I was thinking about the books I’d read in my earlier years, the ones that had made the greatest impact on me, and it was intriguing to note how few of them had anything to do with my schooling. In fact, of the hundreds of different books I’ve read over my life, the largest concentration of authors I disliked were to be found in the set texts of English classes. I was obliged to read Dickens, who may be a good author, I have no idea and am unlikely now to ever find out, the experience of Bleak House proving very bleak indeed. And however philistine this may sound, I am not a great fan of Shakespeare. Sorry. Back when I was 15 I had a pretty good memory and to flex it in the run up to examinations I learnt the first act of The Merchant of Venice, through which we had ploughed in uninspired fashion. That’s about all I remember of Shakespeare – the rote learning of him. In later life I have been to see his other plays and the tragedies annoy me because everyone takes such an unconscionably long time to die. I vividly recall sitting in a London theatre watching an acclaimed production of Othello with one eye on my watch as it ticked dangerously towards the time of the last train, quelling my overwhelming urge to yell, ‘For heaven’s sake just get on with it and stab her!’ I’m sure many, many people will disagree with me, but I don’t think that Dickens and Shakespeare are necessarily the best choices to study in school at that age. Books (or plays or poems), like fruit, become ripe for picking, and my experience of some of the greatest authors in English in my mid-teens was akin to eating very sour fruit indeed.
It’s not that all classics are a little indigestible at that age; on the contrary I adored what I read of the Brontes at that time, and Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. But if you’re asking me what I read that made the most indelible impression, what I read that contributed to my general education and left me hungry for as much reading as I could squeeze into my system. Well. Then I have to make a sordid confession. We’re going back to the mid- to late-eighties here and at that point in time the blockbuster was a huge publishing phenomenon. Along with my schoolmates, I devoured Jilly Cooper’s Riders and Judith Krantz’s Scruples. The only one I didn’t read though all my friends did was Shirley Conran’s Lace. Mind you I heard so much about the sex scene with the goldfish that I felt as if I had read it. Oh, those books were just so much fun; feminism had reached the stage where it was plausible to read of women running business empires solely on the impetus that came from power dressing, even if none of us had a clue how to pronounce the word Gucci. Those were the days when having it all seemed like the best idea in the world, shoulder pads were a metaphor for moral fibre, and you could recognise an evil character right off from the way he practiced his expressions in his Louis XIV floor length mirror. Ah, innocent times.
It wasn’t until I was 17 or 18 that I began to develop the same kind of fascination for books that were more challengingly literary. Albert Camus’s The Outsider was one of the first books to make an extraordinary impact on me, although I couldn’t have told you why that was so. In retrospect it was because it was the first philosophy-influenced novel I had read that I had the mental maturity to understand properly. The same was true with Bertold Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, which wove science and history and politics together into a rich, thrilling, intellectually-stimulating braid. This was the age when the books that contained an idea or a concept fired my imagination. It probably took a couple more years for me to be able to appreciate the brilliance of a beautiful sentence for itself. In my early twenties there were two authors who ruled the literary empire for me: Julian Barnes and Jeanette Winterson. Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry were such remarkable reads for me; experimental in a witty, playful, entertaining way, exquisitely written, and asking such profound questions about the very act of reading a narrative. If I ever get given three wishes, I promise to use the first two on improving the world, but the third will be to have again the experience of reading these authors for the first time.
I cannot ever recall a time when reading was not my favourite thing to do, but – and maybe I was a late starter – it certainly took me a while fully to appreciate sophisticated literature. I spend a lot of time (too much) compiling fantasy literature courses to teach in my head, and if it were in my power to do so, I’d take Shakespeare away from 15-year olds and replace him with something more provocative and entertaining for your average adolescent. Bret Easton Ellis, the Bronte sisters, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, and maybe a little Shirley Conran, just for that scene with the goldfish.