John Burnside said that while his friends who smoked marijuana were fans of The Hobbit, he preferred the darker tone of Gormenghast.
is of a book that I was given
My first memory of reading is receiving a book.
The first book I read independently, instead of with my mom, was The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne. I was approximately six years old and I believe I borrowed it from my teacher, Miss Meade, since we didn’t have any books besides the Bible at home. I don’t remember the story, but I do remember how it transported me to a beautiful Pacific setting, far from the pollution of coal and smoke in our little prefab house in Cowdenbeath.
My favourite book growing up
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Naturally, Alice herself bored me, but the other characters felt like the friends and neighbours I should have had, rather than the people I did know. It took me some time to realise that, secretly, some of the dull folk in my workaday world were actually members of that divine cast of lunatics, and were doing their damnedest to hide it. My music teacher was definitely a White Knight, one of our priests was a Mock Turtle and, for a while there, the love of my life bore a striking resemblance to the Cheshire Cat.
The book that had a profound impact on me during my teenage years.
The Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake captivated me in a way that Tolkien’s The Hobbit did not. Peake’s creation was a darker and more intricate world, simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and unlike anything I had read before. It left a lasting impression on me, highlighting the richness and magical power of language. Despite my father’s belief that people like us were not meant to become writers, musicians, or artists, Peake’s work made me question whether the risk of honorable failure was worth pursuing writing.
The book that made me want to be a writer
When I was in my twenties, I read A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys. What captivated me was its vastness and its ability to intertwine pagan magic, history, and a modern storyline in a way that no one else had attempted. I was aware that it was unique and could not be replicated, but the goal was not to imitate it. The key was to find my own way to create something equally exceptional, although I am still working on achieving that.
I revisited the book.
Rimbaud’s Illuminations, once or twice a year. Hard to say why: there are poetry collections that I like more; but I think it reminds me that, with the right balance of caution and openness, a writer can dare to be visionary.
The book I could never read again
I admire many works by Ernest Hemingway. In my twenties, I was a fan and I continue to appreciate his early stories. However, his novels now appear contrived and restricted. The fact that his editors allowed Across the River and Into the Trees to be published is surprising to me, and For Whom the Bell Tolls is, quite frankly, comically disastrous.
is “The Great Gatsby”
I am currently reading the book “The Great Gatsby.”
Kay Redfield Jamison’s wonderful Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind, a book about healing that, drawing on the lives and work of figures as diverse as WHR Rivers and Paul Robeson, should make us all think again about mental illness, the profession of psychiatry, and how we heal ourselves and others.
My comfort read
WC Sellar’s “1066 and All That” never fails to make me laugh, no matter how many times I revisit it.