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The Book Depository

I was asked recently to give my Top Ten favourite books, for the website The Book Depository.
Top Ten Books for The Book Depository

Ben Crystal is an actor at Shakespeare’s Globe. With his father David Crystal he co-authored the internationally acclaimed bestseller Shakespeare’s Words and The Shakespeare Miscellany. He is also author of Shakespeare on Toast. Here is Ben Crystal’s Tuesday Top Ten.

Ben says:

 “I am approaching this from a Desert Island point of view, in that it is an impossible task to bring your favourite books down to a mere 10, much like that terrible equally impossible question, ‘What is your favourite film?’ How can you answer? In mentioning one you leave out twenty.

After great deliberation, ranting and raving, here are ten of my most favourite — bearing in mind, Desert Island-like, I get the complete works of Shakespeare as standard, which I realized after selecting wasn’t included in the original ten, mea culpa. All of these books I have read and re-read. There’s just something about them that keeps me going back, like Scott’s Bladerunner and Kubrick’s The Shining…”

Neuromancer by William Gibson
I remember picking this up for the first time when I was 15 and not having the slightest idea what was going on. Cyberpunk fiction was new to me, and Gibson’s elliptical writing keeps your imagination working hard to keep up. Neuromancer was written years ahead of the Internet we all know and love, and I keep coming back to Case’s journey through cyberspace. There are still bits I don’t entirely get, and I adore that.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
This is the first of two books I found idling through Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in London, when I lived nearby. It’s the Harvill paperback, with a cut out cover, as if staring down the twisted barrel of gun, through to a penguin carrying a violin case. It starts with a short story:

A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin. “Take him to the zoo” he orders. Some time later the same major is driving along he sees the militiaman still with the same penguin. “What have you been doing?” he asks, “I said take him to the zoo.” “We’ve been to the zoo, Comrade Major,” says the militiaman. “And the circus. And now we’re going to the pictures.”

I immediately turned the page, and on a cast of characters is listed Misha, the penguin. I bought the book, and fell in love with Misha. I maintain he’s one of the most lovable fictional characters I’ve read. (After the lift that has existential dread and doesn’t like ‘going up’ – “Have you considered the possibilities that ‘down’ has to offer…?” in Life, The Universe and Everything.)

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
I’m terribly partial to a nicely-presented book. Well, actually, I’m a sucker for it. I adore beautiful bindings, a leather-bound complete works of Shakespeare from the 19th Century is one of my proudest possessions. This edition of Norwegian Wood is in a gold-coloured case, and, joy of joys, the book presented in two small booklets, red and green, as I understand the original Japanese versions were. Discovering Murakami, about three years before he really hit the UK, and his dream-like, slightly terrifying stories of Japan after dark, noodles and beer, apartments playing soft Jazz through night, people (usually beautiful and esoteric girls) disappearing. I think I’d read half the book before I realised the shop was closing.

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan
I’d never read anything like this, when my friend Jim (who sketched a picture of the Globe for me for Shakespeare on Toast) recommended it to me. A love-sick writer starts writing a story, decides it’s rubbish, throws it in the bin, but the story carries on writing itself, centering on a gathering and growing war in a small town, based around a freezing cold sombrero that falls out of the sky and… oh just read it! Brautigan has a lovely economy with his prose, all the more enjoyable by the way he titles his short chapters.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Ever been in love? Ever yearned for someone so desperately and yet so silently. I sobbed like a babe at the end of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy. The love that pours out of this book, the staggering prose, every single line a masterpiece. ‘Make my happiness – and I will make yours’… Go and read this book, go and read it now! I wanted to include Great Expectations as Dickens’ prose is truly mindblowing, but Jane Eyre pulls on your heartstrings like a symphony of lost love.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
Zola did something terrifying with love here. Starting with a Dickensian description of a Parisian alleyway, you find yourself caught up in a terrible tangle of yearning for a lover’s touch. Therese and Laurent reach the peak of their love for each other so quickly, and Zola charts the falling apart of their minds and hearts in such minute detail. It’s terribly, terribly sad, and horrifically fascinating. They hurtle, ever-so-slowly, to an obvious, but no less enjoyable for it, ending.

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
I found MMS in a book store a few years after he first published Only Forward. It’s a clever, and very funny piece of science fiction, with an incredibly cool central character, and skilfully avoids The Curse (so many science fiction books have great premises, but no idea how to end). One of those books I want to be in and have written at the same time. I like Michael’s later thriller writing (under the name Michael Marshall) but his MMS writing bites harder for me; his book of short stories What You Make It, nearly made it into the top ten, simply because they still haunt me.

Needle in the Groove by Jeff Noon
There are some writers who you just want to crawl inside the heads of, just for a moment, to find out how one earth they weave the worlds they write, only for a teeny-tiny moment, mind, because it would be a terrifying place to stay too long as a visitor. I was too young to hit Manchester’s Madchester / Hacienda scene, but my sister wasn’t, and I heard about Jeff Noon from her. I learnt to play the bass shortly before I found this book, so I immediately liked Elliot. The first thing you notice is the lack of any punctuation other than a / to separate sentences. Growing up with a linguist father and a speech therapist mother, I adore language play, which is a theme I guess throughout my top ten. Noon writes modern day science fiction that somehow seems so real it’s borderline regular fiction, with slightly weird and fantastical stuff going on. A bit like Murakami’s writing. Vurt nearly took it, but Needle in the Groove was my first Noon experience, so…

All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
Was oddly enough, the first book I bought from The Book Depository. It was recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend, and written long before Heroes or My Super-ex-girlfriend or whatever that movie with Uma Thurman was, came to our screens. The story of a regular guy, who’s fallen in love with a superhero, in fact, unsurprisingly enough, all his friends are superheroes. All the superheroes have kinda normal superpowers, per Falling Girl, who “won’t go higher than the second floor of any building… A small sample of things she’s fallen from include trees, cars, grace, first-storey windows, horses, ladders, bicycles, the wagon, countless kitchen counters and her grandmother’s knee.” It’s a really short book, but utterly, utterly wonderful, and it puts a very silly smile on your face.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Reading this book was like having a heart attack every few sentences. The translation is perfectly written. The ideas sensational, the world Zamyatin creates is astonishing. And all the more so for writing it 22 years before Orwell’s 1984, which was directly inspired by We. That feeling of terror, that horrible twisting in your stomach at the end of 1984 when the picture speaks and the couple are caught, is a feeling you get at the beginning of We which runs to the end until you feel you’re going to burst and then it does and you just want to run around telling everyone you know to read it, how amazing it was written so long ago, and while you’re doing all this you’re starting to read it all over again…

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