“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” said the author Jane Austen. “When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
A good way to start building that library, and exploring and experiencing the rich and influential world of Irish writing - one of the nation’s great gifts to itself and the world - is to read a new book from Galway bookseller Des Kenny, entitled Kenny’s Choice - 101 Irish Books You Must Read.
Kenny’s Choice is Des’ personal selection of Irish fiction, poetry, and history books he feels are too important not to read, have been overlooked or neglected, or are worth rediscovering. For this Des drew on his love of books as well as his knowledge as a leading Irish bookseller.
Kenny’s Choice will be officially launched tomorrow at 6pm in Kenny’s Bookshop, Liosbán Industrial Estate, Tuam Road, by the broadcaster and author John Quinn. The launch will also mark the official re-opening of Kenny’s Bookshop in its new location in Liosbán.
“It’s to celebrate the Irish book,” Des tells me, “and it’s also as a tribute to my parents, the work that they did, and the love of books they gave us.”
The book features 101 reviews - some written as Gaeilge - with author information. Each review is only two pages in length and written in an accessible manner, yet still manages to yield a wealth of information - always the mark of a good critic. In short, it’s the kind of book you can pick up to check on one review and end up reading for ages, coming back to dip in and out of every now and again.
Major Irish writers such as John Banville, Seamus Heaney, Jennifer Johnston, Brian Moore, William Trevor, Samuel Beckett, and WB Yeats are included. Co Galway authors are well represented through Walter Macken, Pádraic Ó Conaire, Brendán Ó hEithir, Ken Bruen, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Liam O’Flaherty, and Tom Murphy.
While the above are obvious inclusions, Des also wanted to champion writers whose work has suffered neglect or marginalisation over the last few decades and to convince people to read them again.
“I wanted to underline the fact that there is more to a good book than what’s on the best seller lists,” he says. “I also felt there was a significant amount of good books not getting the recognition they deserved. Two generations of Irish people have not opened books by Maurice Walsh and Francis McManus and they should be made aware of them.”
Des cites Jack Heart’s In The Wake Of The Bagger, Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey (“The funniest book you’ll ever read,” he says ), and Spike Milligan’s Puckoon as further examples. He also says Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles To Babylon? are now viewed as ‘school texts’ and avoided as much as possible. “There is more to them than that,” he says. “They are too good to be ignored.”
It’s a welcome and fresh perspective for such a book to adopt and it is good to see Christy Moore and Pat Ingoldsby included alongside more obvious writers like JM Synge and Frank O’Connor. Many may consider Des’ inclusion of Maeve Binchy’s Light A Penny Candle odd though.
“Maeve Binchy, and that book in particular, opened the door for other Irish women to feel that they too could tell their stories and write fiction,” he says. “I hate the term ‘chick-lit’. I despise it! It’s just another way of marginalising a style of writing by and for women.”
However the most surprising thing about Kenny’s Choice is not an inclusion but an omission. James Joyce is nowhere to be seen on Des’ list of essential books.
Des has reasons both practical and provocative for leaving him off the list. He points out that most people are well aware of Joyce, aware of his reputation, and can name a number of his books even if they have not read them.
“This book is not about Joyce, it’s about the other men and women who deserve attention,” he says.
Des also says, somewhat mischviously, that there was little point including Joyce as “most people claim to have read him”.
It is a fascinating aspect of the James Joyce phenomenon that no criticism is permitted of the writer and those who dare suggest - no matter how well versed they are in Joyce or their academic qualifications - that Ulysses has any flaws, suffers an immediate ‘belt of the crozier’ from the Joyceans. Des’ third point is bound to send them through the roof.
“I was going to include Dubliners but in the end I didn’t,” he says. “I was talking to Con Houlihan once about Joyce and I suggested to him that I find a lack of generosity in Joyce’s writing. Con thought about it for a moment and replied: ‘You’re nearly right.’
“I find that in Beckett and Yeats there is a greater feeling and generosity towards other writers and towards the reader. Many people just think of George A Birmingham as a comic novelist, but reading this Protestant minister again I found a deep rooted socialism and social concern for people. In Joyce it always seems to be about what you can do for him, not what he can do for you.”
Des describes writing the book as “an extraordinary journey” which he greatly enjoyed.
“I felt great warmth from and for the books,” he said. “I met them in a new way and got more out of them with these re-readings than I expected and did the first time I read them.”
Kenny’s Choice - 101 Irish Books You Must Read is published by Currach Press and is available for €35 (hardback ) and €19.99 (paperback ).