If I was picking the books that I genuinely wanted to read over and over again, they would be all poetry books. They are the only books I re-read constantly. I’d be given The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, because that’s what guests on Desert Island Discs are given. Even if you didn’t give them to me, I’d still choose them – they’re brilliant to read over and over. The tragedies, the comedies… they’re brilliant. They’re timeless.
To pick just one piece of poetry, I’d choose Walt Whitman, Song Of Myself (1855), because it’s so life-affirming. That’s what I’d read, if I wanted to be uplifted and encouraged in a solitary situation.
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As a child I would re-read books. I think when you’re a kid, books mean a lot more to you. They become really personal. One of the books that really changed me, I think, was The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase (1962), by Joan Aiken. It’s a fantasy set in Britain, and it’s kind of historic, but it also feels very real. It was scary but it was exciting, and it was just escapism for me. I loved that story.
T. H. White’s The Once And Future King (1958) is beautifully written and made a big impression on me when I read it. That was when I was older. It’s about King Arthur, and was just so exciting and unlike the drudgery of my South London life. Kings, queens, magic. Also, it was really kind of, for me, racy. I don’t know if it was, actually; I haven’t read it since I was younger. Perhaps it’s not racy at all. But when I was a kid, my God, I don’t think I got half of it.
When I was in my 20s, as a student, If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things (2002) by Jon McGregor was a really, really important book for me. It felt like it was speaking about exactly my situation, although I wasn’t like any of the characters in it. I was living in a bedsit in Greenwich with no money, doing odd jobs between courses, not really sure where I was going in life. That was a book very much about that, in a way. Nothing really happening, and yet everything happening under the surface.
The God Of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy is another incredible book. It’s basically about how tiny little things make a huge difference and can completely change people’s lives. How interconnected we are and how seemingly small events can have huge repercussions. It’s about relationships between people which is, for me, the most interesting thing in a book, always.