In the spirit of trying to blog again, this post is inspired by the Holly and Nicola of the very delightful Bookish Blether podcast. Their last episode decided to answer some of questions that are included in the New York Times’ By the Book column. I’ve taken most of the questions they used, and I’ve added a couple of others I liked from past columns.
Which books are on your nightstand now?
My TBR pile sort-of lives on both my nightstand and my dining table in my living room - but generally these piles are stuff I’m already dipping in an out of, everything else gets shelved to be chosen from the next time I’m looking. Anyway. Currently in these places: Mallory Ortberg’s Texts from Jane Eyre, C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, China Miéville’s Railsea, The Essential Soren Kirkegaard, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground, Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. It’s a lightweight pile. Texts from Jane Eyre is what I am currently reading in the bath.
What was the last truly great book that you read?
Well, War and Peace is the obvious choice. There’s a reason it’s up there in the greatest of all time pile. It manages to have incredible depth about history, religion and humanity, while telling a very simple yet compelling story of how the Napoleonic war affects the members of a few families. Tolstoy describes his people with all of their flaws, and yet with so much love and empathy that you can’t help but care for them too. It’s amazing.
If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be?
I would really really like to have had a drink with Umberto Eco. I think that would have been some great conversation time.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
David Mitchell, Marilynne Robinson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Margaret Atwood, Tom Stoppard, China Miéville, Michael Chabon, Simon Armitage, Kate Tempest, Michael Rosen, JK Rowling, Andrei Makine, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami… I should stop now right?
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’m pretty open about being a broad church kind of reader, and I’m never sure what people wouldn’t expect. Would people be more surprised by (a) my Bryan Lee O’Malley Collection, (b) the Chalet School collection, or (c) all the books on the English Civil War wating to be read?
How do you organise your personal library?
Primarily alphabetically, or I can never find everything. All the novels live upstairs, and so does most of the academic collection. Poetry, drama, non-fiction and graphic novels live downstairs, along with the various coffee-table / over-size books like the Hamiltome and exhibition catalogues.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t got round to yet?
Always, like always? I don’t know what’s been on my shelf to be read for the longest time. Maybe The Once and Future King?
Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?
No, not really. I’ve mostly tried to put being embarrassed about not having read stuff behind me, and where there is stuff I haven’t read that might shock proper western canon literary snobs, well I don’t care if they’re shocked.
If you could require the President to read one book, what would it be?
Well, I live in Britain, and I think my Prime Minister should read What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe, which is a spectacularly black comedy skewering 80s Conservatism.
Disappointing, over-rated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t?
Outline by Rachel Cusk, which was more like a smudge.
Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. When I was reading it, I was mostly enoying it, but I just didn’t want to read it.
What kinds of stories are you drawn to?
I’m here for anything that is playing with ideas about what it means to be human. Stories about memory or time, in particular, make my brain tick.
Any you stay clear of?
There’s no genre I deliberately avoid, but if I’m reading for pure entertainment rather than ideas then I’m liable to avoid both horror and romance sections. I once had to try Polo by Jilly Cooper for book club, and the friend who lent it to me said it would have been obvious I was going to hate it from outer space. And I don't get my existential shot in the arm from fear as much as I do from comedy or fantasy and sci-fi.
What is your ideal reading scenario?
A chair I can sprawl out in and a cup of tea. I’ll tend to have music on in the background as well.
Who would you want to write the story of your life?
David Sedaris. It would be monumentally hilarious and full of fibs, and that would be fine.
What do you plan to read next?
Either Dolores Claiborne or Railsea.