Let me start by saying that I am always reading, and I always carry a book with me, wherever I go. If you are curious to see what kind of books I tend to buy and read, you are welcome to click the link to my Shelfari-page either in this journal's left-hand margin, or here.
When it comes to listing my favourite books, I must admit though that they haven't changed for a great many years. Even though I rarely come across a book I don't like and enjoy most of what I read, the number of books that stand out in my memory and have made it onto my list of absolute favourites remains small...though a little bit bigger than 5.
However, 5 were requested and so 5 I will list (in no particular order of preference, mind you):
1) The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
When I was a little girl learning to read, I started by reading fairytales. From there I progressed to myths, legends, sagas and epics, and throughout my life, have retained a certain fondness for the genre. Small wonder then, that The Lord of the Rings, with its pages full of fantastical folk and its heroes that seem to have come straight out of Northern European legends appealed to me from the first. I was 16 when I first read the trilogy; I have re-read it many times since then.
2) Ka - Roberto Calasso
Given my predilection for myths and legends and the retelling of them, it's not surprising that the blurb on the jacket of this book, "The very best book about Hindu mythology that anyone has ever written", immediately induced me to buy it. It is a beautifully written compendium of classical Indian literature and sacred Sanskrit texts, presented in the form of a novel of ideas, which tells the story of the creation of the world to the life of the Buddha, and I can recommend it to anyone.
3) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values - Robert M. Pirsig
A friend of mine recommended me this book, way back in the early 80s. Published in 1974, it's a kind of philosophical novel that explores the Metaphysics of Quality, a theory of reality incorporating facets of East Asian philosophy, Pragmatism, the work of F. S. C. Northrop and Indigenous American philosophy. It also describes a motorcycle roadtrip the author took in North Dakota with his 9-year old son and a couple of friends in 1968. I don't claim to understand or agree with all it says, but I still think it's a riveting good read.
4) Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Also back in the 80s, it was the television adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews that made me want to read this book, and when I did, I understood the story so much better. In effect, it's a romantic tale of how a lonely young man falls in and out of love with a family and their way of life, which is steeped in Catholicism. Himself an agnostic, the young man finds himself both attracted and repelled, and for the most part fails to understand, but years later finally comes to experience the operation of Grace for himself.
As someone who, like Waugh, converted to Catholicism in adulthood, a number of the themes and ideas in this book strike a spark of recognition with me.
5) God Knows - Joseph Heller
To my mind, this is the funniest book I have ever read. In it, the biblical King David looks back on his life and tells it as he thinks it ought to be told -- brutally honest, and with a great deal of humour.
Perhaps it's strange that Dutch books are conspicously absent from my list of favourites. This is not to say that -in my opinion- there aren't any good works of literature in the Dutch language, because nothing could be further from the truth. But it is a sad fact of life that since leaving school, I have had very little occasion or inclination to read any new Dutch books (nor French or German, for that matter). For one thing, Dutch books are prohibitively expensive, and I gave up membership to the public library aeons ago, as I was constantly late returning books to them. For another, it's rather difficult to find anything a little light-hearted and fun; on the whole, Dutch literary works are pretty bleak and pessimistic in tone and setting. Most of the contemporary stuff deals with the war and its immediate aftermath, and as for the books that were written before 1940 -- you only have to take a look at their titles to know they're not exactly what you would call a bundle of laughs. E.g., there's Van de koele meren des doods ('Of the cool lakes of death'; about a society lady's fall from grace and eventual suicide in the last decades of 19th century); or Van oude mensen, de dingen die voorbijgaan ('Of old people, the things that pass'; in which a deep dark family secret casts a blight on the lives of all family members, even those not directly involved); Klaaglied om Agnes ('Lament for Agnes'; in which a young man mourns the passing of his fiancée, who died of tuberculosis...and in one memorable scene in the book, drinks down the sputum she's brought up as a token of his...what -- love? devotion? obsession? or despair?); or even Max Havelaar, of De koffieveilingen der Nederlandse Handelmaatschappij ('Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company'; which is an indictment of the corruption and abuse of power by the Dutch colonial administration and the indigenous elite in the East Indies of the 1850s, written by a disillusioned and disgraced clerk of that selfsame administration under the pseudonym of Multatuli, or 'I have suffered much').
Having said that, I am now poised to re-read Heere Heeresma's Een dagje naar het strand (i.e., 'A Day at the Beach'), which I found in a bargain basement book sale today. If I remember correctly, it's the sad tale of an alcoholic who takes his handicapped child on an outing to the beach, but then wastes the day in the pub forgetting all about the little girl as he drinks himself into a stupor. In the 30 years since I've last read it, I've forgotten how it ends, so...
So far this year, I've read 11 books...or 10, if you discount Emmanuel Barceló's The Pyramids of Egypt which I didn't take the time to take a closer look at in the bookshop, and then found when I started reading it that it was one of those crackpot theory books about how the pyramids were built by aliens from outer space. I put it away as soon as I realised that was the premise it was going to pursue...I really haven't got time for that sort of thing.
The others are:
Antoinette May, Pilate's Wife - meh;
Anne Enright, The Gathering - equally meh -- why it should have won the Man Booker prize 2007 I honestly couldn't tell you;
Ethel Johnston Phelps, The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World - an entertaining read;
Beryl Bainbridge, According to Queeney - much more to my liking;
David Grossman, Lion's Honey. The Myth of Samson - interesting;
Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, 13: The Story of the World's Most Notorious Superstition - which started off okay but became a bit repetitive towards the end;
Louise Welsh, Tamburlaine Must Die - another pleasurable read, dealing with the last 72 hours of the life of the poet/playwright/spy Kit Marlowe;
Nuala O'Faolain, The Story of Chicago May - a biography of sorts of a small-time Irish crook in late 19th century America;
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad - in which Penelope, in Hades, breaks her silence and gives her version of events told in the Iliad and Odyssey; and
Sophie Kinsella, Shopaholic & Baby - I love the Shopaholic-series, and this one didn't disappoint: Becky Bloomwood is back, and as outrageously funny as in the first 3 books (I didn't like the 4th, Shopaholic And Sister, as much).
Still to be read are:
Orhan Pamuk, The White Castle
Su Tong, Binu and the Great Wall
Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem. One City, Three Faiths