Ten (unintentionally) heartbreaking books for WBN

One of the great joys of bookselling is making lists. You want to set up a themed display so you pick your theme and start curating your list.

Just yesterday I was talking to my friend Rik (bookselling genius and all round good egg) about the excitement you feel as a new bookseller the first time you get to order up your own display.

And then, what joy, I see on Twitter that World Book Night are asking for ten books from everyone. I could be choosing that forever I think, and cunningly set myself the deadline of Sunday lunchtime. By Sunday lunchtime I will have submitted my ten. No messing.

And, immediately, I start thinking about my criteria. There are myriad ways to approach this. Do I just pick ten books without considering their combined effect? Or do I try to choose books that complement each other, that feed off and allude to each other? I like all different sorts of books. Shall I make sure that there are funny books, thrillers and regency romances in my list? Something by Georgette Heyer, perhaps, an underrated comic genius. But which one? What about classic crime? Shall I chuck in a Patrica Wentworth or a Ngaio Marsh?

But stop. I’m going too fast. I haven’t yet decided if I am thinking of the books I love or of the people that might get them. Perhaps I should approach the list that way? The ethos of WBN as I understand it is not just to give books to those of us already on board the reading train but to spread the joy and comfort of reading. Something for the mother of two energetic toddlers who might find ten minutes at a time for reading if she’s lucky – she’ll need to be grabbed from the start and no complex structures. Something for the man in prison who has low literacy levels. He needs adult stories but with simple language. Serving soldiers? Dinner ladies?

My mother rang as I was mulling over these weighty concerns and listened patiently as I went on at great length about the need to pin down my approach.

‘It might be the difference between a book lover and a book seller,’ I said. ‘A bookseller can’t think of a book without wanting to construct a theme around it.’

‘Why don’t you just write down a list of books you really, really, love and then whittle it down to ten?’

‘Okay.’ I said. And that’s what I’ve done. Because the other thing here is that I don’t have a top ten, or even a favourite book, because I think it depends on what sort of mood I’m in.

So I’ve picked the ten books that I would like to reread right now and that I would love to give to someone else. And that happened. I was having a dip into What Was Lost and my lovely Aunt Marion who has been staying with us and looking after Matthew (and us!) liked the sound of it and took it to keep her company on the trip back down to Cornwall.

She texted me to tell me she was laughing her head off….

So, I’ve done it, I thought. Could have spent weeks over this but I’ve pinned it down. Then I wandered over to the WBN site, had a proper look around, and found out THAT I WILL HAVE THE OPTION TO CHANGE MY MIND.

What total and utter genius. What a fantastic acknowledgment of the fluidity of opinion. What…but go and have a look at how Julia explains it:


So, can I encourage everyone to pick their 10 books? There is a nifty leader board style page that shows the scores on the doors.

I am going to track my changes over the summer. See how much my mood alters…

Here are my starters:

I honestly didn’t realise until I decided to write a couple of sentences about each one what a crying jag this is. I am clearly in the mood for a good old sob over a book. This is a pretty sentimental list and I’m obsessed with wars and grief. Do tell me what you think…

And because I’m not actually at work, I haven’t done the next stage of checking all the spelling and finding ISBNs of current editions. So forgive me if there are mistakes.

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

Once beautiful and famous, Claudia lies dying in a hospital bed. She sifts through her memories, mentally writing a history of the world. She comes back again and again to wartime Cairo and meeting Tom, the love of her life. This is a short, intense novel that is my favourite (probably, depending on my mood) Booker prize winner.

Little Boy Lost – Marganhita Laski

1946. Henry had to leave his French wife and baby son in Paris during the war. He finds out that his wife was killed by the Gestapo but that his son was smuggled to safety. But they don’t where he is. He goes to an orphanage to see a little boy who might be his son. Or might not. WARNING: This book is incredibly, incredibly sad. I have never been able to get to the end of recommending it in a shop without being on the edge of tears.

Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

Have been ridiculed again and again over my bookselling years for my attachment to orphan Anne Shirley but I’m holding firm. My favourite book in the series is possibly the last, Rilla of Ingleside. Rilla, Anne’s daughter, is 14 when the Great War breaks out. She stays at home in Canada and waits as her brothers and the man she secretly loves go off to fight in France.

The English Patient – Michael Ondatje

Adultery in the desert. Love and pain. There is a wonderful bit in it about how we forgive our lovers the lies they tell to be with us. A rare one for me in that the book and film are enmeshed in my mind. When I think of the book I see Juliette Binoche covered in dust in the road. Read the book or watch the film and weep.

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

Joan Didion describes her response to her husband’s sudden death. Brims with intelligence and pain. Her new book, Blue Nights, is out later this year and adds yet another dimension.

Of Human Bondage – WS Maugham

Phillip knows that Muriel is silly and vain but he just can’t stop loving her. I read this when I was in that awful depressing bit of a relationship where you have realised that the object of your desires is a bit of a shit but can’t manage to walk away. This book nails that feeling (though maybe you’ve never had it – bravo!) And is very sad…

What was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

By turns extremely sad but also hilariously funny. Gales, snorts and wails of laughter. Anyone who has ever worked in a shop (lots of my friends) should read chapter 16. I think it should be made compulsory for anyone who attains any position of superiority in retail….

The Colour of Heaven – James Runcie

14th century Venice and the mission for Paolo is to travel into Asia in search of lapis lazuli so that the artists can truly paint the colour of heaven on the chapel walls. This is a simple, beautiful novel. ‘Who’s voice would you want to hear if you were dying?’ is the question that has stayed with me over the years.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Douglas Kennedy

This is a tragic love story that kicks off in New York at the end of the second world war when Sara meets Jack. It is a lovely, fat, curl up with on the sofa for a good sob book.

To Serve Them All My days – RF Delderfield

The story of a school teacher between the wars. David is shell shocked from the trenches when he first arrives at the school but the fresh air and friendships he makes save him. This is both an interesting picture of interwar Britain and, yes, heart breaking as David finds and loses love.

10 responses to “Ten (unintentionally) heartbreaking books for WBN”

  1. Thank you for sharing so much. How lovely. (So deliberated over What Was Lost myself.) A lovely list and a lovely piece. Will look forward to seeing how it changes…

    1. Got a bit too into it. Was seriously thinking how much nicer it would look with jacket images and had to send myself off to bed before I started looking up ISBNs…

  2. An inspiration. Have been thinking of books I have read and loved and starting my mental list of 10. Love the idea that WBN is for those who aren’t on the reading train. Thinking of books that would be a stepping stone from the sports pages of the paper to the Orange short list.

  3. I reckon like you my list will change depending on mood etc. So I’ll bookmark the site and wait a few weeks for my choices to settle down. It’s a great idea and I loved the two books I got this year from it.
    So far the list is:

    The Lord of the Rings
    The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursuala LeGuin)
    The Cruel Sea (Nicholas Montserrat)
    The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara)
    Treasure Island
    The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliffe)
    Little Women / Good Wives
    Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)
    All Quiet on the Western Front
    August 1914 (Solzhenitsyn)

    1. Fascinated by the presence of Little Women in there. Another one that I cry and cry over, actually Good Wives is the saddest, isn’t it?

      1. it’s an odd choice for a middle aged guy I know but I just love the books. And yes, Beth’s death is heartrending.

  4. Cathy, liking Anne Shirley is nothing to be ashamed of! She was my hero too.

    My ten today:
    The Outsider (Camus)
    Heart of Darkness
    Great Expectations
    The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
    Jane Eyre
    Germinal (Zola)
    Sunset Song (Grassic Gibbon)
    Any Human Heart (William Boyd)
    The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

    1. I’m getting lots of Anne of Green Gables love lately.
      Wonderful list. Jane Eyre, Any Human Heart and The Secret History could all end up in my final one. My Dad’s favourite book is Any Human Heart.

  5. Mari McCusker Avatar
    Mari McCusker

    It’s no good I can’t do it! I’ve tried and I’ve now got several totally different lists. But on each list I’ve got Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. Even then I wouldn’t say they’re my all-time favourites though. Nooo! It can’t be done!

  6. You have been awarded the Stylish Bloggers award. You will need to stop my my blog and pick it up.

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