What Writers Read edited by Pandora Sykes

Reviewed by Clare Brook

Anyone who loves reading, or writing, will really appreciate this little book of essays from a selection of authors discussing their most memorable book. It provides a double pleasure: readers get an inner glimpse into the minds and lives of successful authors, why they loved a book so much, how it influenced their writing.  Then, of course, a new book is revealed, or an old favourite becomes new again as it is appreciated and discussed by someone who understands literature.

The authors chosen form a diverse group, and yet there is a common feature among many of them – they were avid readers as a child.  Unsurprisingly then, some favourites are children’s books.  Within this group, the power of a book is emphasised.  The ability of a narrative, to help with identity issues, to present life’s possibilities beyond personal context, and to comfort in times of trauma.

Nick Hornby lost himself in the world of Emil and the Detectives by Kastner when shocked by the discovery that his father had another family complete with children.  He was only eleven.  For Hornby, realism is the defining factor of a successful story, but he says Kästner provided much more at the time: comfort, distraction and companionship when he was struggling.

The Pan Book of Horror Stories by Hebert van Thal satisfied a need for David Nicholls.  At thirteen years old, he lapped up the salacious and sadistic stories, loving the awful twist at the end.  This fiction, he says, made his heart beat, fiction as a fairground ride.  No coincidence, Adolescence is its own horror story… But it led to many other authors: Muriel Spark, Ray Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith, Ian McEwan and so the list goes on.

Tessa Hadley, also an avid child reader, speaks of Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.  Occasionally, she revisits this novel and is still struck by the quality of the writing – complex ideas, detail and elegant prose. Essentially a book about time that continues to influence her own writing. And as that moment passes and is left behind, the best books and films and paintings continue to hold its shape. Hadley makes a good point, novels tend to be of their time, or for all time.

In the third grade while reading The Pink Maple House by Christine Noble Govan, Elizabeth Strout learnt about being poor, and how a kind attitude can bring about a kind of equality.  Amazing how an author can bestow such wisdom and influence humanity without leaving the house.

Fatima Butto says in her essay, books are as portals, timely escapes into other worlds or perspectives on how to deal with a particular event.  Butto was fourteen when her father died.  Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes and Ordinary People by Judith Guest and she felt understood during her grief and loneliness.  She lists other books that guided and inspired, summing up with a quote from Mary Oliver:  to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.

At fourteen Leila Slimani availed herself of her mother’s copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and for the first time a novel had evoked a sensual shock.  However, at the time Slimani was living in Morocco under the regime of Hassan II, so knew all about societies with no freedom of expression, consequently understood the narrative of repression in Prague at the hands of Russia.  It seems totalitarian governments have much in common.  In Slimani’s case she developed a passion for Central Europe, reading Zweig, Kafka, Marai.  But she has returned to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, many times.  A novel for all time.

There are other authors here revisiting their childhood favourites, novels that have had a life time of impact.  Elizabeth Day reading Agatha Christie, Deborah Levy at thirteen reading I Captured the Castle, by Dodie Smith. Naoise Dolan discovered Schott’s Original Miscellany at twelve years old.  It seems authors writing for younger readers can have much impact.

There are of course contributions hailing novels for adult readers – Marian Keyes on Cold Comfort Farm, a novel that helped her while depressed, Elif Shafak on Orlando by the wonderful Virginia Woolf, and so many more.  Perhaps a stand out is Sorrow and Bliss.

Ann Patchett, bookshop owner and novelist, is besieged by editors sending advance copies, feeling as if crushed to death by fiction, she very nearly discarded Sorrow and Bliss by Australian Meg Mason.  However, the first page led to the next five, which led to adulation for this novel – an impossible rarity … books that make me laugh out loud are rare.

The two authors are now firm friends.  And Sorrow and Bliss heads my ‘Must Read’ list.

I so enjoyed What Writer Read, all profits from the sales go to a wonderful cause, The National Literacy Trust, working to end literacy inequality.

What Writers Read

Pandora Sykes [Ed]

(November 2022)

Bloomsbury Publishing


ISBN: 978 152666 038 1

$24.99; 180pp


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