279:409:4 ‘He was afraid she might have a scar.’
A ten year old daughter has her whole life ahead of her. This most human of fears resonated with me. But this is The Holy Land and she is already dead.
319:301:1 ‘Smadar’s face was left perfectly intact.’
A thirteen year old daughter has no life ahead of her. This most awful of human observations upset me. How can anyone call this place the Holy Land?
Apeirogon by Colum McCann is an exposition that will haunt me for the rest of my life. That’s a good thing in the same way that Primo Levi’s If This is a Man was a good thing too. I wonder if what makes a good real-life horror story work is an absence of self pity?
If you know anything about Israel and Palestine, you too know ‘It will not be over until we talk.’
I keep a list of the books that have changed the way I think. The remarkable thing about Apeirogon is that it must displace one from the top five. It has had that profound an effect on me.
Regretfully, The Emperor of All Maladies (2010) must be demoted from fifth to make room at the top. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s biography of cancer was simply incredible. I thought it a magnificent and elegantly written book that helped me understand why important projects can fail. ‘I had a novice’s hunger for history, but also a novice’s inability to envision it’ .
I have to push Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998) down a notch. ‘The British bombing of Caen beginning on D-Day in particular was stupid, counter-productive and above all very close to a war crime.’ Plus there’s a quote from a review of the book in The Telegraph that resonates, indeed vibrates on today’s shabby political stage. ‘On one side stood democracy with its dependency on co-operation. On the other, a rigid authoritarianism which, while often effective in tactical situations, became disastrous when it informed strategy.’
I think that I must relegate John Berger down to fourth. I was late coming to Ways of Seeing (1972) but my wife made sure I read it. I came to be annoyed with myself for not reading his works earlier in my life. ‘Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.’
One of many startling things about Apeirogon is that it’s a novel. You’ll think me peculiar when I admit that there are no other novels among the forty books on this list. Not one. What that means, to you, is that I am biased in my outlooks, perhaps undervaluing the lessons learned from fiction. Truth is that I have a list for fiction too and I can’t keep up with it. I can’t work out if Apeirogon is among the best books of fiction I’ve ever read, displacing Vonnegut, Orwell, Eco, Bronte, Ondaatje, Heller, Coetzee, le Guin, O’Brien, Mistry, Camus, Tabucchi, Adams and more, so many more.
So I’ve taken the easy path. It’s landing at number three on my very subjective list of non-fiction books that have altered my outlook in a persistent fashion. I don’t include books read in my formative years but I include those read thereafter that somehow changed how I was cast by others.
I’ve journaled about The Great War for Civilisation (2005) before. I was working on business opportunities in The Middle East when I read it. Robert Fisk’s history lesson had a major influence on the way I spoke to people in the region. More than increasing my sensitivity, it taught me about ignominy. It remains number one on my list despite the pressure from Herr, O’Brien and Finkel.
I recommended my second most influential book in several emails as follows: ‘Mind altering, should be mandatory reading for all scientists and engineers.’ Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) came gifted to me by post from a lawyer in Texas via a scientist in Kent at a time when I was recovering from prostate cancer. Cancer had provided the time for me to read and digest it. ‘A reliable way of making people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.’
Of course I see the regional bias in my selection. What is it about the cradle of civilisation that has created valleys of brutality and well-springs of philosophy?
I enjoyed the review in the New York Times that I read this afternoon. I don’t do empathy as well as I did while on hormone treatment during my time of cancer but I think Julie Orringer nailed it in her review when she wrote ‘Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener.’