Every week i read the “books that made me” feature in the Guardian. It often provokes a social media response as people give honest responses, dismissing genres, or much loved writers. But there is always something interesting about seeing likes and dislikes.
Having not written a blogpost for a while i thought i should ease my way back in. So here are my responses. The books that made me.
The book I am currently reading
I tend to have two or three things on the go at once, what I choose to read depending on mood. I recently sorted out books and recovered my Anthony Burgess collection at the back of a bookcase, and listened to a couple of documentaries about him on BBC Sounds. At the moment I am reading a couple of books by Anthony Burgess, Any old iron (one of the documentaries was about his promotional tour for this, including an appearance on Wogan) and his spy novel Tremor of intent; Annie Ernaux’s Shame (I have found so called auto fiction and writing about memory increasingly interesting as I have had a lengthy period of psychotherapy after a trauma related breakdown, and I am late to her work); and Simon Armitage’s Sandette light vessel automatic.
The book that changed my life
There are two which come to mind. I was given a book to read by an english teacher when I was in my teens. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark was not traditional school pupil fare but my english teacher encouraged me to read widely. After we had studied Lord of the Flies in class he insisted I read The inheritors, which I adored, doing things and conveying experience and communication on the page in a manner i could not imagine in any other medium. One day he fetched a copy of Lanark from the shelves in the back of his classroom. It was unlike anything I had read before. Fantasy and science fiction mixed with social realism. Capturing the gawky adolescent awkwardness, the discomfort of contact. I self diagnosed with dragonhide, knew sponges. The realist and fantasy parts both resonated and then there was the audacious moment where the character met the author, with the list of plagiarisms. I had never read a book like that, realised that books could do anything. From there, within weeks i visited the library in the Lanes in Carlisle where I read Dennis Potter’s hide and seek, in which a character begins by saying he is a character in a book. I have loved books like this since. The second book also comes from that time. I got a paperback of Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems, a Chatto and windus edition, the paperback yellow covered, a picture of a heron on the cover. I had read MacCaig in class but fell in love with his poetry about love and death, his poetry about the imprecision of language, albeit couched in perfect metaphors which set off fireworks of recognition in the head. The frogs with ballet dancer legs. The pigeons that were wobbling gyroscopes of lust. But it was the love poetry that haunted me. The fear of pretence, trying to be honest, the pain of unrequited love. These were not the poems we got in the class, but it seemed on reading him that all life was there, all experience. I loved him then. I love him now.
The book I wish I’d written
So many. So many. I wish i had come up with an idea and executed it as brilliantly as Ryan O’Neill does in Their brilliant careers. I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and try to see how it is done. The way in which we know the central character, understand her so well through her absence, and her silence. To create someone so full, so complete, someone you understand so well from how people speak to her and react to her but in what is largely her silence and apparent passivity. I wish i could do that. I wish i could write something as nuanced, as subtle, as precise, as seemingly effortless. (and i wish i could write any sentence as well as John Banville writes a sentence).
The book that influenced my writing
For work the first edition a law book on Private International Law by AE Anton, which is written with clarity of thought and expression, and develops arguments through an engagement with policy and doctrine and which is, i think, the finest scottish legal textbook of the past hundred years). Personally, i was influenced by James Kelman as a callow youth, not in terms of dialect, but by the way he seemed to understand absolutely the internal life of a character, without it being a stream of consciousness. I found as i started writing about memory and beginning to write short fiction again i was once again that mode, but in a more controlled and deliberate way than i had been in the past (through reading Lydia Davis, who uses language with deliberation and precision).
The book I think is most overrated/underrated
I have a blindspot regarding Kazuo Ishiguro. I struggle with Remains of the day. It feels like an exercise in ventriloquism to me. The central character feels like an exercise, rather than feeling real. This reaction is personal though and so many people i respect love his work that i am conscious the failing is mine. But with four attempts at Remains I still struggle. I am aware though that sometimes it is a question of timing. I tried to read Iris Murdoch at various points. I gave up on A severed head on various occasions, but this year her writ8ng finally clicked with me and I have read three of her novels in the past month. I think Andrew Crumey is underrated. I think he is the most interesting Scottish novelist working today. His work feels European, he is funny, clever, light, but dealing with great themes. I have waited for years for his work to be as loved by others as it is by me.
The book I give as a gift
The urge to give certain books tends to go in phases. When Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology (his wonderful 101 short stories of 101 words) was published i must have bought a dozen copies, handing them over as birthday and Christmas presents. More recently it has been either Andrew Crumey’s Pfitz, which I have given as a gift to many friends over the years, or Dan Rhodes’s When the professor got stuck in the snow, a tale of an atheist professor, as the title suggests, stuck on account of bad weather. For those for whom i have already given either of those I give Caroline Blackwood’s Great granny Webster, a short novel of women of different generations of a wealthy family calling out for a lavishly cast adaptation with four leading female roles.
The book that changed my mind
Rupert Cross on Statutory interpretation which I read in the mid 90s and which told me that what I had been taught on statutory interpretation as a discipline, and a form of legal methodology, was almost wholly wrong.
The last book that made me cry
Lavinia Greenlaw’s The built moment. A poem called Flowers for GT.
The last book that made me laugh
I recently reread JG Ballard’s short story collection War fever and the index of the life of Henry Rhodes Hamilton makes me laugh. Before that it was the index for Their brilliant careers. It turns out I like a good index.
The book I couldn’t finish
Too many to mention. I begin lots of books, but if it does not grip me I can put it to one side for a while. I did that with The Pickwick papers, and finished eighteen months after starting it. Sometimes it may be reshelved and years later i find a used train ticket sticking out of a book shaming me as to where and when I gave up.
The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Anna Karenina. The big Dostoevsky novels. I am a miniaturist, happier in the worlds of novellas and short stories. When off ill for a lengthy period i read Middlemarch and realised that there was a very good reason these big books that intimidated me for so many years were admired and loved. I have catching up to do.
My earliest reading memory
Two things. A ladybird book called Ned the lonely donkey which i read as a very young child, although the memory is more visual, an illustration of the donkey alone in a field, its head peering over a gate. The other is reading related. As a child i had the moomin books of Tove Jansson and the one I remember reading most vividly is Comet in moominland. I remember being scared as the world grew warmer, as everyone fled, worrying that Moomintroll might never see his parents again, that the world might end.
My comfort reading
As a child it was the Target Doctor Who books. I would hide away in the world of old young faces, or pleasant open faces, mops of hair, capacious pockets, and read Terrance Dicks, and Ian Marter, and Gerry Davis, and Malcolm Hulke, and Brian Hayles. As I grew a little older three books appeared by a man called Donald Cotton, who wrote Doctor Who books unlike anyone else. Puns. And jokes. An epistolatory novel with one character writing letters to his employer two thousand years in the future. Now, if looking for something comforting to lose myself in it is Rumpole or Father Brown or Holmes.