The New Torchlight List — Jim Flynn

Jim Flynn’s first Torchlight List book was a really interesting guide to one man’s essential reading list. This follow-up takes a different tack but is just as engrossing. Here Flynn takes a more global view, focusing on different parts of the world and calling out books and writers that he thinks are worth reading.

Flynn talks about the books and writers in the context of the countries and regions they come from. He gives excellent overviews of the various regions including their history and politics, which helps to explain the genesis of the different writers. I learned a lot just from these sections — they could almost be a book on their own.

This time he has a star system, awarding a star to great books and two stars for truly outstanding books. Sometimes he talks of his prevarications in awarding stars as if he were a Booker Prize judge: I really like this as it shows he does take the whole enterprise quite seriously.

There are lots of starred books and writers. The cream of the crop is the list of 29 two-star books, of which I have read only three: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Dubliners by James Joyce, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine gave me a copy of Birdsong along with very enthusiastic recommendations. It’s a good book but I never really saw what all the fuss was about. The other two books, though, are wonderful.

Flynn also rates Julian Barnes’s books very highly. However he only mentions Barnes’s more recent books, such as The Sense of an Ending. I haven’t read any of these, but I absolutely loved some of the older Barnes novels: Metroland, Talking it Over, and A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Flynn doesn’t even mention these, but maybe he’d like them too.

I really enjoyed The New Torchlight List. It’s a quick way of getting a taste of a whole world of literature. To stop there would be cheating; but I won’t do that, because I can’t stop after a just a taste.

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