Monday, November 19, 2007

Desert Island Books - Part 2

Here's my non-fiction selection. Again, there have been many, many other books that I've read over the years but if I had to choose 10 for my desert island sojourn it might well be these.

The green hardback book is my lovely, rare and beautifully preserved 1923 edition of Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England (sub-titled 'The drolls, traditions and superstitions of Old Cornwall'). Hunt wrote the book in 1865 and together with William Botterell's Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, make up the most complete archive of my native county's faerie tales and mythology. I just love the stories. And talking of stories brings me to Kenneth Williams. I have everything that the great raconteur ever wrote and delight in reading and re-reading his deliciously acid prose. However, The Kenneth Williams Diaries provides a rounder view of the man as his wit and observations are tempered by melancholic descriptions of his illnesses, his confused sexuality and his black depressions. It's the most honest biography I've ever read (maybe with the exception of Stephen Fry's Moab is my Washpot) and makes biographies of people like Jodie Marsh and Billie Piper seem all the more frivolous and pointless. William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade is another book that lifts the lid on the realities of fame - in this case the job of the screenwriter within the Hollywood system. If you ever thought about writing for film or TV you cannot afford not to read this amazing book.

On a brighter note, I've always been a sucker for 'travel' books. I use the inverted commas there because that's the section in the book shops where I usually find these uncategorisable tomes. Dave Gorman's Googlewhack Adventure does involve some travel but is not a Bill Bryson-esque description of a foreign country. Nor is Danny Wallace's Yes Man or Join Me. Yet these books are either listed under 'travel' or 'comedy' when they are neither. Like Tony Hawks's Around Ireland with a Fridge, they are actually 'silly blokes doing silly things books'; the result usually of some daft bet between a couple of lads that leads to an adventure. In Danny Wallace's Join Me, he accidentally starts his own cult whereas Tony Hawks proves that it is possible to hitch-hike around the coast of Ireland accompanied by a small square frost-free companion on a trolley. Pete McCarthy's McCarthy's Bar does start to fit into the category of a travel book but is still incisive and hilarious as is Robin Halstead, Jason Hazely, Alex Morris and Joel Morris's Bollocks to Alton Towers, a description of great British days out that don't involve theme parks or ghastly corporate exhibitions.

My final three books all have something in common in that they crystalise several of my views of how the world should be. Francis Wheen's How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World rants and rages against the madness of so-called New Age therapies and pseudo-religions. It pours scorn and shame upon those people who are diddling us out of our heritage of knowledge and proven scientific theory. Richard Dawkins has also covered this topic with his The Enemies of Reason TV series and, to some extent, his The God Delusion book both of which I devoured as I share their views. If the same money was spent on cancer research each year as is spent on crystals, homeopathy, aura-reading, Tarot, horoscopes and countless other nonsensical placebos with no basis in fact or proven efficacy, there would be no cancer. Next up, and on a lighter note, comes Stephen Pile's Book of Heroic Failures. I love this book as it celebrates that it's okay to be bad at things. It's acceptable to be a bit rubbish. Inept is funny and it's the way most of us are with many tasks and skills. Instead of chasing elusive and possibly unattainable goals in life, most of us would be far better off just accepting our weaknesses and celebrating our strengths and living longer and happier lives. All of which brings me to Tom Hodgkinson's How to be idle. Hodgkinson has done something that most of us dream of but few have the stomach for; he has eschewed modern society in favour of something more pastoral and unhurried. As he says in his preface, 'The purpose of this book is to both celebrate laziness and to attack the work culture of the western world, which has enslaved, demoralised and depressed so many of us. (...) Being idle is about being free, and not just free to choose between McDonald's and Burger King or Volvo and Saab. It is about being free to live the lives we want to lead, free from bosses, wages, commuting, consuming and debt. Being idle is about fun, pleasure and joy'.

Amen to that.

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