A Londoner, David Aaronovitch is the son of Communist Party parents; his father was a full-timer and, for a period, the Party's Cultural Secretary. David spent two terms at Balliol College, Oxford, before being 'sent down' for failing exams. After that he was at the University of Manchester in the 1970s and then president of the National Union of Students from 1980 to 1982. He worked in TV - at London Weekend Television and the BBC - for 12 years before joining The Independent on the first day of 1995. From 2003 until a couple of months ago he was at The Guardian, and he now works for The Times. David has a partner, three daughters and a place in Hampstead; a hard-acquired liberalism completes the picture. Here he writes about books that have been important to him.
David Aaronovitch on some of the books in his life
I've been putting this off for ages since Norm asked me to do it, mostly because I don't really have that one great book, the book that changed my life, the book that - in Timothy Leary style - altered my consciousness. Actually, reading the other contributions in this series has left me with a distinct feeling of intellectual penis envy. Everyone else's brain seemed so well-developed. But I suppose that there are many Normophiles whose experience is similar to mine, so here goes.
The William Brown books by Richmal Crompton formed my early ideas about humour. Her writing is sardonic, witty and sympathetic, and located in an English capacity for self-mockery. Crompton never wrote down to children, and refused to compromise in her use of words. The books are also one long poem of praise to anarchism and the unfettered human spirit. I am a supporter of Asbos in general, but if ever there were a literary candidate for one, his name was William Brown.
As a teenager I discovered Tolstoy and, in particular, Anna Karenina. Tolstoy's capacity for combining the biggest of big ideas with the most intimate of narratives, and (despite the squashy fate of his heroine) his essential optimism, have always appealed to me. I like bits of Dostoevsky (the Grand Inquisitor from Karamazov, Stavrogin's Confession from The Devils and most of Crime and Punishment), but Leo is the man.
I wish I could read Bleak House for the first time again. This is real satire, real comic writing, and deploys powers of physical description that will never be equalled. Fog on the river, the court of Chancery, the appalling faux-feckless Skimpole, the maddened young hero, the first detective, the Lincolnshire mansion, all more than offset the sentimentality and the Stepford heroine.
A few years on, and I feel about the Raj Quartet what I felt about Tolstoy. What Paul Scott knew and proved was that every character, from hero, to bystander, to victim, to villain, to dullard, has their own story, their own claim on our consideration. And they all play some part in history, even if no one knows what it is. Scott's gift was empathy. Whether you take hold of it or not is up to you.
The same clear-eyed understanding of the human condition, albeit partly gleaned in the most inhuman circumstances, characterized almost everything written by Primo Levi. I don't want to pick any single one of his marvellous books. Read (as bloggers often injunct) them all.
Wot, no politics? No history? Plenty of it, lots of it good, but none that is so outstanding that I will take it on a desert island. Save these two. Marx's The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a wonderful bit of neo-contemporary historical writing. Not only does it contain the greatest quotation in modern historiography ('Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their choosing...'), but his description of how the classes behaved during the French crisis of the mid-19th century, and how the bourgeois revolutionaries were - in the words of The Who - fooled all over again, is more than compelling. This is the Karl I like most.
And finally, arrived at late because Communists didn't read Orwell, there's George. Not 1984 or Animal Farm, but the reportage and the essays. It's the clarity of the writing, the complete lack of obfuscation, the demolition of convenient intellectual hidey-holes, the absence of bullshit, the intellectual fearlessness. Anything more different from current fashions among the academic, post-modern ultra-lefts is hard to imagine. No wonder they hate him so much.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]