The Guardian had a Q&A with Neil Gaiman about books and reading and formative experiences and – well – go read it here, but I have to say I find a lot to agree with in there. Blyton, and Narnia, and Zelazny, and Lord of the Rings.
Since The Guardian is unlikely to invite me to play, but I would like to – here are MY answers to the questions that Gaiman was asked, about the books that changed my life. You may compare and contrast at your pleasure.
My earliest reading memory
My mother read “Heidi” to me as a bedtime story when I was four years old (yeah I know precocious little sod, wasn’t I). When she finished, I wanted her to start again from the beginning and she wouldn’t so I went away and picked up the book and taught myself to read it by myself. The earliest memory I can trust is me toddling into a kitchen where my mother was washing dishes and asking whether she wanted me to read to her. whether SHE wanted me to read to HER. It took a moment for the penny to drop as to which direction this was going, and she damn near dropped the plate she was holding. But from then on there was no stopping me and I blew through the kids section of my local library by the time I was seven. I was reading “grown up” books before I started school.
My favourite book growing up
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and Russian fairy tales. I learned empathy and understanding from Andersen, and a touch of mysticism from the Russians (hey I was a kid. A house with chicken legs and the many gifts of Princess Vasilissa were absolute gifts to someone with my kind of imagination.) Heidi, of course. as already mentioned. And I had a soft spot for Pippi Longstocking.
The book that changed me as a teenager
Without a doubt, Tolkien. I read Lord of the Rings first, before I ever picked up the Hobbit, and then I devoured everything, all the Tales, all the histories, the Silmarillion. Many years after my teenage era had passed I had occasion to be in Oxford and I made it my business to go and pay my respects to the Master at his graveside. I just needed to say thank you
The writer who changed my mind
Quite possibly, Dune. There were so many ideas there that I had to get to grips with, and many of them made me feel queasy, just a little. All I can tell you is that I was a different person at the end of Dune than I was at the beginning. But that didn’t carry on into the latter iterations. I’m sorry but for me the story kinda ended after the third book – everything that came after felt a lot like trying to get the skeleton of a horse (or a Shai Hulud) to get up and pull the story cart one more forced book at a time…
The book that made me want to be a writer
I don’t think that I can nail one down. I know I always wanted to be a writer, that was just part of who I was. But I can tell you, for instance, that one really badly written memoir made me sit up and say “I can do better than that” and the result was the book “Houses in Africa”, an account of my growing up years in various African countries while my dad grappled with the continent’s roads and transportation problems under the aegis of the UN and the World Bank for whom he worked for most of my formative years. There are two kinds of books that make a writer want to write – the nonpareils that inspire because they are so magnificent, and the awful books that make you question why anyone would have ever thought they should have been published. Hey, it’s inspiration. Take it where you find it.
The book I came back to
I tried to read “The Bridge on the Drina” by Ivo Andric when I was too young for it and its horrors made me back away. But they were my history, MY horrors, and I came back to that when I was older because it was necessary for me to understand. The book can’t really mean for an outsider what it meant to me as a part of the nation of whose troubles it spoke, but to me it ended up being very very important. I’m sure there is a seminal book for any given world culture. You go find your own. This one’s mine…
The book I could never read again
I find much of Asimov terribly simplistic these days and I don’t have the patience for it. It FEELS like it was written for children. I like my plots complex and rich and lush and his were linear and – sorry – predictable. And his characters (especially the women, with possibly the exception of Susan Calvin) are crepe paper thin.
The book I discovered later in life
On the heels of the “Bridge on the Drina” entry, a book I discovered when I was in my twenties was Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb, Gray Falcon” – which was remarkable BECAUSE it was an outsider who was giving me insights into my own culture and history. I ended up with two copies of the book – one, which I originally read and then gifted to my father and which then came back to me when he died, and the second, which was a gift to me from my husband and inscribed to me as “the daughter of her people”. I treasure them both.
The book I am currently reading
Babulon 5 creator J. Michael Stratzynski’s novel “Together we will go”. It is… unsettling. When I am finished with it I will post a review on my Patreon. Join up now if you want to be there to read all about it – I tend to talk a lot about books and writing there, exclusively…
My comfort read
I go back regularly over Sharon Kay Penman’s oeuvre, and my particular favourites are the Welsh novels. I am pretty much comprehensively in love with both the Llewellyns of Wales for reasons that will be readily apparent to anyone who reads those books and meets them. If you haven’t read Penman before and you love rich historical fiction you can do no better than these books. Trust me.