposed to be a wonderful classic, but you’re never quite interested enough to actually get around to reading it. And eventually one Sunday afternoon you find yourself slightly bored and in the right kind of mood, and you finally pick it up, and it turns out to be this completely amazing thing that you never imagined.”

Greg you are one lucky bastard.
/No offence meant.

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Harold 03.02.12 at 2:54 am

I have enjoyed discovering the novels of George Sand: “The Master Pipers” and “The Miller of d’Angibault”, “Valentine”. These are marvelous and reminded me of the Brontes.

I have also loved discovering some British “gothic” fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries recently, such as Godwin’s “Caleb Williams”, Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer,” along with some very early twentieth c. gothic, such as John Meade Falkner’s “The Nebuly Coat” — this last particularly took me back because it has glancing references to earlier works by writers one has read in one’s youth.

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Omega Centauri 03.02.12 at 3:11 am

A book has to come at the right time of life, and for the right reasons to be appreciated that way. An English teacher challenged me to read MobyDick when I was a bit too young for it. I liked the story, but parsing the language took too much effort. I always thought Dickens was simply dreadful, way too gloomy, and I couldn’t care about any of the characters. Of course those were all school assignments, and I was a slow reader, so an assignment like that was pure torture, a weekend a should have spend playing outdoors in thw woods, that I’d have to spend plowing through a book I didn’t like.

I know LOTR got me, I couldn’t put it down. I had avoided it when I was a kid, because it sounded like typical nursery rhyme stuff (dragons and princes and stuff), so I was in my mid twenties….

45

Avid Reader 03.02.12 at 3:39 am

I love Bulgakov’s Country Doctor’s Notebook. It’s a collection of short stories, not surrealist at all but very Russian. And humane, like Oliver Sacks.

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JanieM 03.02.12 at 4:07 am

TheSophist — that’s a great story. I’m on the train with my grown-up son right now, to whom (and his sister) I read LOTR aloud over the course of weeks (months?) when they were maybe 6-7 years old. He loves it as much as I do so I showed him your comment and we were dazzled over the idea of someone going to that much trouble to make a Mordor cake.

But the real reason I’m responding to your comment is that you’ve given me hope that I can get through Infinite Jest one of these days. I loved Consider the Lobster, and it took me two and a half patient tries but I finished Everything and More (and sort of understood a lot of it….). Broom of the System was okay, but that and a couple of aborted tries at Infinite Jest made me wonder if I was just going to love DFW’s non-fiction and struggle with his fiction.

I’ll try again with Infinite Jest and be more patient.

DFW is a whole big tangent…I miss him too and still get sad about him, which is weird because I knew almost nothing about him before he died. There’s something about…well, let me not threadjack.

47

Junius Ponds 03.02.12 at 4:47 am

Complete immersion in an alternate world, since turning 25 … doesn’t happen much.

Patrick McGrath, Martha Peake
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Not the other two of his that I’ve read.

48

aspergum 03.02.12 at 4:49 am

DeLillo’s White Noise did that for me. Something so uncannily real and yet otherworldly about it (with the bonus of hilarity).

Seconding also for Jones’ Known World.

49

Emma in Sydney 03.02.12 at 5:22 am

I’m glad someone else mentioned Wolf Hall as well as me. Even though I was reading it on a Kindle, I felt that I had to physically swim up from the depths of the late 1500s every time someone wanted my attention. That strange feeling of raising one’s eyes from the words, looking around and thinking ‘where am I?’. Mantel’s French Revolution book, A Place of Greater Safety, is pretty good too. Especially if you read it in Paris.
I’m currently in 1870s New York with Edith Wharton, which is just fine.

50

Peter T 03.02.12 at 5:38 am

On another tack, I’ve been reading to my mother for a few years now (her sight is too poor for her to read, but she loves books). I find reading aloud engages with the book much more than silent reading. Even books I knew well, that I could not read with the same pleasure and immersion as I once did, become alive and gripping again when narrated. And poetry is often so intense as to embarrass me. You need the right kind of listener (we often stop to savour a really delicious piece of prose together).

51

js. 03.02.12 at 5:40 am

Hopscotch is almost certainly the last novel I read that had me totally spellbound. (Actually, no, that would be Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, but it was a much darker kind of spell.) In general, I think, to quote Greg (at 36), I’m attracted to “the virtuosity of a sentence or the richness of an idea” more than anything else—The Waves is close to an all-time favorite.

And to the Pynchon lovers: no V.? Think that’s my favorite (though frankly I’ve read neither Gravity’s Rainbow nor Mason & Dixon).

52

Zora 03.02.12 at 6:03 am

I read constantly, obsessively, and have done so for close to sixty years. Immersion? No problem. Some books that worked for me when I was ten no longer work; some books do. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Ursula K. LeGuin, Murasaki Shikibu.

53

Alex Prior 03.02.12 at 6:23 am

JakeB. Thank you so much for “urban miserabilism”, and everybody else for a remarkable job in adding to my reading list.

In that spirit, the early books of Michael Marshall Smith (before his hack work) are wonderful. “Spares”, “One Of Us” and “Only Forward” (I still want to live in the Cat neighbourhood), and have had to replace my copies twice through general household wear and tear.

54

Peter Glavodevedhzhe 03.02.12 at 7:04 am

I remember reading Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as a 12 year old, and how it changed my idea of what a book could do, be. Finishing them–the story of Hari Selden, the Mule, Preem Palver, the arcana of psychohistory–I felt as though I learned a secret that I hadn’t even known was a secret. I didn’t realize there was even these ideas that could be known. Those familiar with the trilogy, esp. if you read it in your early teens, might know what I mean.

Later, in my 30s, I got hold of all three books, and that sense of immersion, wonder, lost time, returned as if it had never left me. At the time, I had just left a graduate program in literature, under a cloud and sour on reading heavy books. It occured to me, eventually, though I didn’t want to admit it at first, that I never felt as strongly Milton, Spenser, etc. as I did the these three books.

55

Phil 03.02.12 at 7:33 am

The last really immersive and memorable book I read was Diana Wynne Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy; she was a wonderful writer for building worlds, building characters and hanging it all off what seems like a one-damn-thing-after-another event-driven plot, but generally turns out not to be.

56

Maria 03.02.12 at 7:55 am

Warbo – fixed, thanks. (duh!)

57

Greg 03.02.12 at 8:33 am

Oooh! I forgot! Cormac McCarthy! Blood Meridian! Got lost in that thing for – I dunno, days? Months? A mythical length of time.

And it occurred to me that I read a lot when I’m on the road, halfway between worlds, which seems to help with the whole transformation thing.

And MPAVictoria, you know what, I totally agree.

58

Chris Bertram 03.02.12 at 8:56 am

Glad you enjoyed Cloud Street. Breath also had that effect on me, as did a bunch of Anne Tyler novels of which, looking back, I think I was most captivated by Breathing Lessors and The Amateur Marriage.

59

Neville Morley 03.02.12 at 9:00 am

Immediate thoughts echo a lot that’s already been said: there are some writers who can still manage to create the combination of a convincing alternative reality (often by keeping it quite close to current reality but changing it in subtle ways), engaging characters and gripping plot – Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Mieville (for me, above all The City and the City, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I find that I can read most of my favourites from childhood only through a haze of self-conscious nostalgia – but was delighted to find last year that Russel Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child still casts its spell perfectly.

60

ajay 03.02.12 at 10:03 am

One thing that I absolutely can’t tolerate any more is the particular trick of murdering or torturing hero or heroine’s family/friends/lover in order to jack up the intensity.

So much for Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet…

For me, as for many others, the immersive effect comes with the setting, not the characters. I can read a book set in the present day West and enjoy it immensely, without becoming immersed. But something alien – the Renaissance, or Middle Earth, or China – and well described has a completely different effect.

I’d say also it might have something to do with the authorial voice: I never got immersed in that way in Stephenson, or Mieville, or indeed Margaret Atwood, because they’ve all got subtext that they feel strongly about and are trying to get across. It’s more like hearing them tell you the story than actually being there. The setting’s there only because the story needs somewhere to be told in.
Immersive authors have the trick of giving the impression that there’s more to the world than you’re seeing. Tolkien in particular.

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tomslee 03.02.12 at 1:27 pm

I share the weaknesses of many commenters here (LOTR was my much-asked for Christmas present at 13, and finished within a week. What a great week that was). I don’t think adulthood is the problem too much so long as you find the right book — but it’s often a YA or genre book; I loved His Dark Materials, and I agree with whoever above said that many literary authors aren’t well suited. Others that have done it for me over the years are:

- some genre fiction (especially on planes), Stephen White’s “Kill Me” being one that stands out,

- when I was 25, The Colour Purple was one of the few books I’ve ever read in a single sitting. Trainspotting would have been another if I didn’t have young children at the time; we were on holiday and I think I became a foul-mouthed Scotsman for a few days.

- of literary fiction, Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (and I loved the film) and Murakami’s “After Dark” are about the only two that I can think of this way.

- occasional non-fiction with a narrative thrust (maybe this is why Gladwell’s so successful): Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation”.

Meanwhile, I borrowed Gravity’s Rainbow from a friend about 18 months ago. It’s still on the shelf staring accusingly at me. I think I’m at page 73.

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tomslee 03.02.12 at 1:29 pm

Insert standard JW Mason complaint about CT comment formatting here.

63

Donald Johnson 03.02.12 at 2:00 pm

“Immersive authors have the trick of giving the impression that there’s more to the world than you’re seeing. Tolkien in particular.”

Yeah. One of the things that sucked me in when I first read it (at 17 or so, and then maybe a dozen times since) was in the early chapters, when the hobbits are hiking through the woods of the Shire all muddy and sweaty and then they look back and see a Nazgul on top of the hill. The previous night they’d spent talking to elves who were on their way to the immortal lands across the sea. Scenes that were exactly like my own life (taking shortcuts through the woods that led you into tangles that got you all scratched up) side by side with 2000 year old sorcerers who’d made a pact with the devil (or his righthand man Sauron) and elves on their way to the earthly paradise–well, I couldn’t put it down.

I’ve seen people complain that so much of Tolkien is just about people hiking, but that’s a big part of what attracted me. A few chapters later the hobbits are complaining about being bitten by little gnats, and at night Frodo and Aragorn see heat lightning on the horizon which we later learn was Gandalf fighting off the Witch King of Angmar and his Nazgul underlings. I’d had much the same experience, except it was really just heat lightning.

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C. 03.02.12 at 2:44 pm

Over the last two decades, Haruki Murakami has consistently titillated my adolescent melancholy. I haven’t read the 1Q84 yet, Amazon delivered it on release day, but I’ve been so busy for the last 6 months that I’ve been denying myself the pleasure until I get the chance to dive into it and stay in for a while. But, I’ll admit Norwegian Wood, the Rat trilogy and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are pleasures up there with DFW, and Murakami regularly delivers me the “imaginative and emotional totality” that unifies my enjoyment of good fantasy and sci-fi and my Dickens/Trollope/Dostoievski sprawling novel side. I suppose the longer novels somehow remind me of reading everything Dost. for the first time in high school and college.

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TheSophist 03.02.12 at 3:29 pm

What a wonderful thread! So many thanks to all.

My Science Fiction and Fantasy class (taught to HS seniors) has a supplemental reading list that contains Mieville, Stephenson, LeGuin, Gaiman, and Russell (along with a few others). Seeing all of you speak your passion for these texts helps me believe that I made good choices.

I hope you all remembered to celebrate Aragorn’s birthday yesterday.

A somewhat relevant vignette, which perhaps speaks to the depth and breadth of the love that many people have for LOTR – Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek spoke on our campus recently to an audience both from our school and the local community. When, in the midst of some reaaally conceptually difficult physics stuff, he made a LOTR reference (“one arrow of time to rule them all” was the exact quote) a substantial portion of the audience began laughing and applauding. There was something slightly magical about seeing this great scientist standing at the podium with a delighted grin on his face as his audience acknowledged the love that they shared.

…and JanieM – IJ is sooo worth it. My one suggestion might be to not worry too much early on about keeping all the characters straight and understanding exactly what the world looks like. All (or at least enough) will be revealed over time (with puppets.)

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LFC 03.02.12 at 4:21 pm

I’ve just glanced at a couple of comments but I see a mention or two of Wolf Hall. I don’t read much fiction these days but I did read Wolf Hall. I found it difficult to get through, though I persevered and finished it, and I disliked the choppiness of the small scenes. As soon as the reader got into a scene it would be over. Some good writing in it, though, and I think Mantel drew the male characters as convincingly as she drew the women — not just Cromwell and More, but also the adolescents: e.g. Cromwell’s son and Henry VIII’s acknowledged but illegitimate son.

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Maria 03.02.12 at 4:26 pm

Greg, what a lovely story. You transported me, there.

One I’d forgotten is John Crowley’s Little Big which Henry introduced me to. It’s got family epic, Faerie and America. Just reading the characters’ names – Daily Alice, Smokey Barnstable – gives me a shiver. I was reminded of it by a comment above about needing to replenish the house supply of a book. This is one you buy in twos and threes and give away.

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LFC 03.02.12 at 4:27 pm

I see Greg @57 mentioned Blood Meridian. This I think is a superb novel — though after reading it once I never had any inclination to go back and read it again. Judge Holden is one of the classic embodiments of conscience-less will-to-power (or something like that).

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Jacob 03.02.12 at 4:54 pm

It works for me with audio books now– listening to War and Peace in the middle of the night by myself, and listening to Winnie the Pooh and the Roald Dahl books and the Lemony Snicket books with my daughter.

Reading Ozma of Oz and the Neverending Story to my daughter gave me some of the same thrill. I’m no longer very good at entering fictional worlds by myself, I see, but I can be carried along into them if I have company, recorded or real. I worry about when I’ll lose even that capacity, my attention too ennervated for long journeys over the mind’s sea.

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Kate 03.02.12 at 6:59 pm

Rivers of London. After I finished it, I wrote to the author to tell him the main character was identical to me. If you ignored that he was a young male mixed race member of the metropolitcan police who is apprenticed to a wizard (and I am middle-aged fat Welsh-american living in Belfast drinking too much wine but other than that, we are identical).

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JanieM 03.02.12 at 9:44 pm

Thanks, TheSophist, I’ll give IJ another try.

I remembered another get-lost-in-it book for me, of recent vintage: Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

A friend introduced me to Under Heaven a while back as one of the best books she had ever read. I didn’t think it was that great, but I liked it enough to try some of Kay’s others. I think it was right here on CT that someone called Tigana the best fantasy (?) novel ever written, but I could barely finish it. (Tastes differ….) Sailing to Sarantium, though, was good enough to get me going on the sequel, which is a definite for the rereread pile.

This is a great thread, and I’m looking forward to trying out books people are listing. In the “tastes differ” department, t’s interesting how mixed and remixed people’s likes and dislikes are. My best book-reading friend and I trade titles all the time, and after long years of knowing each other we’re still never sure whether the other one will enjoy what we’ve enjoyed.

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agm 03.02.12 at 10:32 pm

Maria, thanks for explaining that it’s been updated since I read :-)

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Theophylact 03.02.12 at 10:38 pm

So many will still do it for me. The Sword in the Stone (the original version, not the one rewritten for The Once and Future King); The City and the City; Little, Big; and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zout all have that transporting effect.

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Michel X. 03.02.12 at 10:49 pm

JanieM – I absolutely agree on Kay’s duology: it’s a fantastic piece of work.

I have yet to lose that sense of wonder and immersion from reading fiction. The same books won’t do it for me any more (Goosebumps and The Hardy Boys used to suffice), but it happens pretty much whatever I read. I tend to prefer well-written fantasy (there’s too much drek out there) that defies genre stereotypes such as Steven Erikson’s Malanzan Book of the Fallen, most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s works (save the Fionavar Tapestry, which was all too like Power Rangers), and R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing. I’m also a huge fan of historical novels, particularly those set during the Saxon and Danish invasions of Britain. In that department, nothing stands the test of time half as well as Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles trilogy, which is the best (and most historical) portrayal of Arthur that I’ve ever read.

I also enjoy his other works set in the periods prior to the development of firearms (Stonehenge is quite an impressive work), as well as Robert Low’s Oathsworn series (his use of language is quite something) and Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series (these are just pure cotton candy for me).

When I run out, I just read Scandinavian sagas. I guess I’m a titch bloodthirsty. But I have no trouble at all getting lost in those worlds–heck, I daydream about them all the time!

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Greg 03.02.12 at 11:34 pm

Thanks for the question, Maria. People are also being nice, thank you people.
I now have a couple of years’ worth of new books and authors to explore.

I keep coming back to this thread because I forgot something. I saw JanieM mentioned Barbara Kingsolver, and I wanted to put a word in for The Lacuna as a first-rate transportation device. Trotsky and Kahlo, how can you not win? A great book to experience, and almost as good just to think about later.

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TomOfTheNorth 03.02.12 at 11:44 pm

It would seem your pub is decidedly different from pubs around here……

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Hob 03.03.12 at 12:38 am

I’ve started rereading all of Robert Stone’s novels. I loved them in college mostly for the style and the politics– didn’t have enough of a real-life reference for the parts about work and love and unwise behavior. They work even better for me now.

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Laleh 03.03.12 at 1:31 am

For reading to transport me, it has to have some weight, some sense of enduring appeal, and a way with language. I -now past 40- can’t be bothered to read disposable fiction anymore, unless it is detective fiction, though they don’t irrupt or absorb in the same way. Really amazing works of fiction that have survived time do. In recent times Moby Dick and 2666 have done it. Bulgakov can do it just so easily, as can Marilyn Robinson. And Joyce (especially if you read him out loud, which I do). And China Mieville can really irrupt into real life in a weird way. I am neither a sci-fi nor a fantasy fan, but his books, with their hyperactive imaginary worlds and creatures, are pretty “intrusive” in that way. I find myself in his The City and the City some of the time, walking down the street.

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Merp 03.03.12 at 8:12 am

Oh man. Never Let Me Go. I’d forgotten that I walked around in a daze for a week or two after reading it. One of the few books I can think of where the plot isn’t utterly engrossing, in fact kind of boring, but the thematic resonance of the plot as it unfolds is so goddamn powerful that you get sucked in anyway.

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Phil 03.03.12 at 9:18 am

I’d forgotten that I walked around in a daze for a week or two after reading it.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and 1982 Janine had that effect on me. Lanark in particular wouldn’t let me go while I was reading it – it wasn’t just a late night to finish it, it was late nights to read one more chapter all the way through. Afterwards I was walking around in a thoroughly depressed daze, I should add – it’s a grim, grim book. (Janine is more upbeat, although you do have to identify with the worldview of a middle-aged p0rn addict.)

Finishing What a carve-up! gave me a similar sense of simultaneously having got the point of the plot and of Life Itself. So did Cloud Atlas, although I wouldn’t recommend that one to anyone but a sunny optimist – it depressed me for months.

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novakant 03.03.12 at 10:44 am

1982 Janine was an amazing reading experience for me as well. Also, but in very different ways: The Magic Mountain and The Man Without Qualities. Plus non-fiction: Truffaut’s Hitchcock interview. It helps to be in your 20s and a student. More recently, I got hooked on Franzen’s “Freedom”, but with less intensity.

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novakant 03.03.12 at 10:46 am

1982 Janine

close tag, sorry

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LFC 03.03.12 at 2:56 pm

Hob @77

imo, A Flag for Sunrise is esp. good

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NStudent 03.03.12 at 3:42 pm

I’m surprised Phil was the first one to mention Cloud Atlas – that really transported me, couldn’t put it down. Other books that mix up formats and play with authorship have also been some of the most immersive for me, such as Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

I love historical fiction that’s well researched and imbued with heavy doses of characterization, tragedy, humor and romance – I was totally engrossed by Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series in high school, and my interest in Roman history has now turned into a Classics major in college. Connie Willis’ time travel novels have stuck with me as well, in particular ‘Doomsday Book.’ Her book ‘To Say Nothing of The Dog’ is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read, rife with modern humor playing on Victorian mores, and all sorts of fun allusions.

The novels that have literally changed my mind are ‘A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’ by James Joyce (assigned in high school english class, and my first introduction to non-traditional narratives), and ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles.

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John Garrett 03.03.12 at 4:16 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever thought “what he said” as often as in this thread: who knew that so many people love Ursula Le Guin etc. But the reference to LITTLE BIG reminds me to add the great later John Crowley quartet of novels that begins with THE SOLITUDES and LOVE AND SLEEP. I guarantee amazement, fascination and delight!

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Uncle Ebeneezer 03.04.12 at 12:29 am

It’s been years since I read fiction, but…

A Prayer For Owen Meany- Irving
A Sacred Hunger- ??
The Secret History- Tartt
The Crow Road- Banks
Instance of the Fingerpost- Pears
In The Lake Of The Woods- O’ Brien (though Things They Carried is his best)
The Stand- King
The Dark Tower (whole series)- King
Geek Love
Never Let Me Go
Alaska, Hawaii & Texas- Michener
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Blindness- Saramago

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MikeN 03.05.12 at 9:39 am

Also swept away by LOTR and at Stranger in a Strange Land age 13 in 1967- a walking 60s cliche.

Along with HDM, “The Hunger Games” was absorbing enough for a 57-year-old. As with Pullman, the first book was great, the second off-peak and the third a let-down, but both left me with an intense feeling of “Boy, I wish I could have read this at thirteen.

And add another cheer for “Little, Big”.

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Peter F of Hong Kong 03.05.12 at 4:43 pm

“Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapleton, I read as a kid and stayed on my mind ever since, though I don’t know what I’d think of it now (I’m 62, so probably take the prize for oldest oldie on the thread?…).
Surprised no one mentions “Gormenghast”, by Mervyn Peake, for truly creating an alternate Gothic world.
Loved “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, get lost in medieval cathedral-building…
I agree about “Cloudstreet”, loved it.
I can always have another go at “Pride and Prejudice”, some Dickens. Ashamed to admit haven’t read “Moby Dick”, which sounds I’d better, especially as I’m about to launch into building a 19thC wooden work boat in my backyard here, the design of which would have been familiar to Melville.
Thanks for the stimulating post and discussion and recommendations. I’ll be coming back to add to my Wish List!

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Troy 03.05.12 at 7:03 pm

All sorts of books can summon up my imagination. Its always good to get lost in creativity and fantasy. It can bring back childhood innocence or provide a distraction from the bad world. The Hobbit, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games all are great stories of interesting settings for all ages. But books of literature and philosophy such as Island and Brave New World by Huxley or The Catcher in the Rye and 1984 &ct &ct all strengthen the mind and get it thinking.

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Dan Hardie 03.05.12 at 10:47 pm

‘Huckleberry Finn’ (before the unwelcome re-entry of Tom Sawyer): which is probably the only book that I read at the age of eleven which both concerns a boy of the same age but is actually just as rich, in a different way, for an adult. I don’t know whether it would be as extraordinary if you hadn’t read it as a kid- none the less, I do recommend it to everybody. On a smaller scale, Gerard Durrell’s ‘My family and other animals’- another book I loved as a child but can go back to very easily as an adult.

One book that I’ve read as an adult that really did seem a lot more vivid than real life: ‘War and Peace’. The first two thirds of it, anyway, up to the burning of Moscow. I think a lot of people are put off reading it because it’s so long, because they’ve heard it’s got lots of pompous philosophising (it has, but only at the end), or because they find the first chapters hard to get into.

But it’s worth persevering with- I found at some point in the first hundred pages that I was seeing the events in the book rather than reading about them. A much shorter work by Tolstoy has much the same effect, and is on a sadly topical subject: ‘Hadji Murat’, about a guerrilla chieftain in Chechnya.

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aspergum 03.06.12 at 12:49 pm

Dan,

Do you rec Huck Finn to black readers too? (I sure don’t.)

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Dan Hardie 03.06.12 at 11:02 pm

Yes, I do recommend Huck Finn to black readers as well as white, mainly because- and I know this makes me sound like some kind of crazy pinko- I treat black people the same way as I treat white people.

As it happens, the leading black character is one of the greatest creations in American literature, as well as being morally admirable, and Twain’s contempt for slavery is entirely clear.

Would I recommend Huckleberry Finn be taught to teenage kids in school? No- because I don’t have too much confidence in all but the most mature of teenagers being able to handle the book’s use of the word ‘nigger’.

And I would say that whether the teenagers in question are all black, all white, or a mixture thereof. You might try treating blacks the same as whites, ‘aspergum’- it’s odd, I know, but it’s not actually that hard once you’ve had a little practice.

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Phil 03.07.12 at 9:01 am

+1 to Dan’s comments, both halves of it.

There was a story the other year about an outraged mother pulling her daughter out of English classes because of the racist filth they were forcing her to read. It turned out that they were doing To kill a mockingbird.

When I’d finished banging my head against the wall, I read the rest of the story – particularly the bit where it said that this girl was the only non-White kid in her class. Knowing how cruel kids can be for the sheer merry hell of it, or just to break up a boring lesson – let alone how cruel they can be when they actually want to – I could imagine what might have been going on & felt a bit more sympathetic.

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Phil 03.07.12 at 9:05 am

Not sure why I haven’t mentioned Gormenghast – possibly because I feel a bit protective of it. (It would be dreadful to recommend it to someone who didn’t get it. They might put other people off…)

But imaginative worlds don’t get much more real. China Mieville put his finger on it:

To open the first book is not to enter but to be already in Mervyn Peake’s astonishing creation. So taken for granted, indeed, is this impossible place, that we commence with qualification. “Gormenghast,” Peake starts, “that is, the main massing of the original stone,” as if, in response to that opening name, we had interrupted him with a request for clarification. We did not say “What is Gormenghast?” but “Gormenghast? Which bit?”

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Bemused 03.07.12 at 4:05 pm

Gosh, tearing up as I read this comment thread. Yes! I remember getting so lost in a novel that all the activities of teenage life (conversing with your family, brushing your teeth, going to swim practice) seemed somehow insubstantial, weightless, mere marking time until you could return to your “real” life. Feeling a terrible sense of loss and nostalgia — it’s been a long time (in my fifties now) since any novel has engulfed me like that.

Suspect that the experience of reading fiction like a teenager can’t be recaptured now; can the satisfactions of reading faction as a middle-aged person be rewarding nevertheless?

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Helen Taylor 03.07.12 at 7:41 pm

I am 63 and I am frequently carried away by fiction. Latest was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This is heart-wrenching and an absolute must. Could do little but sob for some time after finishing it I was so emotionally involved.

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Enn 03.08.12 at 2:50 am

This is not totally complete, I’m pretty sure I missed a couple here and there, but this may save some people the time it took me!

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Tim Winton’s Cloud Street,
Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and
Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
The Known World by Edward P. Jones

SK’s Fear and Trembling

The Imperfectionists,
Shadow Tag, and especially
Olive Kitteridge. The latter contains one story about a lounge piano player that I regard to be (as a self-contained tale) short story perfection.

Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Tracks, The Bingo Palace, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and The Children of God. Who would have thought that “Jesuits in space” could make such absorbing fiction? MDR gets a little too sentimental at times, even for me, but not enough to make me stop liking the books.

Dickens: Our Mutual Friend.

Rafael A. Lafferty, Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson, John Le Carre, Kobo Abe, Ryunosuke Akutagawa. . . .
I still like Thomas Malory.

Neal Stephenson, especially Cryptonomicon

Infinite Jest

Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” and
China Mieville’s “Embassytown”.

George Sand: “The Master Pipers” and “The Miller of d’Angibault”, “Valentine”. These are marvelous and reminded me of the Brontes.

I have also loved discovering some British “gothic” fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries recently, such as
Godwin’s “Caleb Williams”,
Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and
Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer,” along with some very early twentieth c. gothic, such as
John Meade Falkner’s “The Nebuly Coat”—this last particularly took me back because it has glancing references to earlier works by writers one has read in one’s youth.

Patrick McGrath,
Martha Peake
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station and The Scar.

DeLillo’s White Noise did that for me. Something so uncannily real and yet otherworldly about it (with the bonus of hilarity).

Mantel’s French Revolution book, A Place of Greater Safety, is pretty good too. Especially if you read it in Paris.

Hopscotch is almost certainly the last novel I read that had me totally spellbound. (Actually, no, that would be
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, but it was a much darker kind of spell.)
The Waves is close to an all-time favorite.

Pynchon lovers: no V.? Think that’s my favorite

George Eliot,
Ursula K. LeGuin,
Murasaki Shikibu.

early books of Michael Marshall Smith (before his hack work) are wonderful. “Spares”, “One Of Us” and “Only Forward”

Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy as

Diana Wynne Jones’ The Merlin Conspiracy; she was a wonderful writer for building world

Breath also had that effect on me, as did a bunch of
Anne Tyler novels of which, looking back, I think I was most captivated by Breathing Lessors and The Amateur Marriage.

Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon,
Mieville (for me, above all The City and the City,
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Russel Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child
Stephen White’s “Kill Me”
The Colour Purple Trainspotting
Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (and I loved the film) and
Murakami’s “After Dark”
Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation”.

Haruki Murakami 1Q84 yet,
Norwegian Wood,
the Rat trilogy and
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are pleasures up there with DFW Dickens/Trollope/Dostoievski sprawling novel side.

John Crowley’s Little Big

(audio) War and Peace
Winnie the Pooh and the Roald Dahl books and the Lemony Snicket books

Ozma of Oz and the Neverending Story

Rivers of London.

Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Under Heaven a while back as one of the best books she had ever read. I didn’t think it was that great, but I liked it enough to try some of Kay’s others. I think it was right here on CT that someone called Tigana the best fantasy (?) novel ever written, but I could barely finish it. (Tastes differ….)
Sailing to Sarantium

The Sword in the Stone (the original version, not the one rewritten for The Once and Future King);
The City and the City;
Little, Big; and
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zout

Steven Erikson’s Malanzan Book of the Fallen, most of
Guy Gavriel Kay’s works (save the Fionavar Tapestry, which was all too like Power Rangers), and
R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing.
I’m also a huge fan of historical novels, particularly those set during the Saxon and Danish invasions of Britain. In that department, nothing stands the test of time half as well as
Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles trilogy, which is the best (and most historical) portrayal of Arthur that I’ve ever read.

I also enjoy his other works set in the periods prior to the development of firearms (Stonehenge is quite an impressive work), as well as
Robert Low’s Oathsworn series (his use of language is quite something) and
Simon Scarrow’s Eagle series (these are just pure cotton candy for me).

When I run out, I just read Scandinavian sagas. I guess I’m a titch bloodthirsty.

Barbara Kingsolver, and I wanted to put a word in for The Lacuna as a first-rate transportation device.
Trotsky and Kahlo,

Robert Stone’s

Moby Dick and 2666 have done it.
Bulgakov can do it just so easily, as can
Marilyn Robinson.
And Joyce (especially if you read him out loud, which I do). And
China Mieville can really irrupt into real life in a weird way. I am neither a sci-fi nor a fantasy fan, but his books, with their hyperactive imaginary worlds and creatures, are pretty “intrusive” in that way. I find myself in his The City and the City some of the time,

Never Let Me Go.

Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and
1982 Janine
What a carve-up!

The Magic Mountain and
The Man Without Qualities.
Plus non-fiction: Truffaut’s Hitchcock interview.
Franzen’s “Freedom”

A Flag for Sunrise

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome
Connie Willis’ time travel novels have stuck with me as well, in particular ‘Doomsday Book.’ ; ‘To Say Nothing of The Dog’

‘A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’ by James Joyce
‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles.

John Crowley quartet of novels that begins with THE SOLITUDES and LOVE AND SLEEP.

A Prayer For Owen Meany- Irving
A Sacred Hunger- Unsworth
The Secret History- Tartt
The Crow Road- Banks
Instance of the Fingerpost- Pears
In The Lake Of The Woods- O’ Brien (though Things They Carried is his best)
The Stand- King
The Dark Tower (whole series)- King
Geek Love
Never Let Me Go
Alaska, Hawaii & Texas- Michener
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Blindness- Saramago

Stranger in a Strange Land(?)
Hunger Games

Last and First Men” by Olaf Stapleton
“Gormenghast”, by Mervyn Peake
“The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett
Austen
Dickens

Lord of the Rings
Harry Potter

Island and Brave New World by Huxley or
The Catcher in the Rye and
1984

Bulgakov
Hadzhi Murat from Tolstoy
Iain M. Banks

‘Last and First Men’ by Olaf Stapleton

Mantel’s Wolf Hall.;
EF Benson’s Lucia novels of 1920s England

Charles de Lint.

Short stories. Carver, Trevor.

Proust

To the Lighthouse; Friends of Eddie Coyle

Unconsoled is my favourite Ishiguro

Patrick O’Brian;
Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series a;
Jack Campbell’s space operas and
Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter books. Hrmb. I do see
Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate on my shelves, which I read last fall and found to be exceedingly involving, in that classic Russian novel kind of way. Although exceedingly bleak.

Ursula Le Guin. When I was a kid I read The Wizard of Earthsea 1000 times and it transported me in a way that LOTR did not (though I read that about 5 times). In my 40s I read The Dispossessed

Moby Dick; Girl with Dragon Tattoo

Huckleberry Finn
My Family and Other Animals – Durrell
War and Peace

The Book Thief – Zusak

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