World Book Day: I’ll show you my books…

It’s World Book Day today. This means different things to different people. If you work in marketing for a publisher it means a ton of work for little measurable result. If you are a parent, it may well mean dressing your daughter as Hermione Granger again, and explaining to your son that ‘Angry Birds’ is neither a character from a book nor an achievable costume. If you are a heavy reader and general book person, it’s kind of like ‘International Keep Breathing Day’. If you aren’t a heavy reader and book person, you’re probably unaware that it’s World Book Day, and you may well be wondering what you’re doing on this blog. (You’re looking for Lord Magpie the folk band, or KJ Charles the rapper. No problem, mind how you go.)

Anyway, for those still here: It’s World Book Day, and here are some of my books.

Good Night Little ABC. I am 4, already a fluent reader. My mother gives me this book, a tiny alphabet hardback. Each animal has its adorable self-teddy.

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I am charmed. Until I reach J.

Jay

I cry and cry. Poor Jasper Jabber Jay, forever alone, without his teddy. My mother tells me it’s alright. She assures me that his mummy is just outside the page, that she will come in and give him his teddy and everything will be fine again. I believe her. I realise the characters have life outside the page. I learn that I can add to the story.

Thirty-six years later I give my battered copy of this book to my four-year-old son. He leafs through the pages, delighted. Half way through, at J, he starts to cry, and I tell him what my mother told me, and he believes me too.

Roger Lancelyn Green’s Greek myths. I read them all, abridged, then unabridged. People mutate and change, murder, rape. I am maybe eight. I read them ragged, then I read his Robin Hood stories. Robin dies – not like Arthur or Achilles, not with a heroic death and some numinous sense that there will be resurrection: he dies alone, wounded, abandoned, without Marion. I cry. My mother tells me, ‘They’d all be dead by now anyway.’ This is quite remarkably unhelpful. I realise that sometimes stories don’t end the way you want them to. Sometimes they can’t be changed. I realise that I’m going to have to tackle some of this stuff myself. I’m growing up.

Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Georgette Heyer. Everything, every word, over and over, taking apart the plotting, immersing myself in the perfectly crafted sentences. Setting the flame to what becomes a burning conviction that ‘genre’ fiction can outclass ‘literary’ fiction, and what matters is not the genre, not the classification into boxes because there’s magic or a happy ending, but the writing, the spirit, the style.

The Master and Margarita. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-Stalinist masterpiece aged maybe 10. This is not because I am precocious. It is because I am desperate, having read close to everything in my small town library’s children’s book section. I am already devouring my parents’ shelves of Desmond Bagley and Alistair Maclean, so it seems perfectly natural to nip down to the adult section of the library. I pick up The Master and Margarita because it has a big black cat on the front. I read it bewildered and amazed and uncomprehending. I read it again. I read it maybe thirty times. I own three different translations. I go off boyfriends who refuse to read it. My mother calls it ‘The M&M test’. I learn about flaws and judgement and redemption from this book. I believe, with a teenage fire, that manuscripts don’t burn. I still believe that.

The Secret History. We are 21. We all read it with wild, disturbing enthusiasm. My friend says we will have a bacchanale. My boyfriend takes this a little too literally. The party does not go well. I do not speak to my friend for five years.

Bleak House. Immersing myself in Dickens, a whole term at Oxford with nothing else. Grotesquerie and sentiment, aspiration to kindness teamed with relentless, callous cruelty. I see Prunella Scales and Sam West at the National Theatre reading from Dickens, and I realise I should listen to him on audiobook forever because these are words that need to be read aloud. One day, I will.

There are others, thousands more. Single moments. My office passing round Behind the Scenes at the Museum like samizdat, sharing knowing nods when someone burst into tears: ‘we know what bit you’ve got to’. Marabou Stork Nightmares, the only book I have ever thrown in the bin. The Dark is Rising, a brilliantly pagan novel that I read every Christmas. ‘This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining…’ Reading A Fine Balance, in India on my honeymoon. (That could have used more thinking through.) And Bridge of Birds, where I turn for comfort. If you can read Miser Shen’s speech to his daughter in this marvellous, magical, life-enhancing book without tears, you probably need to have yourself reclassified as dead, or possibly concrete.

Those are some of my books. Feel free to tell me yours.

(I have just noticed that on the swear-to-God randomly selected spread of Good Night Little ABC, the animals’ names include ‘Crane’ and ‘Daniel’. Crane is the hero of my first published book. Daniel is the hero of Think Of England, coming in July. I am going to chalk that up to slightly disturbing coincidence, and not look further.)

How to be a Better Reader

The internet is full of articles telling writers how to improve. But there are at least several more readers than writers out there, and better readers make better writers writing better books. So, here are some ways to improve your reading life. There may be a test.

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Read something you wouldn’t normally read. At least once every couple of months, pick up a genre you’ve never tried, non-fiction on a subject you know nothing about, a novel that doesn’t look like your cup of tea. There could be an entire world of new books out there, waiting for you to love them.

Read more non-fiction. Discover something about science.  Explore a random period of history. Pick up something you’ve no reason to care about yet. I want you in the pub, next week, telling people, ‘No, seriously, it’s a biography of this woman who was married to an Archbishop of Canterbury and she never actually did anything much but it’s really interesting!’

There is a special seat in heaven for the reader who spreads the word about a book she loves.

There is a special seat in hell for the reader who leaves a one-star review on Amazon because the book had a printing error or was delivered late. That seat is very pointy.

Annoyed at the price of a book? Please tell me all about it, in a properly edited 100,000-word manuscript. What, does that sound like months of hard work? Oh.

Give yourself proper time to read, not just ten pages on your commute and five pages while falling asleep. You wouldn’t try to watch The Wire in ten-minute snatches, hours apart, would you? Books need attention too.

If you fear that your friends/family/fellow commuters will judge you for your reading matter, you have three choices: read with your head high because they have no right to book-shame you; get better friends/family/fellow commuters; buy an e-reader. Do not stop reading.

The TV is tempting, the dirty laundry is massing, the to-do list is taking on independent life. On the other hand, the entire collective intelligence, insight and discoveries of the human race are spread out in front of you for the taking. Go on, five more pages.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a time traveller. He wrote Nausea, his great cry of existential agony, after visiting the 21st century and listening to the 500th argument about the relative merits of ebooks and print. Let it go.

Given the choice between the movie/TV tie-in cover and the real one, buy the real one. Have book pride.

Authors will keep writing, if you’ll just keep reading.

(This blog was inspired by this very gloomy article in The Guardian.)