Sunday, March 4, 2007

The book that I couldn't live without


The most precious book I've read (to date)

Sharon Bakar of the informative plus influential Bibliobibuli blog it was who first alerted me to the fact that the 1st of March is World Book Day in Britain. Also, that for the event's tenth anniversary this year, a survey was conducted as what are the ten books that people feel that they can't live without.

A list of the top ten vote-getting books can be found over here. Looking at it, I'm a bit embarrassed to discover that while I've actually tried reading nine out of the ten books -- if you count, as was done by the poll organizers, the Harry Potter series as a single tome -- on the list, I was disinclined to complete my checking out of those that occupy the first two as well as ninth place on it!

Interested readers also can find a list of the top 100 hundred vote-getting books over here. Sadly though, while there's room for such as one Louisa M. Alcott novel and another by Enid Blyton on it, the published tome with which I'd answer Sharon's posed question of "So what's your book you couldn't live without?" is no where to be found on that lengthier roll of honor.

As one of the book in question's reviewers and proponents lamented, interest in the works of its author has waned in recent years. For all this, however, (s)he feels confident enough to state that R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days is "one of the greatest novels of the 20th century" and predict that in time, "the epic book will have its day once again and a new generation will give Delderfield his proper place in the pantheon of literary greats."

My battered Coronet paperback edition of this book which was originally published in 1972 is 572 pages long. And just about the best testimony that I can give for this thick tome is that I've read it countless times since I first came across a copy of To Serve Them All My Days more than two decades ago while rooting through the library of the very English couple who were my legal guardians when I was at boarding school in Britain.

Also, that at various times in my itself rather tumultous life, this obviously lovingly written socio-historical saga about a shell-shocked First World War veteran turned boarding schoolmaster has been the book that I've turned to for comfort, inspiration and solace.

Like many other favorite books, that which a blogger called Kittman has named as the best purchase (s)he's ever made contains more than its fair share of passages which really "speak" to me (and I think might to many of you too). Then there are the wonderful descriptions of various of the protagonist, Welshman David Powlett-Jones's pupils, colleagues, elders and lady loves: many of which make me chortle every time I read them; but others of which are more likely to draw out a sentimental tear or more from my eyes.

To quote again -- but this time at greater length -- from the rave review of To Serve Them All My Days on the BBC website which I had earlier alluded to:-

The appeal of this book lies in the well-crafted central characters who are instantly recognisable as real people...[For all this though, w]hat sets this novel apart is the minor characters. Often in other novels, these characters become ciphers with no other role than to move the story along. [But] Delderfield treats these people with extraordinary care by giving them backgrounds and by reintroducing them later in the book to tie up loose ends or to reveal unexpected traits that make them fully-rounded human beings.

In closing: I do tend to the view that it's best to leave the final words about a book to its author. In this case, I've decided after some deliberation against providing excerpts from the story itself to give you a flavor of Delderfield's writing style and general authorial proclivities. Instead, I'm trusting that the accompanying A Qualified Disclaimer which I'm copying out in its entirety -- but am taking the liberty to break up into three paragraphs for easier reading! -- will do a better job of providing some evidence plus insights as to how come this book and author are as special as I believe that they are:-

Almost every writer of fiction inserts the obligatory disclaimer in his work and some, I suspect, do it with tongue in cheek. The truth is, of course, no one ever invented anyone. Every character in fiction is an amalgam of factors drawn from the author's memory and imagination and this is particularly true of To Serve Them All My Days.

No character here is a true portrait, or caricature, of any master or boy I ever encountered at my six schools and one commercial college, between 1917 and 1929, but aspects of people I met are embodied in all of them, and I have even used nicknames I recalled, as well as several scholastic backgrounds. To write fiction in any other way would be to divorce oneself from reality and what kind of book would emerge from that?

In using, say, an average of six schoolmasters and six boys for every one between these pages, I intended no slight or criticism, only to portray life at school as I saw it up to 1940, when I entered my twenty-ninth year. I was glad to leave five of the six schools but there is one I still regard with the greatest affection. I leave it to the reader to sort the wheat from the chaff.


R. F. D.
February 1971

19 comments:

bibliobibuli said...

this is one i haven't read and it sounds intriguing!!

sbk said...

Yikes,with apologies to eliza bennet, my daughter and Pride and Prejudice, what a predictable and pedestrian list. Are these books people really couldn't live without or think they should say they couldn't live without?

YTSL said...

Hi Sharon (aka bibliobibuli) --

Hope you will check out "To Serve Them All My Days" at some point -- and post doing so, agree that it deserves the praise that I've heaped on it! :)

Hi sbk --

"Yikes,with apologies to eliza bennet, my daughter and Pride and Prejudice, what a predictable and pedestrian list."

Know what you mean -- and I guess that seeing it helped motivate me to go ahead and tout the book that I decided that *I* couldn't live without.

So...care to do the same? And if you can't limit yourself to just one title like I have, that'd be fine too! :)

Also, to anyone else reading this: I'm extending this invite to you too! :b

eliza bennet said...

Well Pride and Prejudice happens to be my favorite book and its predictability doesn't reduce its value(s)in my heart & mind.

So here are the 10 books to which I'm strongly attached and return to
(After first and second, they are in no particular order)


Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
Legend of the Condor Herores - Jin Yong
The Hunchback of Notredame - Victor Hugo
The Makioka Sisters- Junichiro Tanizaki
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Çalıkuşu - Reşat Nuri Güntekin
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio- Liaozhai Zhiyi
Sense and Sensibility- Jane Austen
Kafka on the Shore-Haruki Murakami
Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy
Far From the Maddening Crowd - Thomas Hardy

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

Thanks for your list. All in all, it looks rather high-brow as well as interesting plus multicultural! :b

sbk said...

hi eliza bennet,

I was excluding Pride and Prejudice from my predictable and pedestrian comment. My daughter and I read it aloud to each other when jet lagged in foreign hotel rooms or when under great stress. We find it insightful and calming.

I found your list interesting and enjoyed the titles on it I've read and will check out the others.

sbk said...

Books I return to and read again and again:

John LeCarre's

The Little Drummer Girl
Smiley's People
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

He tells a good tale, writes extremely well, has insights into human nature and I learn something from each rereading of his books, the above titles in particular.

Anonymous said...

eliza,
do you know where i can get Legend of the Condor Herores - Jin Yong in English ?
or any of Jin's books in English for that matter...

YTSL said...

Hi again sbk --

Interesting, hadn't realized that you were such a big fan of John le Carre! :)

And anonymous --

I'm not "eliza bennett" but I can tell you that "Legend of the Condor Heroes" and some other Jin Yong works can be found at the likes of Amazon. (Just don't forget to look him up as "Louis Cha" too.)

eliza bennet said...

"do you know where i can get Legend of the Condor Herores - Jin Yong in English ?
or any of Jin's books in English for that matter..."

The only two JY books you will find on amazon are Duke of Mt.Deer and Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain (and at the time I tried to buy Duke of Mt.Deer - hardcover in three volumes- they searched for one month and couldn't find it. Thank God for the helpful sales person in Kinokuniya Singapore that I managed to purchase the volumes. I know Kinokuniya in Japan also has on line shopping so you may try there. Or if you are lucky maybe amazon finally found those volumes for me and they still are there since no one asked for them (It is a brilliant book by the way and highly recommended)

For the other translations I visit spcnet wuxia translation forums and if you don't want to go through mountains of posts there you can find some finished novels in wuxiapedia.com (it is Gu Long heavy since he is easier to translate but also very nice reading)

YTSL said...

"The only two JY books you will find on amazon are Duke of Mt.Deer and Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain" (eliza bennett)

Not if you include graphic novels and such in the equation. E.g., for interested parties, my quick and dirty Amazon search unearthed copies of "Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre" and "The Legendary Couple" as well (this when you type in "Louis Cha"). :)

eliza bennet said...

"Not if you include graphic novels and such in the equation."

Ooooppsss, I wasn't aware that the inquiry regarding my comment meant graphic novels, since my list didn't include any:)

I personally am not interested in those but I'm sure it will be helpful to people who are interested in comic book adaptations of the literary works.

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

"Ooooppsss, I wasn't aware that the inquiry regarding my comment meant graphic novels"

I'm not sure whether "anonymous" would include graphic novels either. But just in case (s)he does... ;b

"I personally am not interested in those but I'm sure it will be helpful to people who are interested in comic book adaptations of the literary works."

I am a newbie myself with regards to the world of graphic novels. However, couldn't recently couldn't resist buying a graphic novel of a section of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" at a book sale... ;)

eliza bennet said...

After having seen and liking the films I want to read Frank Miller's Sin City stories (and I for one can't wait to watch 300, interesting historical story and awesome visuals -in the trailer-)

And of course I have read some manga and graphic novels by Italian artist (Conan the Barbarian was my fave among many) and of course two Turkish wuxia series - but I'm afraid that is all...

Anonymous said...

thank you both for the advice regarding Jin Yong's books,

according to our friend Sanney at http://juiyinjong.blogspot.com/2007/
03/invitation.html
(read the last paragraph)
it appears my best bet is to just get the tv series

and no, I wasn't referring to the graphic novels, being an old Hong Kong comics fan many many moons ago , I was already aware of them, but I'm sure others will find this information useful

YTSL said...

Hi once more "eliza bennet" --

"After having seen and liking the films I want to read Frank Miller's Sin City stories (and I for one can't wait to watch 300, interesting historical story and awesome visuals -in the trailer-)"

Different strokes for different folks. I, OTOH, didn't care much for SIN CITY and -- after being subject to its disturbing, over-the-top trailer more than once now -- absolutely do not have any inclination to view THE 300.

And anonymous --

I think I can speak for "Eliza Bennet" as well as myself when I say: Glad to have been of service! :)

eliza bennet said...

Anonymous, you are welcome and I hope you'll be happy with the sites I recommended :) Let me know ok?

alejna said...

OK, YTSL. I have finally complied with your command/request/suggestion to pick up on the meme. But since I couldn't pick a single book, or even 10, I ended up with 18 on my list...So here's my post on my 18 favorite books.

YTSL said...

Hi Alejna --

18 favorite books! If I wrote about my 18 favorite books in a single blog entry like you've done, I think I'd be up all night writing it!! ;D