Inspired by two months’ leave from work, I started thinking what would be the best books to read when time isn’t an issue. Knowing that of course not everyone has time on their hands (or reads as quickly as I do) I’ve also come up with the best books to read if you’ve only got a few moments.
Top five stories for when you have lots of time (total pages: 8660)
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World)
Let me first say that I dislike the seventeenth century. Profoundly. I love history, but the seventeenth century is, as far as I am concerned, absolutely boring. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Neal Stephenson has managed (twice now) to keep me hooked throughout a 2600 page trilogy set in just that period. As intricate, inventive and intelligent as only Stephenson can be.
Ash: a Secret History by Mary Gentle
In a late-medieval Europe that is not quite what we would expect it to be, the state of Burgundy is a great power. And then it disappears. Modern researchers take 1100 pages to uncover the secret history of Burgundy, and especially of Ash, a mercenary captain with strange powers, even for her world…
(Editor’s note: sadly this book is currently not in print.)
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (collected in the First Movement, the Second Movement, the Third Movement, and the Fourth Movement)
An acquired taste, this. Twelve books charting the life of the English upper middle class from the twenties through the sixties. I always get stuck for a while in the first chapter of book six (The Kindly Ones), but I love the rest. Also very good for your vocabulary.
Vellum & Ink (The Book of All Hours) by Hal Duncan
In myth, deep history, the nearby future and somewhere else entirely, the same story keeps happening. Again. And again. And somehow something new comes from all this retelling. At one point you find that although it’s still set as prose, Duncan’s been writing flawless verse drama for pages. ‘Thoughtprovoking’ would be putting it mildly.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
For those who prefer the classics, the perfect nineteenth-century novel. 900 pages and really small letters (at least, in the Penguin edition), full of sharp observations.
Top five stories for when you’re in a hurry (total pages: 710)
Enderby’s Dark Lady by Anthony Burgess
Manages to encompass in its 150 pages two short stories, the script of a musical, and some mock-Elizabethan lyric, all haunted by Shakespeare. Demands frequent re-readings.
(Editor’s note: Also, sadly, not currently in print. There’s an ommibus, but that kind of defeats the purpose of this particular top 5… :-))
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
A light-hearted meditation on reading and writing in rather odd, indeed uncommon, circumstances.
Weight by Jeanette Winterson
‘I want to tell the story again’. Jeanette Winterson manages to pack a lot of ideas into this short but inventive and moving retelling of the story of Atlas.
Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
If you want to read about a writer’s life in London in the middle of the twentieth century, and you don’t have time to read Anthony Powell (see above), Loitering with Intent is a very good alternative.
Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster
Paul Auster started out writing about gloomy young men in gloomy New York, then gloomy middle-aged men in gloomy New York, and he has now arrived at gloomy old men – but he does it so well that it never gets boring. This little book is a brilliant and deliberate distillation of Auster’s work.
If you have 5 (or 10) book recommendations you simply need to share with the rest of the world, please email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We always love your tips!
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