We asked TBS Editor Mathew Mackie to tell us what books he’d save in a fire; but with the way he waffled on, he probably would have perished too!
Jesus! My library is on fire! Plug in that hose. But hey, before you do, let me tell you which books you should save first.
James Baldwin – Another Country
The copy I own is a common Penguin Classic (don’t hate) which, shamefully, was the last book I chose in a 3-fer sale, a complete punt on someone I’d never heard of. But phwoar what a fluke. The faded, dog-eared copy is painted with the soy sauce of a thousand wing manned commuting hours.
James Baldwin is all sorts of genius. Another Country starts with the story of Rufus Scott, a brilliant, but endlessly damaged jazz musician, who, through his own doing, has slipped through the trap door of his societal circles. So he trudges the lonely, wintery streets of hateful New York. Rufus happens upon another damaged soul, Leona, and the two – despite their massive scarring, fall desperately in and out of love. Which is all pretext. What sets Another Country apart is Baldwin’s angry, balanced, poetic tone, which starkly charts the anonymous crush of big-city life. New York City is a mugger that wants Rufus dead.
I’ll shut up now and copy-and-paste the introductory passage:
“…A hotel’s enormous neon name challenged the starless sky. So did the names of movie stars and people currently appearing or scheduled to appear on Broadway, along with the mile-high names of the vehicles which would carry them into immortality. The great buildings, unlit, blunt like the phallus or sharp like the spear, guarded the city which never slept. Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen – for the weight of this city was murderous – one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell. Entirely alone, and dying of it, he was part of an unprecedented multitude. There were boys and girls drinking coffee at the drugstore counters who were held back from his condition by barriers as perishable as their dwindling cigarettes. They could scarcely bear their knowledge, nor could they borne the sight of Rufus, but they knew why he was in the streets tonight, why he rode subways all night long, why his stomach growled, why his hair was nappy, his armpits funky, his pants and shoes too thin, and why he did not dare to stop and take a leak…”
Honestly, I could gush, copy and paste the whole book. It discusses racism, class struggle, the doubt and failure as an artist, loneliness, identity, sex, sex as a weapon, the death of the soul, the coming of age and hopelessness; all charted in Baldwin’s self-flagellating poetic verve. (And that’s just in the first 150 pages.) Another Country stunned me, maybe it’s because the themes were too close, or maybe because he’s the writer who’s words I wish I had. Even on the most basic level of attraction, Another Country remains the reason why my coffee ordering alias is “Rufus”.
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
I’ll admit, Joseph Heller’s is another brain I wish had access to. Heller’s marvellous rant about the power of bureaucracy in the midst of World War 2 is another I’d plunge myself into the blaze to save.
The book centres around Yossarian, a bombardier who is hell-bent on surviving the war by any means necessary. Be it through medical conditions he invents, or by deliberately missing targets to keep himself out of the range of enemy fire, he wants to live. But that’s just the surface. Yossarian is crazy. Everyone thinks so. But it’s the war, and everyone else who’s crazy. Be it black market profiteering, empty dalliances with the fairer sex who love/hate him, or the men who he doesn’t know, who are trying to kill him.
What makes Catch-22, Catch-22 is Heller’s brilliant undermindatory prose, which undercuts the sentence that precedes it, allowing us to peek into Yossarian’s (Heller’s) broken mind. For example:
“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”
The whole book is completely nuts – impossible to read in one sitting – but it finds itself on your shelf, Or as Catch-22 proclaims: “Insanity is contagious”. Don’t be tripped up by the lazy euphemism that has entered our everyday language, Catch-22 is absolute gold. Edgy, paranoid gold. (See also: Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five.)
Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
This is the book which taught me that I’m stupid. Immediately after finishing it, I thought it was viciously overrated. Some dude, works in Paris, journalist, gets drunk with his friends, parties, has a sweet fishing holiday in Spain. Nothing happens on the last page. The end. Big whoop.
Which is partially Hemingway’s fault. His trite, lurid descriptions of Parisian streets or Basque overlands drag you in deep into his world, (probably assisted by the fact that Papa lived through Paris in the grandest time), but my girlfriend at the time informed me of the novel’s actual point. Hatred, false friendships and above all, the rudderless booze stained years of the generation lost to the horrors of the First World War.
It deserves a second reading, especially when you realise what it’s actually saying. Be it Jake’s (Hemingway) hatred of Robert Cohn, both in surface jealousy or racism (threatened manhood) or the relationship between Jake’s friends, which is made possible thanks to alcohol, the same environment that destroys them. Further underpinned by his endless love for Lady Brett Ashley, who loves him too, but can never be in love with him (I won’t spoil the reason why). Added to the thematic nous of turning a broken-down bullfighter into an allegory of the main characters glory days passing, The Sun Also Rises is a book to read when you already know the ending.