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Will Self's Top Book Recommendations

Want to know what books Will Self recommends on their reading list? We've researched interviews, social media posts, podcasts, and articles to build a comprehensive list of Will Self's favorite book recommendations of all time.


London Street Games

George Norman Douglas (1868-1952) was a British writer, now best known for his 1917 novel South Wind. His first book publication, Unprofessional Tales (1901) was written under the pseudonym Normyx. He moved to Capri, spending time there and in London, and became a more committed writer. South Wind (1917) remains Douglas s most famous work; however it has been argued that his best work was in his travel books which combine erudition, insight, whimsicality and some fine prose. These works include Siren Land (1911), Fountains in the Sand, described as rambles amongst the oases of Tunisia (1912),... more
Recommended by Will Self, and 1 others.

Will SelfNorman Douglas cottoned onto the fact that children’s games were a source of oral literature that lay outside of other kinds, and had not been studied before. In this strange book, he went out on the streets in the early 1900s, watched cockney kids playing and wrote it all down. It’s an exceptionally good bit of social anthropology. It’s all there. And rather like the Frank Harris book with sex,... (Source)

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By 1880, London, capital of the largest empire ever known, was the richest, most populous city in the world; and yet it remained an overcrowded, ungoverned metropolis with huge slums gripped by poverty and disease. Over the next three decades, London began its transformation into a new kind of city—one of unprecedented size, dynamism, and technological advance. This highly evocative account delves into the lives and textures of the booming city, from the glittering new department stores of Oxford Street to the synagogues and sweatshops of the East End, from bohemian bars and gaudy music halls... more
Recommended by Will Self, and 1 others.

Will SelfMy perception is that London was the modernist city par excellence in 1900, and over the last century or so has retreated from its position on the cusp of modernity. In the early 1900s you had stock market quotes, electrified underground railways and pneumatic mail systems – the idea that we are significantly more modern in the physical fabric of the city today is a delusion. I wanted to try and... (Source)

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My Life and Loves

Long banned in the United States and England, My Life and Loves is one of the most notorious autobiographies ever written. Famous for its erotic passages, it is also one of the richest and most entertaining views ever of fin-de-siècle literary and social life.

In this unexpurgated chronicle, we come to see Frank Harris (1855-1931) in all his glory. This is the tale of one of the great editors of his day, a man of vision, vanity, and ambition who gave many writers, including H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Stephen Crane, their early opportunities and recognition. There are...
Recommended by Will Self, and 1 others.

Will SelfI only included this book to show that cocks went in cunts before 1961. That’s all it’s there for. It’s a dreadful book. Appallingly written. But the great virtue of Harris is that he fucks a lot, and talks very explicitly about his fucking in a way that is totally believable. When you were young, you would read 19th century novels and sit there thinking: Are they fucking? Aren’t they fucked?... (Source)

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The year 2000 marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most original and gripping volumes ever written about the First World War. Fussell illuminates a war that changed a generation and revolutionised the way we see the world. He explores the British experience on the western Front from 1914 to 1918, focusing on the various literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the experience itself. Fussell supplies contexts, both actual and literary, for writers who have most effectively memorialized the Great War as an... more
Recommended by Will Self, Wade Davis, and 2 others.

Will SelfFussell’s book brilliantly articulates many views which were inchoate in me before I read it. It’s ostensibly literary criticism, but it does much more than that. His thesis is the juxtaposition of the great powers marching off in August 1914, with their banners and tootling – “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – and the reality of war. They expected a swift victory by Christmas, but got... (Source)

Wade DavisThis is the perfect book to end on. Every page is a revelation. It’s for anyone who wants to understand this notion that the war was the fulcrum of modernity. It was a turning point. The entire idea of the 19th century – which was an idea of progress, optimism and the notion that you can always better yourself economically, spiritually, socially – was crushed on the fields of Flanders. And in the... (Source)

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Awakenings--which inspired the major motion picture--is the remarkable story of a group of patients who contracted sleeping-sickness during the great epidemic just after World War I. Frozen for decades in a trance-like state, these men and women were given up as hopeless until 1969, when Dr. Oliver Sacks gave them the then-new drug L-DOPA, which had an astonishing, explosive, "awakening" effect. Dr. Sacks recounts the moving case histories of his patients, their lives, and the extraordinary transformations which went with their reintroduction to a changed world. less
Recommended by Will Self, and 1 others.

Will SelfI must have first read this book in the early eighties, and found it – like a lot of Sacks’s writing – absolutely fascinating. Not just because of the philosophical and scientific perspectives that he is involved in, but because of his involuntary self-characterisation. I used some of Sacks’s modes and mannerisms quite shamelessly as one of the sources for my character Zack Busner, who is a... (Source)

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