Second helpings

From Diana Athill to Jacqueline Wilson, leading figures of the arts world recommend their favourite reads of 2002

Diana Athill | John Bayley | Alfred Brendel | Bonnie Greer | Richard Holmes | Nicholas Hytner | Lisa Jardine | Gerald Kaufman to Jacqueline Wilson

Diana Athill

Anyone who fails to read William Dalrymple's White Mughals (HarperCollins), owing to a lack of interest in India, will be losing a rich reward. By following the love story of a British resident in Hyderabad and a Muslim noblewoman, he goes deep into the relationship between east and west in the late 18th century, when the twain most certainly did meet. A devoted and - in this case - uncannily lucky researcher, Dalrymple offers a feast of often astonishing information and a cast of men and women ranging from the comic to the heart-rending, but above all he writes in a way that draws you into his own enthusiasm for his subject. This is an irresistible book.

Among the novels I have especially enjoyed this year, Jens Christian Grondahl's Lucca (Canongate International) stands very high. And I shall always treasure WG Sebald's After Nature (Hamish Hamilton), a prose poem in three parts, which seems to crystallise his main themes.

John Bayley

Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx (translated by Jamey Gambrell, to be published in February by Houghton Mifflin in the US) is in the great tradition of Russian satiric fantasy, following on from Gogol, Zamyatin and Platonov. She imagines a futuristic tyranny of scribes, with the sleuth-slynx a repulsive creature sometimes embodied in a human persona.

At the opposite end from this undoubtedly gripping if sometimes a shade predictable piece of post-modernism, I encountered for the first time Margery Sharp, contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen and Angela Thirkell, and in her time a stalwart of the circulating library. Next year, Virago will be reprinting Sharp's The Eye of Love, a double-plotted middlebrow masterpiece with a great deal of wit and not an ounce of sentimentality. Another contrast: Denis Mackail's Greenery Street (1925), reprinted by Persephone Books, is an upper-middle-class version of The Diary of a Nobody, although the Fosters of Chelsea are not up to the Pooters of Holloway.

Alfred Brendel

Among recent books, a compilation of 26 essays on laughter, humour, wit and irony published in Germany, Lachen: Über westliche Zivilisation, edited by Karl Heinz Bohrer and Kurt Scheel (Sonderheft Merkur, Klett-Cotta), has given me particular pleasure. Looking at an inexhaustible subject from various, sometimes contradictory angles, it shows that German academics have by now freed themselves from Adorno's jargon. A good deal of the writing is clear, unpretentious, and even elegant, and the range is impressive.

At my age, rereading is a rewarding privilege. In William Weaver's welcome new translation, Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo (Penguin) shines once more as a key text about self-deception - arguably the most significant human trait - laid bare in a uniquely ironic manner. Flaubert's Education sentimentale (Bookking International) revealed to me more than before its savage sense of fun. "French novels are heartless," I remember Iris Murdoch saying. Be that as it may, the unblinking eye of this particular narrative proved indispensable to Kafka, Hofmannsthal and Proust. We all need it to remain reasonably sane.

Bonnie Greer

In It All Adds Up Saul Bellow talks about a character who could just sit around and rattle off statistics. I'm tired of big, fat novels stuffed with facts. If I want to read an encyclopedia, I'll go to one, and who has time to read 800-page works today?

My fiction choices are two first novels I've discovered while reading this year for the Whitbread: Ancestors by Paul Crooks (Black Amber Books), a moving account of a black British family that travels through the ages from slavery and beyond, and The Ledge, a brilliant satire about a media critic by Blanaid McKinney (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

And to contradict myself, my favourite non-fiction this year is Lisa Jardine's On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren (HarperCollins). Plenty of facts and figures here, but an unstoppable read as enjoyable as a fireplace on a winter's night.

Richard Holmes

This has been a remarkable year for a new kind of hybrid life-writing: the literary biography of scientific subjects. Such books recount the technical histories of discovery and invention, but do this by vividly exploring the human personalities and emotions behind them. They are, in effect, studies in the scientific ethos and imagination.

I would pick out three outstanding examples. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (HarperCollins) by Brenda Maddox makes a passionate case for the young woman scientist who should probably have won the Nobel Prize alongside Crick and Watson. The Lunar Men (Faber) by Jenny Uglow gives an extraordinarily gripping account of the eccentric group of 18th-century friends - including James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin - who launched the industrial revolution in England. And Glimpses of the Wonderful (Faber) by Ann Thwaite brilliantly rescues Philip Henry Gosse, the forgotten Victorian marine biologist and inventor of the aquarium, from the obscurity to which his better-known literary son, Edmund Gosse, unjustly condemned him in Father and Son.

Nicholas Hytner

Two novels: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (Fourth Estate) and William Boyd's Any Human Heart (Hamish Hamilton). Franzen anatomises an American family and knows all five of them to their secret core. It's an amazing feat of compassionate omniscience. Boyd's diarist-narrator isn't big on self-knowledge, but accidentally and hilariously reveals many of the secrets of the last century. Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference (Continuum) is a courageous and challenging attempt to cajole orthodox Judaism into a dialogue with the real world, where nobody has a monopoly on the truth. In the unreal world of the ultra-orthodox rabbis who still believe in their own unique righteousness, the reaction has been as depressing as it has been predictable, and it's a pity that Rabbi Sacks has felt obliged to apologise to them for his own wisdom.

Lisa Jardine

Patricia Duncker's The Deadly Space Between (Picador) totally gripped and enchanted me this year, which just goes to show that one's own individual best reads are not necessarily the books that win literary prizes. Eric Hobsbawm's Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (Allen Lane) is a book I shall treasure for its combination of wisdom, humanity and humility in the face of world history in turbulent times. As you turn the pages you know you are in the presence of a truly great mind wrestling with the problem of making sense of the past as lived.

Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Lives in the Renaissance Convent (Viking) by Mary Laven is a wonderful first book by a young historian. The author's commanding scholarship never gets in the way of the engaging tale she has to tell. A model of "cross-over" history, which will please both the academic specialist and the general reader.

The GuardianTramp

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