My earliest reading memory
I was three years old, we lived in Purbrook, near Portsmouth, and if I had been remarkably good, my mother would order a book from the local bookshop and a month later we would pick it up. I remember a children’s party Hiawatha, a beautiful edition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin illustrated by Margaret Tarrant, and an illustrated Mikado † I would learn the words of the songs without any tunes: “In anticipation of the thrill of a short sharp jolt of a cheap and chippy helicopter on a big black block” and so on. Glorious morbid stuff for a three-year-old.
Growing up my favorite book
If you had asked me for seven or eight years, it would have been the Narnia books, which I found infinitely rereadable – I wanted to live in them. But if you’d asked me at nine or ten, it was The Lord of the Rings. I was convinced that not only was this the best book anyone had ever written, but it was also the best book anyone would ever write. I just had to know how it ended because my school only had the first two books. When I won the English prize in school, I asked for The Return of the King as my prize book.
The Book That Changed Me As A Teen
Roger Zelazny’s novels Lord of Light and beings of light and darkness. He was a wonderful writer, with a beautiful prose style, and he just made it look so fun to write. I had already wanted to write, but Zelazny determined it.
The Writer Who Changed His Mind
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I realized I could stop dreaming of becoming a writer and become a writer instead. It was Harlan Ellison’s fault, from his introduction to a short story called Count the Clock that Tells the Time, in a collection called Shatterday. He wrote about wasting time, how you look around and time is up. It connected directly to everything I had ever thought or dreamed of becoming a writer and at that point I was determined to become a writer. I thought it was better to try and fail than not to try and let the time pass.
The book that made me want to be a writer
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer, but CS Lewis and his Narnia books definitely made me realize that these stories I loved were written by one person. Lewis didn’t pretend to be invisible, he was very happily present in the text and made these lovely kind remarks for the reader. I loved that so much, and liked the idea of doing it too.
The book I came back to
Gene Wolfe was an author I respected but didn’t love, and when I was 20 I struggled to read the first in The Book of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer. I don’t know why I picked it up again, maybe a year later, but I was surprised to find that it was now the most interesting book in the world.
The Book I Could Never Read Again
I find it very difficult to go back to Enid Blyton. I even find her difficult to read to my children. It’s weird because I remember how much I loved Blyton, and I’m someone who likes to go back to beloved children’s books, and yet everything I loved isn’t there when I go back as an adult.
The book I discovered later in my life
Charles Dickens’s pale house† a book I didn’t get into until my late 40s. I guess I was only there for the spontaneous human combustion, which isn’t really a very important part of the novel. But I fell deeply in love with the book – the plot, the prose, the techniques – the whole thing – and rediscovered a childhood love for Dickens.
The book I am currently reading
I am really enjoying Penn Jillette’s upcoming novel Random. And on Audible, I’m re-watching The Black Ridge: Amongst the Cuillin of Skye by Simon Ingram, narrated by Richard Burnip, a glorious book about Skye and the Cuillin Hills and the people who climbed them. I enjoy it so much as an audio experience, if only because everything is pronounced correctly, which wasn’t the case when I read it to myself.
My comfort read
Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I read it every decade and discover new things in it. Although a few years ago, during the lockdown, when I was alone for many months, my comfort books were mostly books I had loved as a child. The most interesting of the books I rediscovered were Nicholas Stuart Gray, now erroneously forgotten, but one of the most brilliant children’s authors of the 20th century at best.