Rob Ryan has long been the paper-cutting stalwart on these meta-pages and those of our magazine. A real master of his craft, his illustrative touch (and scalpel edge) has been applied to literally anything you can think of though notably includes a running narrative collaboration with poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy, commissioned work for the likes of Heathrow Airport, an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and bits and bobs for his wonderful shop, Ryantown. This week he presents his five books of most personal worth to sit on our Bookshelf.
“I think the things we discover by ourselves are the things that mean the most to us. The lessons we learn from them are the longest lasting and most valued because our connection to those things, be it a song, a book, or a picture, is more directly personal. This is certainly true of my first three choices.”
My Friend Mr Leakey JBS Haldane
JBS Haldane was a genealogist and socialist (1892 – 1964). He loved both Beetles and Lenin. This was his only book written for children and it mixes the magical with the everyday, as well as a good dose of science. Mr Leakey is of course a magician who lives in London but the real story is that real life and science are much more incredible and magical than any story-book fantasy. He wrote lots of essays, many for The Daily Worker, the best collection of which is called On Being the Right Size and is brilliant.
The Principles of Uncertainty Maira Kalman
I discovered Maira Kalman in the old Zwemmer Graphics book shop on Charing Cross Road (London), I guess sometime in the mid 1990s. It was the only place I knew that stocked her fantastic picture/story/poetry books for children. And oh my God, the woman is a genius! For one year from 2006 to 2007 she wrote a monthly illustrated blog for The New York Times_. It is funny, sad, wistful, inspiring, joyous and heartbreaking and lots of other things I can feel but don’t know the words for.
The Cybil War Betsy Byars
I’ve never stopped reading books that were written principally for children because to me a good story is a good story. There are some other great Betsy Byars books, The 18th Emergency, The Cartoonist and The TV Kid, but this is my favourite. I guess the lesson in her books is life can be tough, but it’s not as bad as you think as long as you get to grips with it and make the best of it! In real life Betsy does just this – I wasn’t surprised to read that both her and her husband Ed hold pilot’s licences and live on an air strip, the bottom floor of their house being a hangar for their plane! I think that my favourite thing about Betsy’s stories is she evokes smells and sensations so vividly you can almost feel them yourself whilst reading her books.
The Best Stories Of William Saroyan William Saroyan
My friend Jeb was clearing out a load of books when I went round to his house once, he told me to help myself before they were taken to the charity shop. Picking up this collection of William Saroyan stories I asked him what it was like. “Only the greatest book ever written!” Considering that Jeb says this about just about everything he likes, I took it with a pinch of salt. And then one day I read it and it was a revelation. He writes with soul and he’s one of those guys that you read just half a page and you have to stop because what you read was so right, and just enough, to read anymore would be too much.
Borstal Boy Brendan Behan
This is my favourite book and always will be. Too young to be hung, the sixteen year old Dubliner and IRA member Brendan Behan is sentenced to three years in Borstal, England, for possession of explosives and intent to blow up the dockyards in Liverpool. On remand and in prison he finds himself confronted with cruelty, ignorance, tedium and very occasionally, kindness. He meets it all with humour, wisdom, anger and reason. His heart is so big and full of sense and life and fun that it can’t help but light up your heart as well. Sad and funny and everything in between, this story above all others will stay with me all of my life.