It’s often said that there isn’t a great writer who wasn’t first a great reader.
The Books That Built Me is an idea borne of the belief that inside every book-lover is a memory-palace full of stories – tales of enchanted princesses and magical beasts, of smugglers, spies and buried treasure, stepmothers and boarding schools, something nasty in the woodshed, loves lost and found, vanquished enemies – perpetual summer holidays in other people’s imaginations. None of us is the book we’ve just read, we’re the sum of all the novels in our lives; the books that built us.
In a sense, that’s is the inspiration for The Books That Built Me, but its catalyst was something I read in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography, Slipstream. She reminded me it’s not only readers who are built of books, but writers. Howard was, by virtue of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, stepmother to a teenage Martin Amis, who apparently read nothing but comics, Harold Robbins and ‘the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He’s about sixteen, I think, when she asks him what he wants to do when he’s older. ‘I’m going to be a writer, Jane’ he says. Howard stares at him, askance,
” ‘You – a writer? But you’ve never read anything. If you’re so interested in writing, why don’t you read? He looked at me and said ‘give me a book to read then.’ And I gave him Pride and Prejudice. ”
Howard goes onto give him a reading list that adds Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Waugh, Green and Golding to Austen, and these are the books that built Amis into the writer he aspired to be.
I’m aware it’s no easy task choosing just six books that have built you as an author; I know I’d find it impossible. It has to be about books which still have you in their power, no matter how great the distance since the last re-reading. Being of an anti-canonical bent, Jilly Cooper and T.S Eliot could loom large in any list of mine, however uncomfortable they find each other as bedfellows; I’ve never had any time for artificial boundaries between high and low culture, only for books which entertain, comfort and educate and which must be judged, not in context, but on their own terms.
Angela Carter taught me how storytelling could be at once magical, exuberant and slyly subversive. She conjured clever heroines who could challenge patriarchal norms, turning the tables on Bluebeard and snuggling cosily with the Wolf rather than being gobbled up by him, and made every story fantastical. Seamus Heaney taught me language, about the ‘word-hoard’, and told me I could ‘rhyme…to see myself. To set the darkness echoing’.
Sliding inside Mrs Dalloway’s head and then being pushed in and out of it and into the other protagonist’s and never quite knowing where one ended and another began, Woolf helped me feel, rather than see, how words could refract emotional experience as music does. Nancy Mitford showed me that satire wasn’t the preserve of men, and nor did it have to be didactic, and was the coup de foudre behind my love of comedies of manners. The Good Soldier’s stylistic perfection and narrative power relies on paradox and a reader who’s prepared to put in the work – I’m not sure that before I read it, I’d been quite so aware of the necessary complicity between author and reader – and like Martin Amis’ Money, it made me aware that a book’s characters don’t have to be nice, or behave well – the flawed and often dislikeable Ashburnham and Leonora, John and Florence Dowell, are all perfectly horrid in equal measure, and yet it’s still ‘the saddest story’. The Go-Between is a book that so ambushed me when I read it for A’Level that I haven’t been able to bear reading it again – it’s about naivety and knowledge, the revealed and the hidden, secrets and memory. But Ali Smith (and there’s an author I’d give my eye-teeth to have as a guest at The Books That Built Me), has it best when she says its a book about re-reading; “books are, in essence, go-betweens, works which conjure rhythm and release across time and history, across places of familiarity and those foreign to us; and personally and individually too, it’s all a going-between, for every person who picks up a book for a first, then a second, then a third time”