Matt Haig: ‘I suppose Austen versus the Brontës is like Oasis v Blur’

The novelist on why The Lord of the Rings is overrated and why he thinks Cosmos by Carl Sagan is ‘lovely’

The book I am currently reading
The Heavens by Sandra Newman. She matches rich, pin-sharp, sometimes dandyish, sometimes economic prose with a wild imagination. This one is rich with time travel, literary allusion and authorial risks that largely pay off. I am also reading Figuring by Maria Popova, which is equally ambitious and brilliant; a mine of historical and other information.

The book that changed my life
Reading wasn’t perceived to be cool by my fellow males at school, so The Outsiders by SE Hinton was comforting to read as a book about a gang of cool, tough teenagers who also dug poetry. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh was another big one. It said a novel can be anything you want it to be. It can appeal to many people without compromising a thing.

The book I wish I’d written
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I mean, imagine that. “Hi, what do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “That’s nice. Anything I’ve heard of?” “Yes. Frankenstein.”

The book that influenced my writing
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I read most of his books while doing an MA and fell in love with his style, especially his use of simile and metaphor. Comparing solid things to abstract things simply and powerfully. “He drank the whisky down like damnation.” I aim for that kind of purity.

The book I think is most overrated
The Lord of the Rings. I love The Hobbit, because it had humour and heart, but The Lord of the Rings is the ultimate example of subtle world-building over subtle emotion. I appreciate it is enjoyed by many millions of people though.

The book that changed my mind
Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It made me realise, despite hating science at school, I actually was missing out. This was the book that made me see the beauty, mystery and curiosity-provoking wonder of physics. I can pick any page of that book and read it and it feels like gazing up at the night sky on a cloudless night, with no light pollution. It’s lovely.

The last book that made me cry
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. A devastatingly urgent overview of the climate crisis that shows you that it isn’t just some distant future prospect but very much already here, and about far more than rising sea levels and plastic bottles. I am telling everyone to read it. I read it simultaneously with Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which I read to the kids. It is such a perfect children’s novel and added to the emotional impact of humans destroying the natural world. I cry at a lot of things. Books, films, old photos, the Hamilton soundtrack.

The last book that made me laugh
I reread Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ recently. It still holds up. It’s so beautifully cringeworthy, and now contains added nostalgia too.

The book I couldn’t finish
So many, to be honest. I’ll go with Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It’s so long and arduous. Also, leave that whale alone.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I am never ashamed not to have read a novel. Reading isn’t a duty. I have never read a single Jane Austen novel all the way through though. I don’t really “get” Austen the way I get, say, the Brontës. I suppose it’s like Oasis versus Blur. Also War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I am waiting for a free year to come up.

My earliest reading memory
Sitting on the hallway floor flicking through the pages of a catalogue for Massey Ferguson tractors and combine harvesters. There wasn’t much in the way of narrative.

My comfort reading
Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I am not religious in any conventional way but if I ever became religious it would probably be as a result of reading an Emily Dickinson poem. “Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.”

The book I most often give
Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. It can change anyone’s mind about the inner lives of our animal friends.

Evie and the Animals is published by Canongate (RRP £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

Contributor

Matt Haig

The GuardianTramp

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