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David Farr on the books he’d save from tyrants

David Farr on the books he’d save from tyrants

My novel The Book of Stolen Dreams is set in a world ruled by a violent, tyrannical despot. A library in the city of Brava contains a book with a magical secret. The book must be protected at all costs. A sister and brother are entrusted with its safety, at huge danger to themselves and the ones they love.

Books have always meant more than themselves, much more than the paper and the glue and the ink. When books are burnt, it’s not the paper that’s at stake. It’s the language, the thought, the memories. In that sense books have souls. No wonder destroying a book feels like a killing. No wonder Rachel and Robert Klein take their mission to protect the Book of Stolen Dreams so very carefully.

Which always begs the question – what books above all others would you keep, if you could only save a few?

First of all, we must remove the rational from our decision. Obviously rationally we should save key medical encyclopaedias, Shakespeare and probably a book about growing plants in an over-heated world. But that’s not the point. That’s like looking round the deck of a sinking ship and working out rationally the best person to give the only other life-vest to, while your young daughter stares at you with water up to her neck, wondering whether you’ve totally lost your marbles or your heart.

No, when my library is burnt to the ground by a jealous tyrant, and I have to escape with only three books, here’s what I’d keep. And to hell with your objections.

I’d keep Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World as it makes me think of my father and the English countryside and it was my first encounter with rebellion and “sticking it to the man”. Quite why a bunch of pheasants falling from tree branches should be so joyful is one of life’s great mysteries.

I wanted to keep at least two of Eva Ibbotson’s books too so might slip The Star of Kazan in an inside jacket pocket and hope I’m not searched.

I’d keep Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude because it has the best opening line in literature (just about) and although when I first read it, it was known as magic realism, now it just seems real. His love of story-telling fizzes from every page, his love of people equally so, his love of justice is laced with an ironic humour that I just adore. It’s a book of enormous heart and dazzling skill.

I’d keep the Stefan Zweig’s memoir The World of Yesterday because it’s the world of my mother’s family, and no book is more filled with ache and longing. You can read it again and again, especially on trains for some reason. Maybe because a train is like time taking you further away from the memories you cherish. (Nabokov is very good on train rides but he’s a touch too chilly to keep).

And actually I would want to keep Shakespeare because I’ve directed a lot of his plays but have a terrible memory so would want to go back and just luxuriate in the greatest poet that ever lived. Oh and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. And Kafka’s Metamorphosis of course. And did I mention Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? And Miklos Banffy?

I’m going to need a lot of secret pockets.

The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr is out now in hardback from Usborne.

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