On Certain Books I Have Read

I keep a list of every book I have read, which now goes back thirty years. (In January 1982, the first book I read was The Annotated Snark by Martin Gardner.) Almost always, I have a book on the go. As soon as I finish one, I begin reading another. There was a time when I was able to have several titles in my “current reading”, switching between them as I saw fit, but for the past couple of decades I have been a one-book-at-a-time reader. There is rarely any pattern or method to my reading. I flit from one thing to another, often jarringly. (The three most recent titles in my list are Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski, Race And Culture : A World View by Thomas Sowell, and – almost finished, about to be added – A Cup Of News : The Life Of Thomas Nashe by Charles Nicholl.) Occasionally I immerse myself in the work of a single author for book after book after book. I note from my list, for example, that in 1991 I went on a protracted Franz Kafka jag, and that the spring of 1993 was devoted exclusively to Vladimir Nabokov. It is not just writers of fiction who can keep me in thrall. I suspect I am about to plough my way through several other books by Charles Nicholl in the coming weeks, on Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Ralegh and Rimbaud. (The ability to lay my hands on all this stuff is entirely due to the paradise that is the London Library, which has had a seismic effect on which books I choose to read. I still cannot fathom why I spent so long living in London without being a member.)

Cursed, or blessed, with a memory so godawful that it approaches the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, I can forget a book within days, even hours, of reading it. One reason to maintain my list is simply to be able to recall what I have read in the past. Such forgetting makes rereading a pleasure, of course. It is no judgement on the worth, or otherwise, of a particular book that I remember little or nothing about it. Intriguingly, sometimes I can remember vividly the circumstances in which I read a book without recalling the content of the book itself. Again, scanning my list, I can quite clearly picture myself sitting beside a lake, on a summer’s evening in 1995, reading The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey. Other titles summon up less specific memories, but are resonant of times and places in the past.

My list, as I said, begins in 1982. For some years before that, beginning I think in 1975, there was a list now lost. It is those early years of my reading that I want to attend to. Without the aide memoire of a list, what I recollect is fragmentary. What interests me are the books I chose to read, in those early years of “adult” reading, and which ones I can remember.

One that I remember clearly is one I never actually read. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents’ collection, much of which I have today, was a mixture of classics and general fiction and poetry and blue-spined Pelicans and history and art and film books, a heteroclite jumble. One of my older sisters had a small collection of, mostly, Penguin paperbacks suitable for a budding intellectual of a certain stripe – Nietzsche, R D Laing, D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Iris Murdoch. Why do I recall so clearly her copy of Murdoch’s A Severed Head, which I took from her shelf and leafed through, repeatedly, without ever actually sitting down and reading the damned thing? Reflecting on it now, I think the young teenage me identified something amusingly portentous in that title. Gosh, this must be a serious and significant work, I thought to myself, laughing at its preposterousness. It still seems preposterous. I have still never read it.

Was it the contents of those four small shelves in my sister’s room, rather than the more extensive collection downstairs, that set me on the path I took? If we’re going to have a budding intellectual in the family, it’s going to be me! And to hell with these English writers! Being, as I alas remain, an utter monoglot was not going to stop me reading foreigners in translation. Kafka! Albert Camus! Alfred Jarry! Thomas Mann! Did I understand any of what I read? I am not sure that I did. I was, for example, completely oblivious to the humour in Kafka. But there was another writer with a reputation for being bleakly serious whose humour I got immediately, and I laughed my head off as I read him (and still do).

The other great influence on my reading at that time was my English teacher, Richard Shone. (“Where does Mr Shone live?” “In a Dick-Shonery!” we chuckled.) It was he who introduced me to Samuel Beckett – the novelist rather than the playwright. My sister had a copy of Waiting For Godot, of course, of course!, but my aversion to the theatre, and more particularly my aversion to reading plays, meant that I had returned it to her shelf after the briefest of glances. I cannot recall how or why Mr Shone introduced me to Beckett’s Watt. It was a revelation. I still consider it one of the funniest novels I have ever read, uniquely mad and maddening. From there I moved swiftly to Molloy and Malone Dies and The Unnamable. My first attempts at writing were gruesome pastiches of Beckett. I can still spot echoes of those four marvellous novels in the stuff I bash out today.

I have no idea whatever became of Mr Shone, who would be I suppose in his seventies now, if he is still alive. But I think I can say that, by suggesting to me that I read Watt, he planted the seed of the mighty larch or laburnum or cedar or plane tree that is Hooting Yard. For which I owe him immeasurable thanks.

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