The Big Issue, the Dalai Lama and some great works of literature

A very English sky
Evening: an English sky

For some years now, a young woman has sat outside a shop in the centre of town. She sits alone. Even on the coldest winter days she is there. She’s a sad-eyed girl who always declares her presence with the unobtrusive and hopeful cry: ‘Big Issue, please.’ Sometimes I stop and buy a copy and sometimes I don’t. It depends …

Little by little I accumulated a large number of ‘The Big Issue.’ I also accumulated a number of other publications (magazines, brochures, catalogues) – and so, it was time for a clear-out.

As I was sifting through the piles of assorted texts wondering which to keep and which to put in the re-cycle bin I chanced upon a copy of ‘The Big Issue’ that had been published in the first week of July 2012. It caught my eye because it had a photograph of the Dalai Lama on the cover – along with the caption WISE GUY. The Dalai Lama has an endearing face and, probably because of this, I started to leaf through the pages of this copy of The Big Issue. On page 31 I discovered something that I hadn’t noticed when I originally bought the magazine; a column was headed: ‘Five books everyone should read before they die.’ The choices were by Edward Skidelsky. I was intrigued by his selection, three of which I’d actually read. And so, in response I pencilled out my list of five books that I would, similarly, recommend.

Later that day I received a visitor – an Englishman – who was currently living abroad on the continent of Africa. He was staying for just a few days in England before continuing his travels. The Englishman told me that he was ‘fed up with Africa’ partly because he was beginning to find himself unwelcome (‘they’ve started to adopt an awful African-American mindset’) and partly because he was missing some of the unique aspects of England. He was well-read (he’d spent his student days at Oxford University) and he knew the classics, Shakespeare, and the moderns – so I asked him to name ‘five books that everyone should read before they die.’ He replied that this was ‘not at all’ an easy task especially because there seemed to be a definite moral nuance to the question. He then added that he would not choose anything that was a translation – and that although Shakespeare was ‘de rigeur’ he didn’t really like the structure of his various plays: Shakespeare, therefore, ‘would not be on the list.’

So, what was he going to choose?

“I’m going to have to restrict myself to some notable works of fiction. I won’t choose something like ‘Hitler, a study in tyranny’. And they will have to be weighty books – no slim volumes. I’m going to have to rifle through the memories of all the books that I’ve read.”

But ‘rifle through’ his memories he did and, little by little, he identified the following five works of literature, to each of which he appended a brief comment:

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
“What’s so good about David Copperfield? Well, it’s a magnificent English tale about fortune, good or ill, in which most of the characters get their just desserts.”

East Of Eden by John Steinbeck
“A terrific story about the nature of identity and the sheer inexplicability of love.”

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
“I’d have to include a story about war and this is as good as they get.”

Child Atlas by David Mitchell
“It’s a kind of melange-fiction – brilliant – with as many meanings as you feel able to construct.”

The Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics (originally selected for publication by Francis Palgrave in 1861) – the OUP edition.
“Milton, Coleridge … Christina Rossetti and Philip Larkin … simply superb.”

It took him about an hour to determine his choices. Even though one of the selections is by Steinbeck, I think they reflect a distinct and enduring Englishness.


In answer to the question ‘Which five books should a person read before they die?’ I chose:

The Republic by Plato
The best place to start the study of politics and ethics.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A wonderful portrayal of the male psyche.

Human, all too human by Freidrich Nietzsche
Iconoclastic: humanity unmasked.

Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
One of the very best studies of culture and the way it makes people.

Wind, sand and stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Beautiful: The magic of the everyday and a perfect riposte to alienating consumerism.

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