At the suggestion of Caroline Edwards, here are my All Time Top 10 Reading Experiences, in chronological order:
1. Colleen McCullough’s ‘The Thorn Birds’, in my parents’ bed in Johannesburg age 9. The first proper grown-up book I read, which led me to ask my mom, “When Ralph kneels in front of Mary, what does it mean when it says his penis is flackid?”
“EMLYN! WHAT THE HECK HAVE YOU BEEN READING?!”
(That was nothing compared to when she caught me reading my dad’s psychology book ‘The Bisexual Spouse’. Oh man, illicit childhood reading was The Best Ever.)
2. Sue Townsend’s ‘The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole’ on a trip across Ireland with my grandparents age 10. On ferries, in B&Bs and in the ‘nest’ my grandmother built for me in the back of the car, Adrian was my constant companion. The Adrian Mole books were my first proper introduction to the real Britain – a land of semi-detached houses, pasty faces and fruit cake rather than kings and castles (I even learned of the existence of the Falkland’s War at the same time as Adrian, who searches his map for hours before memorably discovering the islands under a crumb of the aforementioned fruitcake ‘off the coast of Argentina’). Although I didn’t realise it at the time, a year later I would be living in Adrian Mole’s Britain and for the first couple of years his account of the country in the 80s was the only reason I knew what the kids at school were talking about. It was also the first time I realised that simplicity and clarity in writing did not preclude profundity.
3. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, on a coach from Reading to Durham age 14. I was given the book for my birthday while staying with my Uncle Matthew and Aunt Michelle, along with Orwell’s Animal Farm. Of course I already knew the name Anne Frank, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she wasn’t the perfect, prissy little girl I would have imagined. It was a huge lesson to me that it was actually Anne’s flaws – her stroppiness, her rebelliousness – that made her such an incredibly valuable human being, and that for a strong and creative mind there really is no such thing as confinement. A really comforting idea when you’re stuck on a National Express coach for six hours with a shockingly persistent pubescent erection that is anything but flackid.
4. John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’, sitting on a bench by Prebend’s Bridge in Durham age 18. Still my favourite novel, I remember being completely swept away by the ambition and warmth of Irving’s writing while sitting in my favourite place. It’s still one of two books that have made me really cry (in a snotty, gaspy sort of way) when I finished it at one o’clock in the morning, in a still house, when the last couple of sentences roared off the page and into my soul: ‘O God – please give him back! I shall keep asking You.’ Sad, sad times.
5. The Complete Works of Jane Austen, in a hotel in Jouvenceaux, northern Italy, age 18. During my gap year, and having taken a job as a night porter in a ski resort at 24 hours’ notice, I was feeling a bit lost. The wit and twists of Jane’s whole shebang got me through many long nights, interspersed with old episodes of ‘Cheers’ on satellite TV and drunken skiers returning from late night drinking sessions. When they asked what I was reading I would lie and show them a copy of Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis which I found on a train, because boys aren’t supposed to read Austen even though she’s clever and hella funny. (‘Tis is neither clever nor funny by the way.)
6. VS Ramachandran’s ‘Phantoms in the Brain’, age 20, third year of university. Recommended by a housemate who was studying psychology, this book about phantom limbs and how neuroscientists have learned about brain function by studying stroke victims goes into the category of ‘consciousness raiser’. It made me realise that the brain is the starting point for how the world seems to be, and that many difficult questions – Is there such a thing as ghosts? Why do some people have a foot fetish? – can be answered by looking in rather than looking out, setting me up for a later interest in determinism. It’s also quite an accolade that the book that had the most profound effect on me while I was studying English Literature was about science.
7. Douglas Coupland’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, age 21. A book about lost youth at a time that I had just graduated and was leaving my youth behind. One of the best renderings of nostalgia I have ever read, Coupland made me mourn the passing of 1970s Vancouver even though I’d never been there.
8. Pumla Gobodo Madikezela’s ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, in the Costa Coffee on the corner of Dean and Old Compton streets in Soho, age 29. An account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission by a psychologist who was one of the commissioners. This book unites the best of science and fiction, by showing the power of psychology to change people’s lives. Another consciousness raiser: it brought to my attention some of the worst crimes of apartheid, the psychological mechanisms underpinning those crimes, the pernicious effects of ‘lived trauma’, and redefined forgiveness as a revolutionary act, a force for liberation. This is the second book that really made me cry, when Madikezela tells the story of a white Afrikaner whose small son was killed in a bombing carried out by the ANC. He said he was proud of his son, that he had died a martyr so that the people who killed him could be free. I still get chills thinking about that. This book made me want to be a better man.
9. Julia Donaldson’s ‘Hairy Maclary’, read aloud to my year-old nephew, Jasper, on a sofa in Manchester, age 31. Reading aloud to someone else is a glorious and dying art; the pleasure of seeing a small child’s eyes light up because of the musicality of words, without even understanding their meaning, is a reminder how deep our instinct for stories runs, and that books are, at their heart, vessels of magic; that the reader plays a huge part in creating their meaning, and that they bind people together like no other object can. Seeing Jasper rush to his pile of books and excitedly bring three or four back to be read fills me with joy, because I know that if he sticks with these funny little packages of ink and wood pulp his adventures will be endless.
10. Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ and Günter Grasse’s ‘The Tin Drum’, outside Violet coffee shop in Dalston on beautiful summer afternoons in 2014. Reading these two at the same time seemed to inform my reading of both: Herzog’s neurotic Jewish protagonist, who reacts to the disintegration of his life by writing letters he never posts, gained an extra dimension alongside Grasse’s novel describing the approach of World War II through the eyes of a crazy dwarf with a piercing voice and a tin drum that he JUST. WON’T. STOP. BANGING. (Incidentally, this dwarf was apparently part of the inspiration for Owen Meany.) A lesson in how the reader’s context changes a book’s meaning, and that beautiful summer afternoons cannot be taken for granted: they can suddenly be ended either by explosions in the world, or by implosions of the self.