A fellow writer asked me yesterday: What do you read? Which writers do you value? Who influences your style? This knocked me for six. It’s a Big Question. I have a long history in libraries and five bookcases stacked with a lifetime’s paperbacks (cheapskate) and short of trawling the shelves for authors’ names which often escape me, I didn’t think I had time to respond. IRS accounts waiting on my dining table reproach me every time I walk past doing something more interesting. But this intriguing question slipped into my mind’s cogs as they surreptitiously rotated.
First off, I admit the guilty pleasure in fiction which I indulged for most of my life. My older brother was intellectual from the word go, wheeling home his pile of books from the local library in my old buggy; he had a sweet deal with the librarian, requesting nonfiction from the area network to feed his mind. I, from age seven, read every novel in the children’s section with voracious pleasure. While he urged me to better myself, I was eating fictional candy. I was on the defensive, not realizing that in the process I also was being educated for life.
I learned how to fly a fighter plane in a dog fight from Biggles’ Big Adventures by Capt. W.E. Johns, and about the workings of a repertory company through an actress named Carol (by H.D. Boylston). The same author (RIP) wrote Sue Barton, Rural Nurse which would have tuned me into the nursing profession, barring an injured back. I read I Capture the Castle which introduced diary form. Daddy Longlegs written as letters strongly appealed to my sense of style, and The Secret Garden evoked an era and a mood that consumed me; I fell in love, yearning for Dickon, the boy in the garden. Treasure Island about pieces of eight had me singing “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Ian Fleming’s James Bond taught me the finer points of shaking versus stirring a martini and how vital is a Rolex watch. Voltaire’s Candide made me chuckle and Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm lodged the lustful Seth in my mind so powerfully, when I recently met a real person named Seth (it’s unknown in England), I thought it was a joke. Who would name their son Seth after “I saw something nasty in the woodshed”? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was about so much more than fishing. Ever since I read Cheaper by the Dozen (Gilbreth) I’m conscious of time and motion study.
I’ve written in Philosophers, They Influence Our Lives how Pollyanna introduced me to the Glad Game, setting my compass at age 11 to Optimism. I can’t tell you how helpful that has been and how necessary, at hairy times in my life.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) introduced Big Brother so ominously that 1984 arrived with a deep sense of unease. In the new millennium Big Brother has materialized, moved into New York’s most expensive penthouse and is cock of the walk.
As a teenager, school introduced me to Jane Austen whom I still admire. Her restraint, keen social observation and subtlety are meat and drink to me. When I was at university in my forties pursuing a bachelor’s degree in International Politics and History (I liked A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-1945 and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class) I had so many text books to read, I allowed myself only one novel a year, to read on family holidays camping by the River Loire in France. I chose Jane Austen.
Taste is highly subjective. I read recently that:
Charlotte Brontë dismissed Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but … no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”
William Gifford wrote in 1815: “I have for the first time looked into Pride and Prejudice; and it is really a very pretty thing. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger — things that should now be left to ladies’ maids and sentimental washerwomen.”
Emerson wrote: “I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched & narrow.”
And Mark Twain remarked: “Jane Austen’s books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader…..Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
I beg to differ. And wonder why in that case, Twain read it more than once.
As an adult I continued to read novels, living vicariously through their characters while my own horizons were confined by a young family. My preference is for stories about people and relationships. I enjoy psychological interplay. I’m distrustful of fantasy (can’t stand Tolkien at any price) but seduced by magical realism. I avoid science fiction altogether.
The common denominator in my choice of books is the writer’s style. I enjoy most stories if well written, and the most absorbing story imaginable is of no interest to me if I don’t like the author’s style. There are some highly successful writers whose books I cannot read at all.
As a writer (my aspiration from age six on learning to read) I picked up elements of style I found appealing. From a formal conservative background I recall the light bulb switching on above my head the day I read in a friend’s chatty letter (aged 17) that she was “tickled pink” and I embraced the vernacular.
In school my English teacher told me repeatedly, “Plan your essays.” I said “I can’t, I don’t know what I’m going to write until I’ve written them.” (This was the same teacher who wrote under my essay, about being locked overnight in a museum when the mummies came to life in 1953, “Far too fanciful”.) This tussle went on for years. At university in middle age I made more effort to follow her advice. But now I’m old and can please myself in all things, it still takes only a couple of notions to lure me to the computer, working it out as I type. You may consider my essays rubbish because I aspire to write like Grandma Moses painted, in her own style.
Here are a few authors among hundreds I’ve enjoyed: From UK: Thomas Hardy, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, Susan Hill, Alice Thomas Ellis, Anne Tyler, Sue Townsend, Margaret Forster, Penelope Lively, Ken Follett, John Mortimer and Lisa St. Aubin de Teran. From Ireland: John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, Brian Keenan and Frank McCourt. Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chilean Isabel Allende, French Françoise Sagan. Doris Lessing from South Africa (not the later science fiction stuff). John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Carol Shields, Jodi Picoult, John Updike and Mark Twain from your own back yard, and latterly Anita Diamant.
I admire Stephen King’s style (On Writing) but not being a sci-fi enthusiast, I can’t read his subject matter. I’m not interested in who-dunnits, intergalactic battles or violence. I never read books or watch films on horror. I shudder at man’s inhumanity to man and don’t want to be reminded that Armageddon is just around the corner.
These days I read less fiction than biographies and memoirs. Now that I’ve reached that perspective, I like to read how people’s lives turned out. I enjoyed Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me. Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall made me laugh till I ached, and Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling was so moving, it made me weep. I relished Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
I like to read about Near Death Experiences too, not to be caught napping if it happens any time soon.
I have a Kindle, but nothing beats the feel of a book, the ability to thumb through it to check a reference or reread a passage. I never read the ending before I come to it; I think that’s mean-spirited towards the author. Would you tell the punch line before the joke? I find the punctuation as vital as the words; I’ll flick back to consider why the author put a comma here and not there. You can tell I’m a slow reader.
Every Christmas and on birthdays I buy my grandchildren books, and before they can read, I tell them “Reading enriches your life.”