So much for Ian Fleming’s top ten books. What about James Bond’s?
Kingsley Amis (writing as Bill Tanner) might have thought it a struggle to find ten books at all, let alone ten of Bond’s favourites, as he considered Bond’s library to be modest. But careful reading of the Bond novels brings up a respectable list of books that Bond reads, and literary allusions extends his library further.
Of course, not every book that Bond reads deserves to be in his top ten. I have excluded Alan Moyle’s Nature Cure Explained (1950), which he reads under sufferance while undergoing naturopathy treatment at Shrublands in Thunderball, and The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature (1936), which appears in Goldfinger, is also out, as Bond only uses it to hide his gun. And as much as Bond enjoys it, Verderbt, Verdammt, Verraten, which he reads in Berlin in ‘The Living Daylights‘, cannot be included either, as the book appears to be a Fleming invention.
But that still leaves us with plenty to choose from, and so here are my suggestions for James Bond’s top ten books.
Raymond Chandler, Playback (1958)
Like Ian Fleming, James Bond is a Philip Marlowe fan. In Goldfinger, published in 1959, we learn that James Bond is reading “the latest Raymond Chandler”. This identifies the Chandler novel as Playback. Fleming had certainly read the novel – he mentioned it during his conversation with Chandler in 1958 – and naturally he passed his enjoyment of it to Bond. What is more, its description as “the latest Raymond Chandler” suggests that Bond had read some of Chandler’s earlier books too.
Rex Stout, Might as well be Dead (1957)
We can also include Rex Stout in the list of thriller writers that James Bond admires. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, M asks Bond the name of the “fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids”. Bond replies Nero Wolfe, and that the books are written by Rex Stout. “I like them,” Bond says. It seems any book will do, but for this list I have chosen Rex Stout’s 1957 novel, in which the detective investigates the disappearance of a man and uncovers evidence of embezzlement on a grand scale.
Tommy Amour, How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time (1953)
James Bond packs this golf manual in his suitcase ahead of his flight to New York in Diamonds are Forever. It is possible that he takes the book simply for cover – the remaining contents of his suitcase are selected deliberately to fit his cover as a sportsman on a golfing holiday – but his home library includes other sports manuals, and he may have felt a sense of fellowship with the author. Like Bond, Tommy Armour attended Fettes College in Edinburgh.
Jack London, Tales of Adventure, edited by Irving Shepard (1956)
In an addendum to M’s obituary of James Bond published in You Only Live Twice, Mary Goodnight writes about Bond’s philosophy: “’I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.’” The words are not Fleming’s, but are instead attributed to American writer, Jack London. While there is some question over the authorship of the words, they were first published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916, then republished in 1956 in an introduction to Tales of Adventure, a collection of London’s short stories. We can imagine that Bond read the lines in the 1956 edition and, rather taken with them, felt that they appropriately described his philosophy.
Ben Hogan, Modern Fundamentals of Golf (1957)
We learn in Goldfinger that Bond purchases this golf manual along with Chandler’s Playback to read on the flight from New York to London. He has little chance to read it, though, as he is drugged and captured by Goldfinger.
Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)
James Bond is sufficiently familiar with Victorian authors of gothic tales to allude to a few of them when hearing Tiger Tanaka’s description of Dr Shatterhand’s Castle of Death in You Only Live Twice. Sheriden Le Fanu, who is best known work is probably Uncle Silas, is mentioned along with Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and Ambrose Bierce.
John Scarne, Scarne on Cards (1949)
If Birds of the West Indies is Fleming’s bible, Scarne of Cards might well be Bond’s. He consults it before observing Hugo Drax’s bridge game in Moonraker, and using the instructions given in the manual to practice card dealing and sharping techniques. Intriguingly, Bond requires a moment’s search to find the book within his “book-lined sitting-room”, confirming that Bond, like his creator, is also a bibliophile.
Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Letters to his Son (written 1737/8-1768)
One of the volumes in Bond’s “book-lined sitting-room” may well have been a copy of Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. In Doctor No, Bond recalls a phrase, ‘The only country [England] where you can take a walk every day of the year’, which he attributes to Chesterfield, though he is not sure of this, suggesting that he has not read the letters for a while. Indeed, a trawl through the letters reveals that the attribution is apocryphal.
John F Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (1956)
This book appears in The Man with the Golden Gun. In Jamaica on the trail of Francisco Scaramanga, Bond arrives at his hotel, settles into his room, calls room-service for an ice-cold bourbon, and reads Profiles in Courage. By referencing Kennedy’s book, Fleming returned the compliment that Kennedy paid him when in 1961 he included From Russia, with Love in a list of his top ten books.
Eric Ambler, The Mask of Dimitrios (1939)
James Bond reads the book during the flight to Istanbul in From Russia, with Love. In the Istanbul-set thriller, a mystery writer is intrigued by the death of a man identified as Dimitrios, who has washed up on beach. The writer follows a trail that leads him Dimitrios who is very much alive and implicated in a plot involving murder, blackmail and the theft of state secrets. Bond’s reaction to the book is not recorded, but it keeps him reading throughout his flight.
In his Bond novel, Solo, William Boyd alluded to this passage by having Bond read Graham Greene‘s West African-set Heart of the Matter on the flight to the fictional West African country of Zanzarim.
Edward Biddulph is the author of ‘James Bond memes’, a blog which examines Fleming’s writing, the Bond films and the Bond phenomenon. He is also the author of Licence to Cook, a James Bond cookbook, as well as a number of Bond-related articles. Edward is an archaeologist based in Oxford, UK, and has several academic papers and monographs to his name.
Check out Edward’s Licence to Cook: Recipes Inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond – The print edition is also available on Amazon, while the digital edition is also available via Barnes and Noble and iBookstore. Written by blog author Edward Biddulph, this cookbook is full of exciting recipes inspired by the food that Bond eats in the novels and short stories.
Visit Edward’s blog at James Bond Memes