I was asked a difficult question the other day. What, my interlocutor wanted to know, was my favourite book of all time? Did I describe the question as difficult? Belay that: it is actually impossible to answer. Other people - and you, dear reader, may well be among that happy band - might have no problem coming up with an answer. I am not so fortunate. For a start, there is no way I can remember all the books I have read or that have been read to me. Yes, I did write "read to me". Well, the question did say "all time" so I reckon it must cover the books that were read to me when I was too young to read them for myself.
The one book I do remember having read to me was Robin Hood. It was fully illustrated with colour pictures on just about every page but what I remember most was my father having great difficulty deciding whether the word "bow" was pronounced to rhyme with "how" or "hoe". Later, I thoroughly enjoyed the Secret Seven and Famous Five books by Enid Blyton as well as all the Swallows and Amazons titles. All ripping stuff, but not really among my all-time favourites.
For a book to be selected as my favourite of all time it would have to be one that I can and have read time and again, enjoying each reading as much as or more than those that went before. There are many, many books that pass that test simply on account of my age. As I get ever closer to my allotted three score and ten (less than a year to go now) I find that I can pick up a book and start reading only to discover on page 7 (or 23 or in chapter 3) that I have read it before. Not that I necessarily recall all the details of the plot, far less who "dun it". But that doesn't automatically mean the book in question can be regarded as a contender for the title "All-Time Favourite". For a book to be in that position it would have to be one I know I have read before, one whose plot I remember and in which the denouement comes as no surprise. That still leaves me with a fair few from which to choose.
On further consideration, I have decided I just cannot pick out any one book as my all-time favourite but I can make a short-list of five titles. I will also restrict my selection to no more than one title by any author. There are several titles I considered but which failed, in some cases very narrowly, to make the cut. These include Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and - much to my surprise as I don't usually enjoy fantasy - Lord of the Rings (I know - that's three books but I couldn't separate the three titles). So what is on my short-list? I am slightly surprised that three of the books fit into the genre "war" although, in fact, two of them are concerned not so much with the action but with the reaction of men caught up in war; with their courage and cowardice, their loves and hates, and with what sustains them in almost impossibly difficult situations.
And, at last, my fab five (in no particular order) - with brief reviews by other readers.
The Cruel Sea (Nicholas Monsarrat): "The story of the crew of a newly commissioned corvette, acting as an escort to merchant convoys during World War II. The crew is initially mostly inexperienced, from non-naval backgrounds. The plot focuses on their differing reactions to some of the horrifying experiences they have as the German U-boats attack their convoys with increasing success. Some will survive the war, and some won't - but all of them will be changed by their experiences."
Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks): The book's hero, a 20-year-old Englishman named Stephen Wraysford, finds his true love on a trip to Amiens in 1910. Unfortunately, she's already married, the wife of a wealthy textile baron. Wrayford convinces her to leave a life of passionless comfort to be at his side, but things do not turn out according to plan. Wraysford is haunted by this doomed affair and carries it with him into the trenches of the war. Birdsong derives most of its power from its descriptions of mud and blood, and Wraysford's attempt to retain a scrap of humanity while surrounded by it.
HMS Ulysses (Alastair MacLean): "When I first came across HMS Ulysses, I read it from cover to cover without putting it down - three times in a row. The story about the captain and crew of the HMS Ulysses, the story about men driven to the limit and far beyond by terror, cold and hunger, who somehow kept going because of their love and devotion to one extraordinary man, was one of the saddest, most capturing and most compelling stories I've ever read. I could almost feel the crew's desperation, feel the piercing cold, hear - and be tormented by - the captain's ripping cough. Not many books have the power to capture me that way. I know HMS Ulysses almost by heart by now - but whenever I read it, I still do it from cover to cover, without putting it down. Once I begin, I just can't let it go until it's all over."
In Pale Battalions (Robert Goddard): "The story is about finding and understanding your identity. A young lady raised indifferently by her grandparents learns the truth about her parentage in pieces throughout her life. She is lucky enough to find love with a wonderful man and have a fulfilling marriage enjoying motherhood but her past remains a mystery for most of her life. The title refers to a war and indeed World War I and it's terrible toll plays an important part of the story, [but] I believe that the root of the book is identity. The story is told through the perspectives of a few different people in the life of the main character. The truth only becomes clear at the very last pages. You do need to have patience. I found it heartbreakingly true and have read it 4 times. The writing is compared to Daphne DuMaurier but I don't think that is necessarily true. What is apparent is the way that layers of the story are similar to an onion. The more layers that are peeled away, the more story you find."
Under the Greenwood Tree (Thomas Hardy): "A poignant little novel. It is a tale of a traditional country community, it's choir, which is under threat, and a romance. The novel highlights the beginnings of change for such communities, through the travails of the "Melstock Quire", which is being threatened by the introduction of a new organ. Meanwhile Dick Dewey pursues schoolmistress Fancy Day - although he is not her only admirer. There is a gentleness and warmth to the characters we meet in Melstock, their traditions and concerns become ours, it is an absolute joy, a real timeless classic."
And there, in the words of others, you have them.