Books That Changed My Life
Like so many writers, as a child, I loved books, especially old ‘important-looking’ books by ‘important-sounding’ people like Shakespeare and Dickens and someone called ‘Encyclopedia.’ I loved the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. I just couldn’t read them. They were mysterious, alien hieroglyphics to me, because—unlike my clever elder siblings—I couldn’t read until relatively late, and was seen as the ‘backward’ one (my father’s term, not mine). I was a slow learner (still am, in many ways) and couldn’t read or write till I was seven or eight. This made reading and writing seem all the more strange, desirable, fascinating, like a secret code.
When I did finally crack the code, it was with Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. The mixture of storytelling and poetry made it memorable, and I remember my sister accusing me of just learning it by rote (and not really reading it). But I think that memorability, the musicality of its language, which made it so easy to read aloud (and I love reading it aloud now to my own twins), have stayed with me. To this day, these things (poetic, musical language; storytelling as an oral art, memorability) are markers, for me, of an enjoyable book.
I also retained that early sense of strangeness and fascination with, but also crucially alienation from, the written word. I’ve since come to believe that most writers and perceptive readers are, in some ways, alienated from the written word, and it is sense of alienation that makes people want to write. Of course, the commonsensical view is precisely the opposite: that writers are people who have some kind of innate facility with language, people for whom language comes easily. I don’t think this is true; and nor did Thomas Mann, who famously claimed that: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ This is why, I think, so many writers are dyslexic, and also why so many writers stand outside, or at an angle to the dominant language in some way. For example, the many successful authors who write in a second language, or from a post-colonial perspective. To write well, a writer needs to have an uncomfortable relationship with language, and especially written language. By contrast, those entirely inside the dominant language, those for whom language comes all too easily, often don’t make good writers, but rather slick politicians or bargain-basement journalists.
The books that really reach me, then, are ones which do unusual things with language—things which politicians don’t do. I think style is an underrated facet of book loving; often, without knowing it, it’s the style of a book which gets to the reader even when he or she thinks it’s something else (like subject matter, or plot, or characters). It’s for that reason that I love Dickens above (perhaps) all other writers: more than just a comic and sentimental Victorian, more than just an astute social critic, he’s actually the most amazing stylist. Parts of Tale of Two Cities and, even better, Dombey and Son, could easily be set out like poetry, because that’s precisely what they are: Dickens uses rhyme, alliteration, extended metaphor, allusion, refrains—all to create this musical prose. No wonder his work was read aloud in families so much: again, it’s great oral storytelling. Every time I pick up a Dickens novel, I learn something, about myself, about writing, about the world.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be fiction, of course. And I sometimes have problems with the cultural dominance of novels. I love novels, of course, but I think there are other genres which are just as important. Another book which had a huge effect on me when I first came across it (and I first came across it, significantly enough, at a public reading) was Blake Morrison’s memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? This is a touching and beautifully-written account of his relationship with his father as he grew up, and his father’s illness and death. I want books to be like this: to deal with real-life: difficult issues like grief, family relationships, illness. That doesn’t mean that the book is all tragedy: it’s not, and there’s plenty of humour and wit throughout.
One thing Blake Morrison’s memoir taught me was that there’s powerful drama, tragedy, comedy, in what seems like the everyday and commonplace. In fact, that’s what literary memoirs—like Blake’s and Linda Grant’s wonderful Remind Me Who I Am Again?—achieve: they show how important the seemingly everyday is. Proper memoirs—as opposed to celebrity memoirs and politicians’ memoirs—are a democratic form in this respect. These stories don’t have to be set in apocalypses or post-apocalypses, featuring presidents and celebrities and the super-rich; stories can be just as powerful if they’re about the seemingly obscure, the provincial, the everyday tragedies of life. This is what one of my favourite novelists taught me—Arnold Bennett, late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century author of novels like Anna of the Five Towns and (best of all) Clayhanger. I first read many of Arnold Bennett’s books as a teenager when I was still living with my parents in Stoke-on-Trent—where many of them are set. Having spent most of my teenage years reading science-fiction and fantasy by Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss and Tolkien, it came as a revelation to me that good books might be set in my home town, and that I might recognise certain aspects of my life in a literary text. Suddenly, I realised stories can be mirrors—or, at least, distorted mirrors—of one’s own life. And mirrors which sometimes beautify: as a teenager, I’d hated my home city, wanted desperately to get away, but reading Arnold Bennett made me realise that it’s possible to find beauty among the most provincial and ferociously-industrial (or post-industrial) landscapes.
Within these harsh landscapes, Bennett finds stories which are obscure tragedies and comedies. And the writing which has always interested me most is writing which mingles both tragedy and comedy, partly because, in my experience, that’s what life does: life is never emotionally monolithic, and people laugh at funerals and cry at parties. The best writing, I think, often manages to be comic and tragic, funny and poignant, all at once. Dickens and Blake Morrison certainly manage this mingling of emotion—as, of course, does Shakespeare in many of his plays. Hamlet is funny as well as horrific; The Tempest is a kind of tragi-comedy. I don’t want single-minded earnestness from what I read, because that’s not how I’ve experienced real life. There is humour in the most extreme circumstances: Primo Levi’s amazing and horrifying memoir about the concentration camp Auschwitz, If This is a Man, is at once horrifying, heroic, deeply disturbing and, well, horrifically funny—-much of what he describes is simply absurd. The writer Wyndham Lewis—a much over-looked modernist writer, who is probably overlooked because of his dubious and changeable politics—does much the same in his memoir of the First World War, Blasting and Bombardiering, which is an account of the excesses and absurdities of the trenches. What these and other writers understand and manage to capture, in extreme circumstances, is the mixture of absurdity, horror, comedy, laughter, tears, pain and pleasure that is real life.