A Top Ten

A semi-arbitrary list prepared for the Book Depository website. The top six are pretty much permanent features in my personal pantheon, the last four open to rotation…

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Philip K. Dick

The late Philip K. Dick wrote far too many books, and if your first encounter with his work is—say—The Zap Gun, you will probably wonder what all the fuss is about. The Three Stigmata however is Dick at his best, writing in his golden period, before God invaded his mind with a pink laser beam (though some of the books written after that experience are great too). How can I even begin to describe what it’s about? A group of settlers on Mars in the near future escape their dreary lives by meditating on a set of Barbie type dolls while under the influence of a hallucinogenic that allows them to collectively ‘become’ the dolls. Then Palmer Eldritch returns from deep space with a new drug which allows the user to become God in his very own cosmos in a hallucination that never ends. The only problem is that Eldritch starts infiltrating these new creations, which become infinite nightmares. Much weirdness ensues in a masterpiece of social satire and metaphysical speculation. It also features literature’s only talking robot psychiatrist suitcase.

The Devils

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is about as good as it gets in my view—profound, but also exciting and eminently readable. This wild book makes the work of his British contemporaries look like very thin gruel indeed. The tone radically shifts about 200 pages in as Dostoevsky abruptly stopped writing a satire on Russian liberals to go on the offensive against the destructive forces he (accurately) believed were massing on the horizon. What emerges is a scabrous book, full of vicious but often hilarious personal attacks on his enemies, that also contains terrifying depictions of human evil, and insights into the totalitarian personality that are unmatched today. Dismissed as reactionary ranting by his contemporaries, his awful predictions were proven correct. As a study of radicalism and terror it remains absolutely pertinent today.


Andrey Platonov, trans. Robert Chandler

Platonov is considered by many to have been the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, though he died in obscurity and remains much less well known than (say) Solzhenitsyn or Bulgakov today. Dzhan (the horrible title ‘Soul’ was applied to the book by a publisher convinced that British readers fear foreign words) is set in Soviet Turkmenistan in the 1930s and is the tale of a young man who returns to the desert from Moscow to lead his abandoned tribe to happiness. Needless to say, he struggles. The translator, Robert Chandler, is a hero of literature for bringing this exceedingly non-commercial work to a public that largely ignores his efforts. He renders Platonov’s famously unique Russian into eerie, dislocated English that is very powerful. Apparently many Central Asian authors consider this one of the best books ever written about the region, even though Platonov spent mere months there.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol, trans. Pevear/Volokhonsky

‘The Nose’ and ‘The Overcoat’ are the best short stories ever written. Nobody has ever come up with anything like them: weird, slippery, funny, tragic, baffling, manic and surreal 100 years before the term was invented. I used to live near the house where Gogol burned the manuscript of Dead Souls II and would visit occasionally to pay homage to an authentic mad genius.



There’s not much to say about this book as it is very famous and very, very good. Borges’ ability to suggest an entire alternative reality in a few pages is unparalleled; I also like his mythical, metaphysical books and libraries. He was extremely erudite, but never dull or tedious. And, like Kafka, he has an excellent surname.

Lobster Boy

Fred Rosen

An accidental classic, this grim little book tells the tragic, tawdry, true tale of Grady Stiles Jr., a sideshow freak who was murdered by his own wife after a lifetime of inflicting cruelty. Fred Rosen peers into the dying world of the travelling carnival and exposes a hitherto unknown realm of bizarre characters and misery. Along the way he shows us squalid landscapes and lives we never see described in ‘quality’ literature. The turgid prose only heightens the effect. You will want to shower after reading.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas, trans. Robin Buss

For sheer storytelling pleasure the Count cannot be beaten, even if it is a terrifying 1200 or so pages long. Robin Buss’ Penguin translation offers the full unexpurgated text in highly readable English, restoring all the perversion and sadism cut from the 19th century editions. Prisons, trapdoors, secret chambers, plots, revenge, opium dreams, history, humour, terror, madness…. Dumas constructed a monumental labyrinth of story. The films are awful, though.


Nikolai Maskov

Every now and then the newspapers discover ‘graphic novels’ and single out a few for tremendous praise either wrongly (Jimmy Corrigan) or rightly (Persepolis). I wish more people knew about Siberia as it belongs in the latter camp. Siberia was the first Russian graphic novel ever translated into English and it’s a phenomenally bleak tale of life in the provincial Soviet Union in the 70s and 80s. At the same time it’s very beautiful and poignant. The author, a night watchman at a Moscow warehouse, drew it in soft pencils over several years. I read one review by a pampered American critic who felt Maslov’s world was so unremittingly nasty, it couldn’t be real. Then I gave it to a friend who had grown up in the Russian provinces. She took one look and said ‘I know these people.’ Maslov retrieves from oblivion a world unrecorded elsewhere.

Among The Believers/Beyond Belief

VS Naipaul

I grouped these two books (which record Naipaul’s journeys in the converted non-Arab Islamic countries of Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia) as one as they’re better read together. The first book was written just after the Iranian revolution, and then he revisited the same places about fifteen years later, in some cases meeting the same people. Both books are truly illuminating—and the story in Beyond Belief of the unrepentant Pakistani Marxist revolutionary who accidentally destroys an entire culture is terrifying. Naipaul is a ferociously original, ruthlessly honest writer. While many authors are careful never to express an opinion that would get them barred from metropolitan dinner parties, Naipaul always follows his thought to its logical end point, and does not shy away from drawing extremely contentious conclusions, no matter how unpopular they might make him.

Satan Wants Me

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin is an Islamic scholar who has written several highly acclaimed tomes on aspects of Arabic culture. He is also an excellent novelist who explores the nature of storytelling, and the power (or danger) of dreams and the imagination. I recently re-read all of Irwin’s novels and would recommend any of them. Satan Wants Me is his most recent offering: set in the late 1960s, it is the witty, fictional diary of an aspirant occultist and sociology PhD candidate who is also interested in rock music, drugs and young ladies. The book is also notable for reminding us of the existence of the once ubiquitous, now entirely forgotten black magic expert Denis Wheatley. It’s almost ten years since Irwin produced a novel: I wish he would write another one.

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