I just love book memes. I know everyone’s done this by now, but I can’t resist it, and thank you to AC for tagging me. In any case it is my mother’s birthday today and we’ll be setting off shortly to spend the day with her, so time is a bit short. Oh by the way, I completely ignored the ‘one book’ thing. I mean to say… just the one?
1. One book that changed your life. I have to choose two books here as there is a literal dimension to my response. Back in 1993 I wrote a dissertation comparing Marguerite Duras’s The Lover with Colette’s novel Chéri. Mostly on the strength of that dissertation I got the funding to continue on to do a PhD. The rest, as they say, is history. But I became an academic at that point, not just in terms of career label, but in terms of a certain relationship to books. I felt that I didn’t have very much to do with that dissertation, in an odd way; I simply let the books do the talking, and that’s pretty much been my method ever since.
2. One book you’ve read more than once. Very, very few books ever have this privilege as there are so many out there waiting for me. Albert Camus’s The Outsider was a book I read several times, partly because I studied it, partly because I then taught it, partly because I then wrote about it, and I’ve found it to be richer and more intriguing with each reading. I’ve also just read Virginia Woolf’s The Years for the second time. What draws you back, I wonder? Maybe just the intense memory of a particularly sweet pleasure; books, unlike places, often don’t disappoint nostalgic impulses. And then there’s the need to engage in dialogue with an author who presented you with all kinds of enigmas that maybe, with just a little more effort, might be solved…
3. One book you’d want on a desert island. Every time this question comes up I flirt with endless possibilities. And yet every time I remain loyal: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It has to be.
4. One book that made you laugh. I’ve just finished David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day and I thought it was wonderfully humorous. Richard Russo’s Straight Man was also a brilliantly funny novel. But if you haven’t read him, do try Jonathan Coe. The Rotter’s Club, and its sequel The Closed Circle are the best British novels I’ve read this year. Funny and poignant about a group of school friends growing up and growing old, and searingly insightful into our crazy contemporary world.
5. One book that made you cry. It’s odd but although lots of books have made me cry, I find it difficult to remember them. I don’t really enjoy being brought to tears by literature, and if I find out a book is sad, it tends to get relegated in the TBR pile. By contrast, books that will make me laugh move swiftly to the top. That being said, I do remember being very moved by Marianne Robinson’s Gilead. That kind of happy-sad, redemptive quality to stories I find far more moving than the straightforwardly tragic.
6. One book that you wish had been written. I felt Carol Shields’s death was terribly untimely. She had so many wonderful books left in her. I wish she had had the chance to write one more.
7. One book you wish had never been written. Everyone has been so polite on this question. Although I agree that whilst you can’t please them all, you equally can’t displease them all, I do, alas, have a candidate. I apologise to all the essay lovers out there, but I could easily have lived without Montaigne’s essays which I had to teach as part of a first-year course for a dreary three years. I found him insufferably self-righteous, determined that whatever he did, however he saw life, his was the right and true perspective. This would have been bad enough, but then he had the nerve to keep contradicting himself. Frankly, he could have kept his thoughts to himself.
8. One book you’re currently reading. Theodore Zeldin’s An Intimate History of Humanity. This is a very, very good book. It’s a series of essays in each of which Zeldin extemporises out of a contemporary individual testimony; that’s to say, the story of someone’s life becomes the springboard for his thoughts and analysis around an issue he sees embedded within it. So a woman’s story about her unhappiness with the way her family have failed to be generous towards her turns into an essay on servitude, its history, its emotional and psychological structure, its persistence. Zeldin is a quirky and unusual writer, and he’s very clever and informative.
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read. I’ve been meaning to read a John Irving novel for years and years, and very soon I will. The litbloggers united in preferring A Prayer for Owen Meaney over The World According to Garp. So Owen Meaney it is. But Jane Smiley is before him in the queue. As for one of those ‘must get around to it one day’ books, well, I’d like to read The Odyssey properly. Never have, but possibly never will.
10. Now tag 5 people. I note that the tagging got abandoned aeons ago (in blog-time that is). What I’m going to do instead is think up a new book meme for litbloggers in a week or so’s time. I’ve long wanted to construct one, but it will take a bit of thought. You have been warned!