If it’s possible for apocalypses to be in vogue, and there is plenty of evidence that they are the in-thing at the moment with the ongoing fascination with a possible looming zombie infestation or the Mayans end-of-days calendar, then thoughts surely must turn to what you would do with yourself in the harrowing days following the end of civilisation.
Once you’ve stopped running for your life of course.
Might I suggest reading a few books? Yes, books. An extended bout of leisurely reading may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you contemplate how you would spend your time in a world devoid of commuting, Twitter, and supermarket shopping. But once you’ve found a remote shack in the woods, or a nice cheery cave to hole up in, your supplies hidden from the prying eyes of other survivors, you’re going to have to amuse yourself somehow.
After all, shooting stray zombies can only fill in so much time.
Assuming you choose a little literary diversion to fill up your time, the question then turns to which books you would grab as the nuclear bombs rain down around you – thank goodness you bought that radiation suit on eBay a fews months back; how the neighbours laughed – and the zombies shimmy up the drainpipes in feverish desperation?
I think we can safely say that being the consummate survivalist professional you have already squirreled away a stack of books on how to catch wild (if mutated) game and knitting your own tent from gum tree bark. So you will naturally need a few other less practical books to fill in the down time when you’re not fighting for your life.
So which five books would you include? (Keeping in mind of course that you will have to carry them yourself since it’s unlikely you can book a removalist for the apocalypse.) I have based my selections mostly on books that have languished on my bookshelf in what I like to call the Aspirational Reading Pile.
You know, the 80 or so books I compulsively keep adding to every time I visit a bookstore. Books I would love to read one day as soon as I get the time and so buy, awash in sunny optimism, that that day must be just around the corner and I will need to be ready.
While I am waiting for this golden promised land of reading bliss and nirvana, life goes on, demanding this, wanting that, leaving the Aspirational Reading Pile gathering dust on more than a few shelves off my bookcase.
The apocalypse of course is a perfect time to read these books since all you will have is time. The only downside is that you can only choose a carryable number of these books.
So after much lifeboat thinking – which books would be saved from being ripped apart by the undead hordes thinking they’re teeny-tiny people with very dry skin and absurdly upright posture – here are the five books I would take with me to while away those hours till civilisation resumes…
THE LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel
This magical tale of a boy, Pi Patel, who finally himself alone on a raft with a tiger and a number of other creatures, is just what you would need in this new age of brutal realism. If the seemingly endless stream of apocalyptic novels and movies is any guide, it won’t take long for what’s left of society to devolve into marauding bands of filthy survivors who left their humanity pretty much where they discarded their iPod. If ever you needed a book that not only transports you to an alternate reality but reminds you of what makes us human into the bargain, it’s this one.
Plus it has the added bonus of beautiful, poetic language, and a slowly unfolding narrative that isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere fast. But is all the more wondrous a read for that languid pace. It would perfect for a quiet night after you have spent an exhausting day dodging six armed human mutants intent on your demise.
CITY by P. D. Smith
One thing that might begin to dim with time as the apocalypse forces a return to our agrarian routes, is how mankind ever managed to organise himself into organised urban centres. It might seem hard to imagine we’d forget how a city works since 3.3 billion of us now call them home but it could happen as attention turns to simply surviving, and less to attending the theatre or attending a meeting across town.
The beauty of this newly released book is that it cleverly outlines, in guidebook form, the various building blocks of the city such as transport, work, money and shops. It also details how people came to see organising themselves in this fashion as beneficial to their continued prosperity. It’s packed full of photographs of the world’s major cities, both past and present, and would be the ultimate reminder of one of mankind’s most distinctive achievements.
BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
Right now you must be wondering if I have taken leave of my senses. Why would you want to take a book with that title off on your sojourns into a post-civilised world where there is a fair bet you will more than your fair share of death and destruction. Surely after a day of brusquely stepping over corpses, or running from rather more animated ones, the absolute last thing you would want to do is read about them?
Ah yes, but then you would have let the title rob you off an enriching excursion into Western history. Specifically that of Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII. The book, the follow up novel to the Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, is a sumptuous look at the final days of Anne Boleyn, which also reveals more about the way our modern era works than you might think.
This book you see is perfect apocalyptic reading – instructional and diverting in one beautifully written package.
MANHATTAN IN REVERSE by Peter F Hamilton
This is another of those books that you would grant you a diversionary trip into a visionary future, keeping hope alive that mankind can scramble from the morass of his own destruction and grab glory with both hands. This collection of short stories written by one of Britain’s most preeminent science-fiction writers examines what it means to be human in a technological age where man and machine often seem to be one.
The beauty of Peter F Hamilton’s writing is that in imaging a glittering technological future of grand achievements and unending prosperity,he never forgets that mankind is flawed. Deeply flawed. This may not sound like the sort of thing you want to focus on when there is surfeit of flawed behaviour around you but trust me, if ever you wanted a book that promised hope of a better day while remaining quite aware of what it will take to get there it’s this one.
So it’s actually a reminder that the cannibalistic, brutish hordes that dogged your every step on your flight to your sanctuary may one day race to the stars and beyond. It may seem like a wildly optimistic thing to imagine as you strain to read by the flickering candlelight of your dingy cave. But it is hopeful nonetheless and this is why this book must find its way into your backpack.
IS EVERYONE HANGING OUT WITHOUT ME (AND OTHER CONCERNS)? by Mindy Kaling
It’s a fair bet that worrying about what everyone else is doing won’t be high on your list of priorities in a world than is more Mad Max than it is Doris Day so trust me I’m not recommending this book as a way of soothing any non-existent social anxieties.
No, this book is worthy of inclusion in your limited apocalypse library by virtue of the fact that it will make you laugh. A great deal. Mindy Kaling, who is now a writer, executive producer and one of the stars of the US-version of The Office, describes with hilarious honesty her journey to the centre of the entertainment industry. Granted this disappeared along with Saturday papers, fresh croissants and ABBA CDs when civilisation blinked from existence, so you won’t be focusing on where she got to so much as the funny journey getting there.
Given that zombies have a distinctly poor sense of humour, a chapter or two of this book will come in handy as a de-stresser after you’ve pushed the hordes away and sealed up your bolt hole for the night.
I don’t think anyone is going to pretend that apocalypses are anything other than the terrifying end of everything you know and love but no one said it had to be boring. With this selection you can keep your mind engaged, be reminded of what it means to be human, and even laugh a little.
That’s when you’re not pushing zombies away from your door which granted may eat into your reading time a little.
So which books would you choose to take with you, and why?
* this article first appeared on writing bar.com