Alexander Matthews
Alexander Matthews
Image: Karl Rogers

About two years ago I was preparing a braai in the Kruger National Park. It had been raining, and the evening was thick with moths, insects, and bats. As the flames roared, I sat down to admire my efforts. And then something brushed my elbow.

It was probably a moth. But it could’ve been bat — in fact, it could’ve been a rabid bat. My mind zeroed in on this possibility; within minutes I became convinced I could’ve got rabies. Over the next few days, I thought of little else. Although I took a post-exposure course of Verorab, the rabies vaccine, I’ve never been able to quite shake off this phobia.

In Swaziland recently I felt a stinging on my back while I was showering outside in the dark. I couldn’t see what had caused it — it was probably just a hornet — but what if it were a rabid bat? What if the vaccine had worn off?

As I lay in bed that night contemplating my imminent demise, my mind quickly turned to things literary. If I die now, what about all the books I haven’t got round to? Within minutes, I was able to populate an entire bookshelf with books I’ve not yet read, but really want to. They included the two final volumes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Midnight’s Children, Emma, A Passage to India, the collected stories of Katherine Mansfield, and Saleem Haddad’s Guapa.

I mourned the amount of time I’d wasted on Instagram and Facebook. The many, many hours I’d spent listening to cheesy pop on flights instead of reading; although, come on now, why is it so darn difficult to read on a plane?

Although I’ve subsequently come around to the idea that I’m not going to die a frothy-mouthed death just yet, the thought of a reading bucket list has stayed with me. What are the books we should read before we kick it?

I thought I’d canvas a few of our leading writers for their take.

Lauri Kubuitsile: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. “Steinbeck’s sparse, exacting prose is the perfect vehicle for telling the story of the dashed hopes of the Joad family, but also for conveying a wider warning to all of us.”

Michiel Heyns: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. “A totally prescient vision of the corrupting effects of what he calls ‘material interests’, even where those interests are promoted with the best of intentions. And even more so, of course, where they are not. Enlightened capitalism meets the Guptas — and loses.”

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda. “It is full of ways of living well under any kind of circumstance.”

Achmat Dangor: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. “Set in Nigeria, the story’s main theme is about pre- and postcolonial life in late 19th century Africa. It accurately captures the colonial heritage and challenges that lie ahead for the continent.”

Nthikeng Mohlele: In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey. “An important manual for anyone interested in understanding the tensions and vulnerabilities between the sexes.”

Karina M Szczurek: An Instant in the Wind by André Brink. “I name it without hesitation, because I loved the novel before I came to love its author. For me, it is the ultimate love story, capturing love’s many guises. Fortunate are those who are allowed to experience love before death.”

Mark Winkler: Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban. “At its heart lies the devastation wrought by blind adherence to religion, myth, and misinterpretation, a theme probably far more relevant now than it was when it was first published almost four decades ago.”

Alison Lowry: Set This House on Fire by William Styron. “The book I return to when I need reminding about what a brilliant novelist can do. It deals with age-old themes like evil, power, manipulation, redemption, but in the hands of a writer like Styron, the book is original, beautifully written and deeply compelling.”

Bill Nasson: The Complete Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray. “This fat compilation of his painfully funny diaries, beautifully crafted by the late British playwright and writer, provides a whiff of a life lived with wit and searing honesty. As we are reminded by a typical entry, ‘uncomfortable’ is an adjective that should describe a chair, not how you are made to feel by an opinion you don’t like.”

Nkosinathi Sithole: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. “A powerful and inspiring story about following one’s destiny and knowing that it might just be closer than you think.”

Ishay Govender-Ypma: Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar edited by Matt McAllester. “It’s difficult to imagine intricate food stories set in a time of war, but if there’s one thing that guns cease their firing for, it’s a moment for sustenance. In this compilation of excellent short stories, intrepid war reporters tell of their time in the field during various latter-day conflicts. The result is a mix of tender, psychologically wounding, and surreal tales about human nature and the universal, basic need to eat.”

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