Michael Rosen: ‘My comfort read? Great Expectations’

The author on his obsession with James Joyce, an early love of German folk stories and the comforts of Charles Dickens

My earliest reading memory
The first pages of any book I remember reading, in Pinner Wood primary school, were from The Beacon Readers: stories of Farmer Giles, Rover the Dog, Old Lob the shepherd and Mrs Cuddy the Cow. I was very fond of Mrs Cuddy.

My favourite book growing up
The Amazing Pranks of Master Till Eulenspiegel, by L Gombrich, retellings of the German folk stories about the peasant trickster who outwits townspeople, shopkeepers, university professors and aristocrats. I so wanted to be Till.

The book that changed me as a teenager
My parents’ bookshelves were full of books that belonged to their lives in the Communist party. AL Morton’s A People’s History of England was the first of these that my teenage self found readable and it suggested that I was living two versions of history: the one I was studying at school, and another one, now known as the “bottom-up” version.

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The writer who changed my mind
At university, in the mid 60s, I met the Jamaican politician Trevor Munro – a postgraduate at the time. He told me to read Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams. It laid out the inseparable connection between Britain and the empire and how the country’s wealth was underpinned by the transatlantic slave trade and the plantations of the Caribbean territories.

The book that made me want to be a writer
At around 16, I became obsessed with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. I was absorbed by the sense of someone trying to break out of an institution but then became interested in Joyce’s experimental way of writing.

The book I reread
I love rereading Shakespeare plays and I’m constantly finding bits that I’ve overlooked or not understood before. King Lear, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IV Part I , Macbeth: their scope, power, thought and complexity amaze me.

The author I came back to
I read all of Thomas Hardy’s poetry and novels except for Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. I came to these two much later in life. I loved that they are both novels of ideas dealing with class, education (or lack of), work and 19th-century forms of oppression.

The book I could never read again
I have fond memories of immersing myself in DH Lawrence’s novels, and I found his book of Selected Poems very liberating at the time. Maybe I resist reading them now because I fear I would end up regretting that I’m no longer that young reader!

The book I discovered later in life
About 30 years ago, I decided to go to a French evening class. Françoise, the tutor, got us reading a book I had never heard of, Raymond Radiguet’s Le Diable au Corps (The Devil in the Flesh). It tells the story of an affair between a 16-year-old boy and a young married woman whose husband is fighting at the front in the first world war.

The book I am currently reading
Debra Barnes’s The Young Survivors. It’s a book that overlaps with the experience of my father’s uncle and aunt, who were Polish Jews, naturalised French, turned in by Vichy and deported to Auschwitz. In this story, based on the true story of what happened to Barnes’s mother, five children lose their parents and do what they have to do to survive.

My comfort read
The first chapters of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations: I remember my father reading it to us in a tent in Yorkshire when I was about 13.

• Michael Rosen’s Sticky McStickstick, illustrated by Tony Ross, is published by Walker. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Michael Rosen

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