What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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What Writers Read

‘There is no friend as loyal as a book'

Ernest Hemingway


by Pandora Sykes

Nick Hornby on
Emil and the Detectives

Monica Ali on
Pride and Prejudice

Ann Patchett on
Sorrow and Bliss

Leïla Slimani on
The Unbearable Lightness of Being

David Nicholls on
The Pan Book of Horror Stories

Benjamin Zephaniah on
Ain't I a Woman

Elizabeth Strout on
The Pink Maple House

Sara Collins on
Bridget Jones's Diary

Tessa Hadley on
Tom's Midnight Garden

George the Poet on

Marian Keyes on
Cold Comfort Farm

Elif Shafak on

Derek Owusu on
The Great Gatsby

Ali Smith on
The Summer Book

Paris Lees on
The Beach

Dolly Alderton on

Paul Mendez on
Escape to An Autumn Pavement

Jojo Moyes on
National Velvet

Diana Evans on

Sebastian Faulks on
The Last Swim

Lisa Taddeo on
Fever Dream

Meena Kandasamy on
The God of Small Things

Taiye Selasi on
Moon Tiger

Nikesh Shukla on
The Spider-Man comics

Nina Stibbe on
My Side of the Mountain

Ruth Ozeki on
The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon

Elizabeth Day on
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Caleb Azumah Nelson on

Kit de Waal on
The Thing About December

Deborah Levy on
I Capture The Castle

Damon Galgut on
Train Dreams

Naoise Dolan on
Schott's Original Miscellany

William Boyd on

Emma Dabiri on

Fatima Bhutto on
her bookshelf


A Note on the Editor

Pandora Sykes


There is a newspaper slot that I love where authors are asked about the book they wish they had written, that made them laugh, that made them cry, and so on. I read it with a tab open on my favourite online second-hand bookshop, adding to my basket as I read. Knowing an author's favourite book feels like a delicious piece of insider information – like peeking behind their brain curtains to see the cogs turning within. It's highly unlikely that reading said book will confer a similar set of writing skills, but being in the same reading space that your favourite author has dwelt in is a lovely sort of alchemy. Why not create a whole book of moments like this? I thought. And so, here we are.

Over 413,000 children and young people in the UK don't own a book. This deprives them of education, but also of a means to escape: into a fantasy world from which they are able to better
understand and navigate ‘real' life. When I think of myself as a child, I think of myself on my own with a book, filling myself up with the energy to face the world. Alone, but never lonely. Children who have access to books are three times more likely to experience mental wellbeing as adults. Quite frankly, when I consider how much books have given me – and, at times, saved me – that feels like a conservative estimate.

All the profits and royalties from this book will go to the National Literacy Trust, which works to end literacy inequality. Nearly 800 public libraries have been shuttered in the last 10 years: safe, communal places where young people can gather, read,
. The decline in shared, free spaces is rarely front-page news, but that does not mean it is not an emergency. When we think of a library, we usually think of a huge, vaulted room with floor-to-ceiling books. But a library does not have to be enormous; research has found that just 80 books can make a child feel enriched. Through their Primary School Alliance, the National Literacy Trust aims to create 1,000 new libraries in primary schools, each with their own librarian, to curate and rotate the books. Working with local communities, they have also opened ‘literary hubs' in lower-income communities across the UK. National Literacy
Trust hubs bring together local partners to tackle literacy issues in communities across the UK where low levels of literacy are seriously impacting on people's lives.

The beauty of these 35 entries that you are about to read – or dip into whenever you have a few spare minutes on the loo/in the bath/in bed before nodding off, which is how I very much hope this book will be consumed, with its pages water-wrinkled and stained with peanut butter – is the specific personal detail that each author brings. Elif Shafak writes about the solace and freedom she found in Virginia Woolf's fluid
as a young bisexual woman growing up in conservative Turkey. Nick Hornby writes about escaping into Erich Kästner's
Emil and the Detectives
aged 11, as his father prepared to leave the family home for his other family. Marian Keyes writes about the book that lifted her when she was suicidal. Emma Dabiri marvels at how changed you can find yourself as a reader, to return to a book you were bored by 12 years earlier, and find it so nourishing, so personally resonant.

It was important to me that these contributions are not book reports (there's Goodreads for that), but a snapshot into the writer as a person, told through the book that they were reading at that
time. Some of these entries, such as Lisa Taddeo on the book she read during the emotional rollercoaster of first postpartum hangover, will make you laugh out loud. Others, like George the Poet on Malcolm Gladwell's influence on the social-academia of his award-winning poetry, will make you think. Some resisted my brief, by which I was delighted: Fatima Bhutto wrote about a bookshelf of books, because it is a fool's errand to choose one.

I know what she means. I wrote the brief, so I should surely plant my flag in the sand, but when I think about the books that changed me, my mind crowds with about 10 different highly specific instances. On my single bed aged 10, in floods of tears, reading
Goodnight Mister Tom
by Michelle Magorian. On a bus aged 17, shivering, as I got to the twist in
We Need To Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver. In a writing hut, ignoring my book deadline, gobbling
When I Hit You
by Meena Kandasamy over one long insomniatic night.

I have a reputation for reading the ‘wrong' thing at the ‘wrong' time: the girthy
by Jilly Cooper in RE class at my all-girls convent school; Leïla Slimani's gut-punching
whilst heavily pregnant with my first child. (For her contribution to this anthology, Leïla has written about another
book that cracked open my teenage brain like a walnut:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera.) I like reading ‘a frothy summer read' in the dead of winter and ‘a serious work of non-fiction' on a sun lounger. Books should not be siloed into times of year or personality types. Reading widely benefits all of us, but it should not be didactic. What you enjoy should not be filtered or apologised for. Quite frankly, life is too short to force yourself to finish a book – or to stop yourself returning to a favourite. (Surreally, I was re-reading David Nicholls's
One Day
for possibly the tenth time when his entry landed in my inbox.)

A friend of mine recently remarked upon how ‘starry' the list was, with its prizewinners and shortlisted authors. It's true that many of these writers are bona fide literary stars – and I am still in shock that they all agreed to write a piece, entirely for free, despite their calendars and status. But in this collection, they are simply readers. To go one further, they are writers
they are readers. Which is why we must think of the next generation of readers, many of whom are growing up without as much access to books. As Margaret Atwood said last year, ‘If there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and
democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.'

Thank you for buying a copy of this book and supporting the great work of the National Literacy Trust. I hope you enjoy what you find.

Nick Hornby

Emil and the Detectives
by Eric Kästner

I turned 11 in April 1968, which was around the time the wheels came off the family car. They were already pretty loose. My father was one of those 1960s men who, in the pre-digital crossed-line age of phoneboxes and busy signals and telegrams in an emergency, managed to start a second family without the first one knowing anything about it. When the truth was revealed (not to everyone – it would be another four or five years before my sister and I discovered that we had half-siblings), that wasn't the end of the calamity. The First Family, or three-quarters of it, had to move house in the new belt-tightening regime, but there was a short period between houses, maybe a couple of months, that was partly spent in what might have been called a pensione if it had been in Italy rather than on the outskirts of Maidenhead, and partly spent
in the house of a family friend who already had three children of her own.

It was there and then that I got sick, quite badly, with hepatitis, and I missed a term of school. (It was this term, I'm guessing, where I missed out on
Vanity Fair
War and Peace
and every other book I should have read but haven't.) When I was well enough to eat and drink, I lived off Lucozade and Twiglets and nothing else. But right at the beginning of the illness, when I was feverish and a little hallucinatory, I started to become extremely worried about Emil Tischbein's missing money and to express that worry out loud, several times.

Emil Tischbein was the hero of Erich Kästner's great children's book,
Emil and the Detectives
. I had read the book for the first time a couple of years before, and I suspect I had reread it for comfort when I was merely feeling under the weather and in bed, before the nasty stuff kicked in. Like many people of my generation, I read a lot when I was a kid, not because I was a swot but because I loathed and feared being bored, and the 1960s and 1970s were boring times for kids: two television channels worth watching, neither of them showing anything during the day, no live sport, nothing open at all on Sundays, no games apart from the board games that Henry VIII
had probably played: Snakes & Ladders, Mouse Trap and so on. I chose to read authors who had written hundreds of books that were exactly the same – Captain W. E. Johns and the Biggles books, Enid Blyton with her Fives and Sevens, Anthony Buckeridge and Jennings, Charles Hamilton's Billy Bunter, Pamela Lyndon Travers'
Mary Poppins
. My mother took us to the library every Saturday morning, and on finding a likely candidate for borrowing, I would check the page listing the author's publications. If there weren't 20 or 30 books listed with almost identical titles, I wouldn't bother. I hadn't heard of Harper Lee, but I'd have needed a lot more from her before she could have persuaded me to take out
To Kill A Mockingbird
. I would have needed her to kill most of the birds in North America at a rate of one a year.

I don't know how
Emil and the Detectives
, or Erich Kästner, sneaked through. There was a sequel, but only one, and I have only discovered recently, on an idle googling afternoon, that Kästner wasn't really a children's book author at all. He was a satirist and a poet and a scriptwriter, he was nominated for the Nobel six times, he was a German pacifist during World War II and he had his books burned by the Nazis in 1933. Yet, he wrote the immortal Emil and another undisputed
Lottie and Lisa
, which you may know better through one of the two versions of the movie
The Parent Trap
, starring Hayley Mills and then Lindsay Lohan. Kästner was quite a guy.

I think one can tell that
Emil and the Detectives
is a children's book written by someone who wasn't a children's writer most of the time. The plot takes the form of an adventure: Emil's mother, a widow, sends him from the provinces to Berlin to stay with his aunt and grandmother while she works. He travels on his own on the train and falls asleep. When he wakes up, the money that his mother had provided for the trip – at great personal cost – has disappeared from the lining of his jacket, where Emil had hidden it. When he arrives in Berlin at the wrong station, he falls in with a gang of kids who help him find the thief.

But this is a children's book where everything seems real. Real and a little bit sad, despite the familiar form and Walter Trier's beautiful, optimistic illustrations. There is no innocent explanation: the thief is a thief. The money is felt, by the reader and the characters, as a devastating loss. The effect is like a bad dream, where each step takes Emil further and further from where he wants to be. It's no wonder, really, that a sick boy would hallucinate it.

When a writer looks back on their cultural consumption, you can make an argument that everything that was swallowed up was important and influential in some way. But there are some books that you know are there, at the core of you; I have never had to be reminded of
Emil and the Detectives
. I think I still have my original copy – I certainly own a paperback of
Lottie and Lisa
with Hayley Mills on the cover. Why did that children's book climb above all the others? Maybe the realism? I try not to write about things that don't seem real to me. Maybe the sense that this was a defining moment in a character's life? None of my characters have returned for another defining moment. Maybe the combination of humour and sadness, a mixture important to me as a writer and a reader? But this is me trying to talk myself into making a case for my discovery of Kästner's lovely novel as a crucial step on my professional journey. I suspect it provided something much more than that: comfort, distraction and companionship at a time when I was struggling badly. And you can't ask for more from a book than that.

Nick Hornby is a British writer and screenwriter and the author of eight novels, including
About A Boy
High Fidelity
, and eight works of non-fiction including
, all of which have been adapted for screen to acclaim. He has won an Emmy for his TV series,
State of the Union
, and two of his screenplays,
An Education
, have been nominated for Oscars.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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