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A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork OrangeAfter a short break from reading, I’m thrilled to return to my Library series today and to one of the most compelling novels of all time. A perfect way to start reading again, thanks to its short yet intense burst of genius, A Clockwork Orange is an unparalleled masterpiece.

A Clockwork Orange was the first, and to date only, novel I’ve read in a single sitting. I can’t remember why, but I was staying at my grandparents’ house for a few nights, perhaps home from university. For some reason, I found myself with a copy of the book and dove into one night, finishing it several hours later at 3am.

Divided into three parts, A Clockwork Orange, follows the story of Alex, a young and violent man who spends his evenings taking part in “ultra-violence”, beating, maiming and raping with his gang of three “droogs”. Caught and sentenced to jail, Alex is subjected to an experimental treatment which removes his free will and makes even the thought of violence turn his stomach.

The novel is one of a select few where it’s impossible to choose a true highlight, indeed it’s the perfection of the whole that makes A Clockwork Orange so successful. The prose is tight, explosive and yet works away at subtler themes than it often gets credit for. Of course, there’s free will under scrutiny, but so too is government interference, youth culture, violence, prisons and religion.

While the prose shines, it is often the narration that many remember, spurred on by Burgess’ nadsat, a language compounded from Russian, rhyming slang and pure invention, oh my brothers. Alex, our humble narrator, is the voice of his generation. He’s an anarchist, intellectual and philosopher rolled into the malevolent heartbeat of a disconnected teenager. He delights in violence and crime, despises authority, but you often sense is just a little too bright to truly believe he can last forever that way.

Martin Amis, in his 2012 essay on A Clockwork Orange, rightly celebrates the almost whisp-like nature of the novel:

“It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration.”

Like Amis, my main reaction the novel has always been a sense of wonder at the sheer perfection Burgess accomplished. Written in just three weeks, the book reads as if it was born in a storm of white-hot but short-lived fire. No other novel I know of better captures its tone, story and meaning in so few words. Perhaps The Great Gatsby is the closest in terms of creating a single, atmospheric story. Yet even Fitzgerald rests his novel from time to time. Burgess, you sense, did not blink.

A Clockwork Orange is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels and one of The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.

About the Author
Anthony Burgess is best known for his 1963 novel A Clockwork Orange, which was adapted for the screen by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. As well as writing many novels, Burgess composed over 250 musical works.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

My first introduction to The Thirty-Nine Steps was through the 1935 Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It’s one of my Dad’s favourite films and I remember the excitement of Richard Hannay escaping north from London, evading capture at the Forth Bridge and trekking across the Scottish landscape to meet the man with the missing fingertip.

The book never interested me until I found the paperback when staying at my Grandparents’ house. I read the book through in just a few nights, gripped by the adventure playing out in my hands.

Reading the novel again, I’m taken back memories of family and the three generations of mine that have come to know the story so well. In fact, the copy I now own was bought by my brother. There cannot be a clearer definition of a timeless classic than a tale passed down, even indirectly, through family connections. No doubt in years to come, one of my children, perhaps even grandchildren, will take my battered copy from my shelf and continue the tradition.

First published as a serial in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is the first novel to feature the character of Richard Hannay, who would later star in four more stories by John Buchan. The story follows Hannay who, caught up as a bystander in a murder and spy plot, must evade capture by the authorities and criminal. Stretching from London to Scotland, the story is a breathless tale of a man on the run, with only his wits protecting him.

The strength of the novel is its relentless pacing. As Hannay goes on the run, he moves from one chase to another, barely finding time to recover. The further on he goes, the more he stretches his look and the greater the tension builds as time ticks away. There’s a real sense of relief when he has time to sleep rough, but also fear of those on his tail catching up in the meantime.

Although the plot is the driving success of the novel, as Robert McCrum points out “none of this would have amounted to a hill of beans without Buchan’s brisk characterisation, loving evocation of Scottish landscape and his switchblade prose. This is lethal, spare, clean and contemporary.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is an adventure novel in the purist sense of the term. It races and almost dares the reader to pause for breath, few will encounter the book and take more than a week to finish it. Despite being best-known for its plot, Buchan’s sense of character and landscape mustn’t be played down. In Richard Hannay, we have a likeable anti-hero, an ordinary man trying to do the right thing despite a country turning against him. His journey into Scotland takes in some of the finest examples of setting influencing and defining a novel in literature.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels.

About the Author

John Buchan wrote 29 books in a career that also included war propaganda, serving as a Member of Parliament and becoming Governor General of Canada. Best known for his adventure stories starring Richard Hannay, Buchan also wrote short stories and several biographies.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alices Adventures in WonderlandIt seems strange that I have never read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before, in fact I had always thought the title to be Alice in Wonderland as most films based on the novel are. The short book feels like a childhood memory, yet to my knowledge I have never read it before, or had it read to me.

Like many, it’s the 1951 Disney film that means the most to me in the canon of Alice adaptations. Reading the original story for the first time, it’s clear that the text serves as inspiration and a licence to create rather than truly adapt. Many elements considered ‘classic’ Alice such as Tweedledum and Tweedledee are don’t appear in the novel (these two are from the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

First told to three young girls, one called Alice, Lewis Carroll created the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1862. Over time, he wrote down the short 15,000-word tale and expanded it to almost twice the length. The book was published in 1865 with original illustrations by Punch cartoonist John Tenniel.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is probably the most famous example of nonsense literature. Its loose plot follows Alice as she enters the underground world of Wonderland and meets an array of unusual characters. Constantly changing size and stumbling into new situations, the story unfolds much like a hazy dream.

Each situation in the story introduces Alice to a mathematical or linguistic concept and it’s these that stand out more than the events, first as nonsense then quite plain and logical.

For example, there’s the semantic lesson:

“Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

and the mathematical revelation when Alice contests she can’t have more tea as she hasn’t had any to begin with:

“You mean you can’t take less: it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Beyond the language, many of the characters in the novel have transcended the pages into popular culture. The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Queen of Hearts and White Rabbit are often referenced in films and literature today. I image most could conjure up the Queen’s off with their head catchphrase without ever reading the book.

Perhaps most interesting, I found in researching the book that it might not be quite as fantastical as we image. As Oliver Lansley reveals, Carroll suffered from a rare condition “that causes strange hallucinations and affects the size of visual objects, which can make the sufferer feel bigger or smaller than they are.”

Despite the fun of the wordplay and memorable characters, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland left me cold. Despite its brief word count, the novel took me weeks to read as I never felt excited to continue the story. Perhaps that’s because there is no story as such, more a series of scenes that, for the most part, can be read in any order or without reference to each other. There’s never a sense of the story building to anything, leaving it charming but flat.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the Guardian 100 Best Novels.

About the Author

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Dodgson in 1832 and is famous for writing both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. As well as a pioneering and influential writer of literary nonsense, Carroll was a respected mathematician.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyAlongside The Big Sleep and Wuthering Heights, I was introduced to The Great Gatsby in high school. I wrote an essay about the themes of illusion and reality in both Gatsby and a novel called The Last Resort, which I thoroughly detested. Part of that may have been the incredibly disparity in my instant affection for the former and tedious acceptance of the latter.

Since the first few pages, The Great Gatsby has captivated me like no other novel. It’s followed me through life, giving me a connection and new meaning at almost every turn. Reading it again, I’m back where I began, imagining myself as Gatsby, perhaps through some urge to be the protagonist of my own life, rather than a side character.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby was not an instant success, only gaining its status after the author’s death. Following the larger-than-life Jay Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway describes one summer in 1922 where his and Gatsby’s lives intertwine with tragic consequences.

It almost seems foolish to attempt to review The Great Gatsby, as so much has been written about in the past 90 years. For me, the most enduring reason to praise the novel is the quality of Fitzgerald’s writing. In just over 50,000 words, he creates a great American mythology. Even in just a few hundred pages, no character is underwritten, no image is under-drawn and manage passages take on such lyrical beauty that they might have stretched for ages under the pen of a less-skilled craftsman.

A mysterious and often suspicious character, Gatsby’s story is revealed over the course of the novel through his conversations with Nick and long-lost love for Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan. We learn how Gatsby created his own personality, built a life and became rich, all to find a way back to his dream of meeting Daisy again. On the way to trying to recapture the past, he either becomes corrupted or takes on enough rumour that he might as well be.

Sarah Churchwell writes in her essay The Great Gatsby Delusion, “For Fitzgerald, Gatsby’s vast wealth is a sign of the failure of the American dream, not its success.” Its testament to Fitzgerald’s incredible ability that many miss this reading of the novel. With Gatsby, the story reads you as much as you read it. It can give you hope, but it can also teach you that the means you might need for the ends, make the ends impossible to capture. As Fitzgerald writes of Gatsby, “his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

Nevertheless, The Great Gatsby has always given me hope. No matter its message, I have always read it to mean that our dreams are what make us great, not average. It reminds me to dream big, to dream romantic and most of all, just to dream.

The Great Gatsby is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Guardian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely known for writing The Great Gatsby, often called the best American novel. He is also renowned for his other novels and short stories, chronicling the 1920s.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the BaskervillesMore years ago than I like to think about, my dad bought me a complete Sherlock Holmes collection from a bookshop in Newark marketplace. I’ve still got the same book today and return to it every few years, unable to do anything but read each mystery in order. The cover has come off and the font is tiny, but it includes illustrations by Sidney Paget and mimics layouts from The Strand.

The volume seems so dense that it’s countless passages of reason and deduction must spill out into the house at night and slip into my mind. Yet it’s often been The Hound of the Baskervilles that I’ve thought about, with its sense of creeping thrills and unworldly beasts standing alone from the many others. This is parent thanks to Paget’s immaculate work. There’s an image of a man alone on the moor that I see in my mind today just as clear as any of Holme’s great solutions.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third full-length Sherlock Holmes novel, following A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four (the latter of which is also on my list to read). It’s also the first story Holmes appeared after his supposed death in The Final Problem, albeit this story is set earlier in his life.

The Hound of the Baskervilles follows Holmes’ investigation into the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who passed away in circumstances all too similar to a legend that had plagued the Baskervilles for centuries, that of a cursed hell-hound which stalks the men of the family.

Sending Watson to live with the incoming heir, Henry, Holmes sets out to follow a series of seemingly unconnected leads to prove the hound is no immortal spectre but flesh and blood.

Unlike most Holmes stories, with The Hound of the Baskervilles, Doyle puts tone and atmosphere to the forefront. Where most follow a series of unsolvable clues and deductions, Hound takes times to set up characters and a sense of place. There’s a clear influence in every scene set on the moors of Wuthering Heights as the tension a chills build to crescendo.

Perhaps it’s because Doyle has already tried to rid himself of Holmes, but The Hound of the Baskervilles works almost without the famous detective. In fact, for much of the novel, we follow Watson as he attempts to solve the riddle along. As Dauntless Media explain, this “decision also robs the book of the opportunity to watch Holmes and Watson working together”, a key reason the stories had been so poplar.

It almost feels like Doyle is laughing at us by making his most famous Sherlock Holmes book nothing like a Sherlock Holmes book, even down to Holmes’ absence. It’s a testament to the underrated brilliance of Doyle that it’s this novel more than any other he’s remembered for.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.

About the Author

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, whom he featured in 4 novels and 56 short stories. Doyle wrote novels beyond Holmes but will always be remembered for his impact on crime writing.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

WatchmenI can’t remember when or why I first picked up my copy of Watchmen other than it being some time before the 2009 film adaptation. I don’t say that to make myself out to be a more worthy fan of the book, it’s simply my only point of reference. Watchmen seems to be a novel that, once read, can never again be separate from your life. Though I know I didn’t, I feel like I grew up with the characters and have memorised dialogue for decades. Perhaps like one of its leads, Watchmen exists in the past, present and future simultaneously. Hopefully, that’s not the only superpower that rubs off on readers.

First published in 12 issues over 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is often considered the best graphics novel ever created. As well as traditional comic book panes, the first 11 chapters include supplemental material published within the fictional Watchmen universe.

Watchmen follows the lives of a group of superheroes in an alternate 1985. Following the murder of one hero, we follow the investigation through the eyes of his former colleagues. Weaving through time periods, the narrative builds layer after layer of drip-fed information about each character, whilst pushing forwards as the world tries to avoid nuclear war.

By far one of the best pieces of fiction ever created, Watchmen is a masterpiece of storytelling and design. Complex, deep and morally ambiguous, it tackles questions most stories would never mention. It offers all sides of society a mirror but no judgement. Moore and Gibbons ripped the superhero comic to shreds with Watchmen and somehow made something even better from the remains.

It’s next to impossible to choose a single highlight from Watchmen and no doubt each reader has their own view. For me, it’s the detail in Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Every re-read, even now, seems to reveal another secret. Whether it’s a newspaper headline flapping on the wind, the brands that seem to fit the world around them better than anything or the many echoes of the doomsday clock, each panel is a true piece of art.

For Alan Moore’s writing, it’s his inventiveness and audacity in changing perceptions of an entire medium and a whole genre. Speaking to The Guardian around the release of the Watchmen movie, he said:

To me, all creativity is magic,” he says. “Ideas start out in the empty void of your head – and they end up as a material thing, like a book you can hold in your hand. That is the magical process. It’s an alchemical thing. Yes, we do get the gold out of it but that’s not the most important thing. It’s the work itself. That’s the reward. That’s better than money.

Everyone should read Watchmen at least once. It’s one of the finest example of how stories and entertainment can transcend genres and formats to teach us about who we are. It’s great literature, brilliant art and essential reading.

Watchmen is one of TIME’s Best 100 Novels

About the Author

Alan Moore is the writer of many famous graphic novels, including Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Dave Gibbons has drawn the likes of Batman and Green Lantern.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

For Whom the Bell TollsErnest Hemingway is one of a small class of writers, along with names like Dickens, Austen, and Proust, who can simultaneously terrify and excite a reader. Perhaps most like Jane Austen, we’re often judged not by which of their books we’ve read but whether we’ve read something by them. It’s the mark of a truly great author that one can’t choose a single piece of work, like we might with a Fitzgerald or Salinger.

For me, Hemingway has always been a name that I feared to read. His works seem weighty, almost too highly revered even among “books you must read” lists. The beauty of my reading project is that I must meet head-on writers whose names are new to me as well as those I’ve long avoided tackling through one fear or another.

Published in 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls is based on Hemingway’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, which had ended the previous year. Like the earlier A Farewell to Arms, it follows a love story against the backdrop of a major and recent conflict.

For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of American Robert Jordan as he fights for guerrillas during the war. Experienced with explosives, Jordan is set to destroy a key bridge but finds the local resistance difficult to work with. He also begins to fall in love with a Spanish girl, Maria, who has lost her family to the fighting.

There are many highlights in this novel, not least of which is enjoying Hemingway’s unique and persuasive style of writing. It sits somewhere between journalism, history and adventure. Yet, no matter how truthful and grounded he writes, Hemingway never forgets the main job of any novel, to entertain. In the hands of a lessor writer, For Whom the Bell Tolls would have been a great adventure story, from Hemingway it’s an epic of war, humanity, love and sacrifice.

In their original review of the novel TIME described For Whom the Bell Tolls as:

1) a great Hemingway love story; 2) a tense story of adventure in war; 3) a grave and sombre tragedy of Spanish peasants fighting for their lives.

This seems to me a fair summary and a clipped-down opinion that Hemingway would have approved of. Unique in my project to date, Hemingway is an author I know that I’ll return to again and again for the sheer quality of his work. The novel is, as all great works are, many things to many people. The discussion around For Whom the Bell Tolls is not whether it’s a masterpiece, but for which of many reasons each reader believes it is.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

About the Author

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 and found fame as a writer of novels, short stories and articles. Hemingway is known for his understated realism as a writer, winning both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes in the 1950s.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosophers StoneHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is without doubt the most important book I’ve ever read. The act of reading this novel has unquestionably changed who I am.

To understand what I mean, I need to take you back many years to 1997. In June, Bloomsbury publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In September, I start Secondary School. There’s a huge buzz around the book but it feels too young for me and I never get round to reading it. At this point I’d read most of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter seemed like a backwards step.

Fast forward to 2001, Daniel Radcliffe stars in the film adaptation. I’m now 15, dark-haired, wear glasses, keep quiet and am often the smartest or best performer in class. I’m not a nerd or an outcast, I play rugby for the school and have plenty of friends.

At some point, I don’t remember who or when, someone connects the three of us (Harry, Daniel and me). For the most part it’s Harry that I’m compared to, as far as I remember for the resemblance.

I’d been bullied before, would be bullied again and would bully people. For some reason, the only thing that I have never been able to shake is the feeling of persecution and worthlessness when I’m called Harry. It was by no means a new nickname for me, those who called me by it were usually older and would soon move on. Yet, it stuck with me long after it was said. The more I reacted, the more people would drop it in.

I wondered for a while if the people calling me Harry were intimidated by me. By our nature, we bully those who are smarter or more successful than us, trying to make them seem more human than the idealised version we have in our minds.

I’d like to say I never bullied again after this started, but who would believe that. As we get trodden on by bigger people, so we step on those smaller than us.

This went on throughout school, with no-one knowing I was so cut up about it. I learned to laugh it off and try to own in. This led to the worst event, where I was invited to a party of a boy in the year above me on the condition that I turned up as Harry Potter. All my friends were going, so I pretended I thought it was funny too and turned up in full fancy dress with broomstick and all. To this day, that is the least dignified I have felt. I traded my soul for a party.

After school, the names changed as Radcliffe become more popular in his own right. I’d even get some appreciation from girls who fancied him. Yet, even at university the occasionally “You’re a wizard Harry” would drift in from someone walking past me and I’d crumble inside.

It took 15 years before I was comfortable enough with myself to sit down and enjoy reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A decade and a half of ignoring books and films that many around me love, because it still reminded me of the feelings I used to get in the depths of my stomach. I’ve done much braver things in that time, dealt with bigger problems, but never cracked it until now.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a father of two, happy in my career or just finally old enough to let go, but picking up the paperback felt important. As I read, I enjoyed myself and felt ridiculous for avoiding a harmless book for so long.

The first Harry Potter novel is one of those special books that young and adult readers can both understand and enjoy in their own ways. Superficially, there’s a coming-of-age, magical adventure story with a clear structure, villain and battle. Look deeper, and it deals with class, racism, bullying, coming to terms with ourselves and realising we each have strengths. There’s no age at which those lessons can’t help a reader. Perhaps the only real flaw is the oddly quick way in which the conclusion unfolds, which feels anticlimactic and unnecessarily forced.

It’s been a long journey, but I finally understand what Harry Potter means to me. Being told you’re a wizard is one thing, but embracing it is something much more important.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of the best-selling books of all time

About the Author

JK Rowling was born in 1965 and is famous around the world for creating Harry Potter. After seven Potter novels and sales over 400 million copies, she moved into crime writing under the name Robert Galbraith.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Big SleepMuch like my introduction to Tintin, I was first passed a copy of The Big Sleep by a favourite teacher. This time is was well into Secondary School, either GCSE or A Level years and it was my English teacher, Mr Dawson. Beyond my family, he was most responsible for both my love of reading and long-standing dream of writing my own stories.

Following a class reading of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which I’d read before and was something of a naïve expert on, he brought a copy in and offered it to me as a loan. For some reason, the book sat in my room until he gently reminded me that he’d need it back. Shocked at my forgetfulness, I raced through the pages in a few nights and returned it the same week.

The connection to Sherlock Holmes seemed at once clear and distant. The novel’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, is as determined, intelligent and single-minded as his predecessor. Yet, this was something new too. He was involved in his case like Holmes rarely seemed to be, messing around with victims and suspects. Where Holmes intervened to solve a crime, Marlowe almost seems to propel it forward and wasn’t too bothered with loose ends. Without Mr Dawson and that book loan, I might not have come to appreciate detective fiction’s diversity.

The Big Sleep, I soon learned many years ago, is the first novel to feature Phillip Marlowe. Published in 1939, it builds an a number of Chandler’s many short stories featured in Black Mask. The story follows the Private Detective as he investigates the blackmail of a wealthy family’s wild-child daughter. Before long, Marlowe uncovers much more than he’d being paid to find and the bodies start mounting up.

In truth, the plot of the novel is only marginally relevant. It’s purposefully loose and messy, something Chandler makes no apology for. The real genius is in the atmosphere of mystery, double-dealing and noir that the author builds with every turning page. Perhaps even more so, the flawless characterisation of the deeply flawed central character (even here I hesitate from labelling Marlow as our hero as he’s no such thing, although more riotous than he’d care to admit).

Genius is a strong word but highly used with Chandler, who has long since shaken off any reputation for writing ‘detective fiction’. In his review of the novel, Robert McCrum quotes another literary titan:

The Big Sleep transcends its genre, moving WH Auden to write that Chandler’s thrillers “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”.

Reading The Big Sleep is essential to understanding why we read anything. It’s a mix of pure entertainment, mystery and literary art. There’s a reason its been chosen in top 100 lists by Time, Le Monde and The Guardian. Consider this essay your personal English teacher, reaching out with an opportunity to change how you think about what novels can achieve.

The Big Sleep is one of Time’s Best 100 Novels, one of The Gurdian’s Best 100 Novels and one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

About the Author

Raymond Chandler was born in 1888 and is best known for popularising ‘hard-boiled’ detective fiction. His lead character Phillip Marlowe is considered the archetypal private detective. Chandler died in 1959.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little PrinceIt’s almost impossible having now read The Little Prince, but I seem to remember a time before I knew about it. I certainly only read it for the first time recently, but the image of the cover seems to have been with me since before my memories begin.

Like many books, I picked this copy up for next to nothing at a book fair. I’d promised myself one novel from my long list and, despite finding several options, I returned for this one. It seemed so slender and simple that it couldn’t be anything other than a joy to read. So often I find myself skipping over spine after spine, almost overwhelmed by the serious reading to be done that finding a book so enchanting as this was a wonderful surprise.

The Little Prince itself comes from less auspicious beginnings. Its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, crashed in the Sahara in 1935 whilst flying a two-man plane to Vietnam. Marooned for four days with his copilot, Saint-Exupery survived the heat and dehydration until rescued by a passing Bedouin. Both experienced hallucinations and mirages before rescue.

Drawing on this experience, the novella is the reminiscence of a Pilot who once crashed in the desert, only to meet the Little Prince of the title. An unusual and unworried figure, the Prince tells the pilot about his journey to Earth from his home planet, where he and a single rose are the only residents.

As he travels through space, the Prince meets all manner of men, each representing typical flaws of what we’re told is “adult” life. He finds a King with no subjects, a businessman endlessly counting stars and, among others, a man eternally lighting and snuffing a lamp. In a few words, it’s clear the absurdity of each of these men and why the Prince continues travelling. In the Pilot, he seems to find something close to a soulmate, sharing a love of childish art and passing on wisdom he has learnt.

The great success of The Little Prince is it’s ability to raise the most dramatic of questions in the simplest ways. Like Animal Farm, it pushes allegory to absurdity yet speaks to children as if it is only they who still have hope of learning from it.

As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, The Little Prince teaches that “the world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again.” Perhaps it is children, not yet blinded, who have that chance.

The Little Prince is a perfectly judged short novel, mixing childish imagination with intelligent criticism of the world around us and ourselves for accepting it the way it is. Perhaps that’s why it seems to begin before it’s read and endure after its closed. It’s an eternal reminder of who we all are, passed down for over 75 years so far, with much longer to follow.

The Little Prince is one of Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century

About the Author

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was born in France in 1900. Most famous for The Little Prince, he vanished in 1944 while flying a reconnaissance mission for the Allies. His body was never recovered.