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Reading the nation

The Times has an article in which a group of public cultural commentators were asked what five books they would choose to give to an alien that would best sum up Britain. It doesn't say whether this meant the post-war period, a specific area or our entire history. At number one, though, came George Orwell's 1984. Second, for some unfathomable reason, was Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. I disagree with so much of Freud - he was far too bourgeois and he placed far too much emphasis on parental influence on the child in the earliest years, and seemed to totally overlook those structures of society that also serve to mould people and attitudes. He was also useless when it came to women, making some quite disastrous conclusions in, for example, the famous case of Dora. He was definitely a certain type of man of his time. However, it got me wondering what five books I would choose to best sum up the UK to an alien.

1. Keep the Aspadistra Flying, George Orwell. This is one of Orwell's least read novels yet it says much about the rise of corporate culture. George Compton tries desperately to retain a sense of freedom yet, like most of us, has to confront the daily question of money, and that means working a job he dislikes day in, day out. It is so typically English.

2. Union Street/Blow your House Down/Liza's England - Pat Barker
These are Barker's first three novels and I consider them a trilogy before she moved onto the men and miliatary of the Regeneration Trilogy. These three books were all wriiten in the eighties and are set in the post-industrialist landscape of the North East. They are bleak. But they say much about working class women, so misrepresented and ignored in the novel that to leave these out could mean to leave out this demographic entirely and that would mean a much more inaccurate picture.

3. The History Man - Malcolm Bradbury - a 'campus' novel, this satire about a sociology lecturer in one of the new red-brick universities is dense in the sociology of Britain in the post-war period and feminist 'issues'.

4. Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh - the novel is very different from the film. It makes huge political points overlooked on the screen. It also gives a gritty, yet blackly funny picture of the UK's serious addiction issues.

5. Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy - this is the oldest of the five but it couldn't be left out. It is a tragic tale of one man's need to live a fuller life and how society won't allow it.

The one thing these five novels have in common is their critiques and satires of society, which the novel has, by and large, excelled at throughout history.

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