23 Apr 2014

Books for blokes: your choices

Who knew the issue of men and books would trigger tweet-rage? Last week, I asked Channel 4 News readers to nominate book suggestions for a man who does not read novels (see list, below). Among some, this was deemed sexist, as “books are universal”. Others saw it as gender stereotyping to suggest men don’t read enough – but it’s there in the stats. Hence tonight’s World Book Night is themed around getting men to read more.


I was delighted to see Jack Schaefer’s 1949 western, Shane, high in the mix. I read it when I was fourteen, by then already a Sartre snob, and had to be forced at the point of a sharpened ruler by Catholic priests to take it seriously. I’m glad I did and if you try it you will know why. It was originally published as pulp fiction in a magazine: if so, it is one of the finest pieces of pulp ever.

Once we’ve had guns and shooting we have to have… well, Fanny Hill is also up there in the mix. John Cleland’s 1748 novel about a London prostitute is, pornography apart, a fascinating glimpse into an underworld of desire and destitution.

Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were suggested by several.

“Start with Casino Royale,” says Ollie Minton. “Short enough but has everything in.” If you’ve only seen the movies, and had your Bond sensibilities (indeed spirit) crushed by all the actors who played Bond between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig – the books will be a revelation. Seedy London, fastidious Bond – ordering an “avocado pear” for dessert before whipping out his Beretta…

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh got mentioned by several. Again, it’s one where seeing the film before does not spoil the thrill of the prose, the story, the characters at all – once you get your head thinking in a broad Leith accent to understand it all.

David Mitchell got two nominations: Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was nominated by several.

For geeks – a word that’s morphed from insult to badge of pride – Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon has been hailed as the ultimate geek novel. It fictionalises the story of the Bletchley Park code breakers and weaves it into a 1990s plot around something that looks a lot like Bitcoin and the NSA rolled into one.

And thanks to Brett Corden for nominating Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. “Funny, sad and true,” he writes. It’s a novel designed to put you off war forever and addict you to life: great reading amid all the pro-war propaganda disguised as “commemorations” we’re having right now.

I’ll finish, again, with my own nomination: More Than Somewhat, by Damon Runyon. Short stories set amid the scam-ridden bars off – Broadway in the 1920s it’s narrator takes us on what turns out to be a crash course in modern life:

“If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business. But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be…”

If I now scroll back through these and other nominations a theme emerges about redemption. If it’s not the primary theme of literature in the 19th century, then by the mid-20th it had become so. It’s not always redemption through sacrifice, or love, or coming of age but there is nearly always redemption.

Another thing is the ordinariness of the heroes and heroines in these books. Except with Bond, we are almost always in the realm of the grubby shirt collar, the messy life, the face worn by time and weather. Mind you, Bond makes up for it by smoking 40 cigarettes a day and knocking back Martinis fast enough to leave any ordinary person in the gutters of Mayfair by 9 pm.

Happy World Book Night.

Suggested fiction:

  • Shane, by Jack Schaefer
  • Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
  • Legend, by David Gemmell
  • Kings of Space, by W.E. Johns
  • Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, Tom Robbins
  • Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
  • Stoner, by John Williams
  • Casino Royale (and other Bond books), by Ian Fleming
  • Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh
  • The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks
  • The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris
  • The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi
  • The Fight, by Norman Mailer
  • The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke
  • Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
  • Sandman Slim series, Richard Kadrey
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  • We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
  • The Dice Man, by George Cockroft
  • The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek
  • The Waterguard, by Richard Hernaman Allen
  • Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Follow @paulmasonnews on Twitter.