Anthony Powell's epic A Dance to the Music of Time is probably my all-time favourite read, but it would be cheating to include it here as there are 12 novels in the series. I read fiction voraciously as a teenager, lapping up the 20th-century schoolboy English classics – Orwell, Wyndham, Wells and Greene – for pleasure, as well as plenty of Thomas Hardy at school (and not for light relief). I'm from a family of journalists, and after some resistance to following in familial footsteps, I think my favourite books from my teens and early adulthood suggest I was always destined to cave in and follow that path. Curiosity about the world around you is a basic requirement for any journalist. Otherwise go and do something else. Either way, try to make more time for reading – it is good for the soul.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)
Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy includes some of the finest writing of the 20th century, but this little marvel of his is perhaps the most biting and witty novel I know. Scoop is the ultimate satire on old Fleet Street. Dispatched by Lord Copper's Daily Beast to cover a brewing conflict in Ishmaelia (actually Abyssinia), countryman William Boot is out of his depth, overloaded with superfluous supplies and while cutting his teeth as a foreign correspondent attempting to wade through the fog of a phoney war. The experience transforms him from near-bumpkin to knowing adult. If you haven't read it, do. It will not fail to make you smile.
The Fruit Palace by Charles Nicholl (1985)
More than just a breakneck attempt at an exposé of the cocaine trade, The Fruit Palace is a travelogue of roughing it around Colombia in a crazy, Wild West period in the country's history. Good humoured, with fact dressed up as fiction at times (as Nicholl has since admitted), but best of all a great romp of a read that is breathless, conjures up a mosquito-plagued country hijacked by an illicit trade and never fails to entertain.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
The single greatest piece of American journalism and the benchmark for all fine, spare writing in the modern age. No purple prose, just facts. Capote’s unpicking of a notorious murder case in the Midwest is an unmissable book for anyone who wants to understand how to tell a story using the written word. In contemporary parlance, it is the ultimate “long-form” journalism.
A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov (1840)
I adore Gogol’s surrealism and Turgenev’s ability to survey the state of Russia at his time of writing, but Lermontov’s sketch of the life of his self-knowing, often cynical Byronic hero Pechorin is a gently written masterpiece, well-known and yet I doubt well-read these days. His evocative descriptions of horsemanship and Pechorin’s courtships in the Caucasus in this episodic tale provides a snapshot of a Russia that is so long gone and yet the reader always feels right at the centre of the action.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915)
This has been chosen before, but I have to say that this novel of intrigue, spycraft and mistaken identity is a little gem, and the basis for Hitchcock's wonderful 1935 film, which developed the plot brilliantly, but is not a true reflection of Buchan's story. Buchan tapped into British wartime paranoia about German spies, with his dashing hero Richard Hannay fleeing from London to the wilds of Scotland in his one-man effort to survive – and disrupt – a foreign plot as the outbreak of war approaches.
Joe Jenkins is Assistant Editor-in-Chief of The National