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43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them

edited by Antonia Fraser

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-63286-228-0
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Writers reveal the books that shaped them.

The mission of the British Give a Book charity is to share books with those most in need, including children in poor primary schools, mothers in shelters, and prisoners. This collection, whose royalties will aid the charity, is a slight expansion of a previous volume edited by Fraser (Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832, 2013, etc.) in 1992 to celebrate the bicentenary of the British book chain WHSmith. The new collection includes 43 writers who were asked to reflect on their early reading and to list 10 favorite books. American readers will find many familiar notables among the original contributors, including Stephen Spender, Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Margaret Atwood, and A.S. Byatt. Younger writers are likely to be less familiar: the Indian-born novelist Kamila Shamsie; biographer Katie Waldegrave; poet Emily Berry; and playwright Tom Wells. On the whole, the essays make for pleasant reading. “My first sense of books,” writes Edna O’Brien, “is the feel and the smell of them...old books growing musty in a trunk.” The late playwright and novelist Simon Gray learned to read from “the captions and balloon-dialogue of Captain Marvel comics.” Germaine Greer calls reading her “first solitary vice…I read while I ate, I read in the loo, I read in the bath. When I was supposed to be sleeping, I was reading.” Lists of favorite books tend toward the canonical, with Jane Austen a popular entry, whether Mansfield Park (the favorite of mystery writer Ruth Rendell: “the fun-less one, the profoundest, the most didactic, but nevertheless the greatest”) or Pride and Prejudice. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and Joyce reappear, as well. Tom Wells cites David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries and describes Joan Littlewood’s autobiography Joan’s Book “like a radiator, a suit of armour, and a proper adventure, all at once.”

Warm, often charming essays that celebrate the treasure of books.