I was a big reader from a very small age. Mum and Dad thought it was important for there to be books in the house, and I read anything I could. I’m the eldest of three sisters and my reading set a difficult precedent for my sisters: my middle sister had a cabin bunk and essentially made a nest for herself of books so that Mum and Dad would think that she was clever. And my youngest sister simply ate them! She never ate a whole book, but she would eat the spines so the books would just fall apart. Happy Families were her favourite variety of book to eat…
I would get books a lot as presents, because all the family knew that I loved reading, and I ended up with some really beautiful copies of things like The Wind in the Willows and other children’s classics. But I remember getting most excited about reading when mum went to university. I think I was about 9 when she graduated, but around 12ish I realised she had a collection of books in her bedroom that were not part of the shelves around the house. And books on that shelf included The Colour Purple and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And so I started reading her literature degree. It was kind of extraordinary and The Colour Purple is a book that has stayed with me and which I really love. It was made the same year as me and has a particular resonance. But that was a moment when I recognised that I liked reading and I wanted to read different things.
There are two things that I remember at that school – one was that they recognised my reading. And so what my 8th form tutor did – I think his name was Mr Garner – he encouraged me to review the books that I was reading and take the reviews in so that he could show an interest and help me be independent about my learning. But as school went on I remember we read fewer books, and took to reading anthologies. And I was like: ‘this is a bit of a woossy way to read’. I think the way English literature was taught in my school was completely un-engaging for me, because it wasn’t challenging, it was trying to spoon-feed us, bite size reading.
And then – I don’t know – over my teenage years I stopped reading as much. I can’t really remember why, and in fact it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t take reading a bit more seriously at the time. I certainly had no idea that there was anything like a publishing industry, or that books didn’t just come as presents. It was very naive. And I must have been in my mid-twenties before I even realised that people were still writing! For me that was all linked to Nick Hornby. I got a collection of books at some point, a kind of modern classics collection that had Fever Pitch, On the Road, A Passage to India in it. It was a really random collection. But having read Fever Pitch I read everything by Nick Hornby that I could get my hands on. And then I found out that there were books in the pipeline. I think How to be Good was probably the first newly released hardback I ever bought – back whenever that was. And weirdly I haven’t continued reading him. So it was a bit like he was the gateway to something else.
I think one of the things reading has done for me is help me realise I can make choices in my life. It started with making choices about what to read and from there opened my eyes to what other choices are available. I remember going to Heriot-Watt university for an open day, in Galashiels in the Scottish borders. Dad drove me up there, left me overnight in a B&B, and I made my own way to the open day and then I went back down via Durham. I must have been 17? It was amazing because I felt really comfortable being on my own. I really liked getting up and deciding what time I would go to breakfast. And deciding what route I would take to the university. And being on the train reading on the way home from that was just the best feeling. Not having any particular time to be back. Just being under my own steam.
In my early twenties I think I read Harry Potter and also I’d moved all my stuff out of my parents house and shelved my own books and I went back and re-read the Chronicles of Narnia and some other old classics like that. And I find it really rewarding that they weren’t quite as I remembered. But I also re-read the Deptford Mice trilogy by Robin Jarvis. Even now, I think they are exquisite, those books. I really really loved them. In the second book, The Crystal Prison, Audrey, who in the first book has had a sort of fling that doesn’t work out, meets another mouse who wants to marry her. But she turns him down and I was heartbroken. I think that was my first experience of really emotionally investing in a story and a set of fictional characters that I don’t think I have lost since. Sometimes you meet characters that are just part of your life and although you will never sit down and have a cup of tea with them, they are always in your thoughts somehow. And I think eventually I sent that trilogy on to my niece for her birthday. Slightly worried because she might have been 9 or 10 at the time and I wasn’t sure if kids even cared about second hand books these days, or books at all. But I found out after that those books got her into The Lord of the Rings and classics like Dracula, and she writes now and is a massive reader.
Around the age of 24 I started reading much more for fun and going back to some of the old stuff I had. But also – I don’t know if I should admit this! – I was doing a lot of shopping at Fopp and getting two pound, three pound books and just tearing through them. I read Vernon God Little and thought it was totally bonkers, really good fun. On the surface it’s an action adventure, but it’s not really, and because I couldn’t quite understand what it was I was really excited and kind of enthralled. Up until that point I loved books or I didn’t like them and there wasn’t much variety. I was really intrigued by this, and it was the first time I’d ever heard of the MAN Booker Prize.
I bought Midnight’s Children for £3 in Fopp and I thought: ‘bargain!: It’s much bigger than the rest!’. And I just thought it was an exquisite book. It’s just now getting knocked off the pedestal of my favourite Booker. Kind of epic, kind of magical. Kind of bonkers. It really asks you to go on a bit of a journey. It doesn’t give you any pay-offs or any quick wins. You’ve got to trust that odd narrator. The way he goes right back to his grandfather and that courting relationship, and the whole being examined with a bed sheet is so, so fantastic. And in fact in hindsight I think back to that book and those are some of the bits that I treasure most, because I knew it was asking something of me, and I was complicit with that contract. And it’s sad because I’ve passed it on to a few people since then and nobody has quite managed to get into it in the same way as me. And I go ‘persevere, persevere,’ but unless you want to I’m not sure it would have the same appeal.
This was probably the first time I thought about myself as a reader or was conscious of the gap between the writer and the reader. There’s an intellectual space there. Some books just don’t go there really. So you can ignore that fact –it’s a story, yes somebody else has written it and somebody else is reading it. But sometimes you can really play with that space between them. I think that really excites me.
After that people were asking me what I wanted for Christmas and I said ‘I’d like to try and read some prize-winning books.’ So I got The White Tiger for Christmas that year. And it was fine. I enjoyed it. It was really hard to follow Midnight’s Children. It’s sort of in a similar world, it sort of got a similarish narration style. I really wish I hadn’t read them so close together. But in some ways then going … ‘hang on, this wasn’t as good! I enjoyed it, it’s an interesting story, but it’s not as ambitious, it’s not asking as much of me as the reader.’ And so, I think that was the moment I realised that maybe I wanted a challenge.
Being totally naive and not really knowing how to pick books I challenged myself in the only way I knew how, which was to start following that prize. I think 2009 was the first year. I was on Twitter by then, and I saw that the longlist was announced. And when I saw it was only thirteen books I was like, ‘right I’m going to read them all’. I’d never heard of any of them before. I went on holiday to The Peak District with The Children’s Book, with Wolf Hall, with How to Paint a Dead Man, with Me! Cheetah and it still makes me goose-bumpy to think about it now. That holiday was extraordinary. Part of it was the permission: that I was going away and, for fun, for pleasure, because I want to treat myself, I was going to read books. I absolutely adored Wolf Hall. I could not believe the level it reached in terms of intensity, complexity in characters. In some ways not a lot is happening, in other ways an incredible amount is. The plotting of it I thought was exquisite. Every section there’s a driver. And it doesn’t drop you – you’re sustained at this level of going ‘ Oh my God! What is going on here?’ I was almost fraught with the story, but felt like I could take my time with his character. That duality was sublime, absolutely sublime. And it is still probably one of my favourite ever books.
How to Paint a Dead Man knocked my socks off that year as well. I still don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. Sarah Hall is intense and I think very clever. But she’s not trying to be clever, she’s not trying to wear that. Instead she writes really fantastic character studies. And I think for me one of the main characters’, Susan, was a completely fresh and eye-opening illumination of what it is to be physical with somebody else, and that sometimes that’s not an emotional betrayal or a betrayal of a relationship. I felt different thinking about myself as a woman. There’s something about being strong, being true, not accepting limits, or not accepting boundaries imposed by others. You know social boundaries, gender boundaries, or whatever. None of that is important in her books.
I love being surprised! And I think it’s really difficult to know what you are letting yourself in for when you read. Blurbs don’t do it, reviews don’t do it, recommendations don’t do it. There’s no way to do justice in any meaningful way to the experience of a particular book in a bit of text or a conversation. There just isn’t. So in some ways you are always surprised when you read. Or at least there’s is no way to predict what is going to happen when you as reader come together with those words on those pages. A tweet length comment on a book, to me is a massive insult. Because how can you even try to condense that experience into a tweet? So in some ways it is always surprising.
I find the task of choosing what to read almost debilitating because there is so much in the world. And this is from a woman who has 2000 books to pick from. There are books in my possession that I could read. But picking one of them is hard. It’s a bit like moving to a new country and not knowing anyone. You have to trust in the fact that you’ll find some friends eventually, but you have to live each day with no idea about who you are going to meet of who you are going to spend time with. And for me, not having a sense of ‘well this is my to-read pile, or this is the next challenge I’m doing is like that. It’s going, ‘I know there are great books in the world, but maybe I’ll never meet them.’
Some of my best best best experiences have been reading things that I didn’t have any idea about before I started reading them. And I think maybe that’s the thing I’m constantly chasing. You know, I want to be in a position where I read things that I haven’t made a decision about in advance. One of the things I’ve enjoyed this last year is being part of ‘flight club’ from Bookseller Crow – an independent bookshop in south London – because he sends me a book every month. I don’t know what it will be. I don’t make that decision. And the first one he sent is actually the only book in recent memory that I have taken the time over because I was enjoying it so much. And the second book he sent I flew through and thought was rubbish. So it’s not quite that he knows my taste. But there is something really exciting about going: ‘I don’t know anything about this but I’m going to give it a go anyway.’
Perhaps I’m just not easily pleased any more. Alex [my husband] often describes me as a reader who loves to hate things, which I think is totally unfair. It just so happens that I get quite worked up. So if I’m loathing something I’ll get worked up about it. And if I’m loving something I’ll rave about it. And if something is tearing me apart, I will fall apart. There aren’t many half measures. Recently he watched me finish To the Lighthouse and I was so into the book I didn’t realise he was watching, but when I finished it he said: ‘I really wanted to come over and pat you because you looked like you were in pain.’ And he said: ‘did you really hate it?’ And I said: ‘no it was extraordinary.’ It was…I don’t even have words for how overwhelming it was. But there was a real effort, a physical effort, to try and get inside the meaning of what this book was presenting me with. Or something like that.
I think I’m compelled to read because I’m lonely. Or it’s something about feeling like an outsider. In books I belong. It’s really as simple as that. I’m a real reflector. Mum, when I was small, used to call me The Watcher, because the children in the playground would play and I’d be really happy watching them play, I never felt much need to join in. But I think the thing about reading is that I am really active. The reading doesn’t happen without me. The world doesn’t get created, the characters don’t speak unless I open those pages. And maybe in some ways it’s the most important I’ll ever be, it’s the most central to the world I’ll ever be. And even though it is a solitary act, it feels very full, and very social, and very active to me. I really feel it is a creative act.
I’ve recently been speaking with the author Andy Miller and he has a really strong view that nobody is ever going to appreciate everything in a book – only the writer. And so in some ways it kind of challenges that idea I have that actually the reader is front and central. I really like the idea that a book can grow after it has been made. A bit like a child: you give it the right conditions, you put it into the best state that you can, and then you let it go into the world and it does things on its own. It’s not really a part of you any more. So Andy’s view makes me kind of nervous. Because, for me, one of the greatest and most magical things about books is that they are different things in different hands. And so I really feel like the reader completes something. In a way they make a different book out of that book for each different reader. And those multiple possibilities, that’s just extraordinary, it’s kind of mind-blowing, but it’s really exciting. And that makes me want to share the reading with other readers, because getting a different perspective on something that I’ve experienced enriches it.
I don’t think anything does for me what reading does, as a whole, though a great conversation is similar. I don’t have many friends, but the friends I do have are really interesting people and the friendship is deep, and that means the conversation is generally broad, and every now and then I can come away from an encounter with somebody and feel in some ways both full – like something has gotten into me from that encounter – but also like somehow I’ve expanded: my world view or my understanding or my knowledge, or even my emotional maturity. And my view of myself, particularly. It can happen in reading too. But there isn’t the feedback with reading, which is a shame. There are some books that I kind of equate to going to an exhibition, or maybe experiencing a musical concert. In the way that they are quite sensual and there’s something almost carnal about what happens, because it very physiological, rather than intellectual or particularly emotional.
But reading is a really unique endeavour. Because it feels like the most stripped back experience you can get – you know, words on a page. And yet it has the most possibility I think, to enrich, to stimulate. I don’t know, there’s nothing like it.
Books are the greatest expression of us as human beings. They are greater than we are. I live to a much greater, fuller, better, more exciting, sexier extent in my head than I do in real life. I feel like being a reader is absolutely the best thing I could ever be, will ever be, have ever been. And I think part of it is because I’m so willing. I sometimes think of myself as the ideal reader, just because I am so willing to give myself to that book.