My first memory of reading
My mom was reading me Ladybird books in Dollis Hill, North West London in 1971. My reading started with comics, mostly Beano, Whizzer and Chips, and in our house, The Broons and Oor Wullie, not because we are Scottish, but because my mother collected children’s books and annuals from all over.
My favorite book growing up
Billy Bunter’s books. Again, this has to do with my mom being a collector, as they were written in the 1920s and 1930s, and therefore outdated, even in the 1970s, but she forced them on me. And from Dollis Hill’s perspective in 1973, the crumpet-toasting adventures at Greyfriars School were exciting. I became a fan and joined a Frank Richards appreciation company, The Old Boys’ Book Club, where I was 11 and everyone was 80. I guess if I came back to those books. now they would be a beehive of racism, classism and body fascism, so I won’t.
The book that changed me as a teenager
Ways of Seeing by John Berger, aged 18. It made me discover the idea that what we assume to be natural is often ideological. In the book, it’s mostly about art (especially the way the images of women in art are totally encoded with the male gaze), but I’ve inferred that almost everything we create, think, in fact, has an underlying unconscious ideological component.
The writer who made me change my mind
John Updike. Again, when I was 18, I read it without realizing that it was part of a sequence of books, Rabbit Is Rich. This converted me to the idea that, as Updike says, the work of art is to give the mundane its due – that if you’re a good enough writer, your prose can do anything, even the wrong things. most microscopic and most ordinary in life, rich and strange.
The book I came back to
I am reading, or rather listening, The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. I read quite a bit of James, especially when I was doing a PhD in Victorian Literature and Sexuality, but while I found him interesting, I also found him soulless and convoluted. Now it’s clear to me that James was inventing psychological modernity in the novel. And to do so, he’s prepared to refine sentence after sentence the intricacies of mood, thought, and expression. It is difficult but quite exciting.
The book that I reread
George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I read it in my twenties and thought: meh. Now, in my late fifties, I think – without originality – that this is indeed the greatest novel ever written in English. I can hear all of Eliot’s desire and pain and nuance about time, the tide, marriage, compromise and the pressure of social order. It contains passages of intense beauty, and also – in a way it has never quite succeeded elsewhere – the most satisfying and elegant structure of all the great books.
The book I could never read again
I guess I wouldn’t like the Whizzer and Chips Annual as much as I did back then.
The book I’m currently reading
I have Dave Eggers’ The Every in book form waiting for me. I liked The Circle very much, which I thought was ahead of what the internet does to us, so I can’t wait to read more, if my eyes allow me.
My comfort reading
I am writing a book on atheism and I commissioned a text from the Barcelona Dispute of 1263, which was a debate between a rabbi and a brother organized by King James of Aragon on who is right: Jews or Christians ? Only one way to find out: the Inquisition, at the end of the day. No doubt it will be nice to warm up in front of the fire.