Andrew Munro invited me to list my five favourite books. A difficult task and I decided to cheat slightly by breaking the selection into five fiction and five non-fiction books.
As I was thinking about what books to nominate, I was pulled in different directions. Part of me wanted to show off about how well-read I am and what cool books I’ve read. Part of me tried to think about books I had loved and would happily take to a desert island. And part of me thought about the books that had influenced me the most. This list is a mix of all three impulses.
Five favourite fiction books
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Of course. I’m a geek. I’ve read this trilogy a dozen times and I still find something new in it. As I get older, some of Tolkien's blind spots grate a little (where are the women? why must everything decline?) but I also appreciate its innocence more. (Also, I really loved the BBC Radio dramatisation.)
The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks. And the inevitable sci-fi classic. I read a lot of sci-fi but I spent most of my adult life making and playing games for a living so this book, with its story of a champion games player on a fateful mission and games-within-games-within-games was very important to me.
Bleak House (Vintage Classics) by Charles Dickens. I studied it at school and then, for no reason that I can remember, read it again during my A-Levels and my degree finals. It was reassuring to take refuge in Dickens’s world, even with its sentiment, foolishness and villainy. And yes it’s moral heroes and champions.
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. I read Return from the Stars at university and I’ve been working through Lem’s books ever since. Some are hard going and he has an extraordinary ability to recreate culture shock in writing. Others are more entertaining, witty and cynical like Pirx the Pilot. But Cyberiad (and its cousin Mortal Engines) are utterly charming, thought-provoking and unique. Robot fairy tales for grown-ups.
Count Belisarius by Robert Graves. I love (good) historical fiction. I studied history at university and these books have the power to transport you to the past in your own personal time machine. I could just as easily have picked Gore Vidal’s Julian or Creation or Grave’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Or, for that matter, any of the Hornblower books or Aubrey-Maturin books.
Five favourite non-fiction books
The Second World War by Winston Churchill. I must have read this five or six times. It’s an astonishing first-person view of great world events. Sometimes soaring, sometimes prosaic, always fascinating. Recent historiography has tended to shed new light on some of Churchill’s narratives and it’s clear (from Roy Jenkins’s super biography and many other sources) that Churchill isn’t a wholly reliable witness. But even knowing this, it’s an astonishing book which earned its author a Nobel prize. Antony Beevor’s recent one-volume history is a very good and perhaps more balanced companion or follow-up.
The Macintosh Way by Guy Kawasaki. I read this when I was 20 and it was the book that convinced me to become an entrepreneur. It’s a good insight into early Mac history, full of in-jokes and insights about software evangelism. Kawasaki has written deeper and more useful books since but I still think this is his best because it’s his most personal. The links will take you to a free download of the book.
Getting Real by Jason Fried et. al. A trenchant manifesto about software development. I spent ten years running Intelligent Games trying to do software the old-fashioned way. When I read this book a couple of years ago, it was the first revelation that there was a better way. My business, Turbine® is the result. The book is available free online and anyone in business should read it.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Ten years ago, after I sold Intelligent Games, I spent a formative month in San Francisco. One of my adventures included a visit to Green Gulch monastery and my first serious attempt at meditation. I bought this book in the book shop as I was leaving and have read it many times since. I won’t say I understand it, although it’s language is very plain and direct, but it is constantly thought-provoking and, at the same time, supportive.
The Making Of The Middle Ages by R.W. Southern. I studied history at university and this was the first history book that I read which made me feel, deep down, that I wanted to study history AND that I wanted to be a writer. It’s beautifully written, deeply researched and elegantly argued. It is how history should be done but it sets a very high standard.