My earliest reading memory
Aged five or so, at primary school: a story about two siblings, Janet and John, who didn’t have much of a life beyond throwing a red ball. Soon after, Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Greedy – much more fun, and terrifying when the giant shows up. The cover retained my bite marks.
My favourite book growing up
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, about a boy chosen by an alchemist’s spirit to be an apprentice. It’s beautifully written, is set in English rural world of my boyhood, and I found reassurance in how the story was resolved not by force or cunning, but by acceptance, time and what we’d now call emotional intelligence.
The book that changed me as a teenager
EB White’s Charlotte’s Web gave me the uncomfortable idea that the contents of my bacon sarnie had wanted to be alive as much as I did. Anne Frank’s Diary and Richard Wright’s Native Son gave me a sense of proportion regarding my own problems and injustices.
The writer who changed my mind
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida changed my mind about autism when I read it in my early 40s. Previously, I had interpreted my son’s non-verbal autism as a cognitive impairment. Thanks to this book, I understood it was me who had been labouring under a cognitive impairment.
The books that made me want to be a writer
Several, in no order: Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy; CS Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Richard Adams’s Watership Down; Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet; the closing line of The Lord of the Rings – Sam’s “Well, I’m back.” I would lie in bed on Saturday morning asking the book: “How do you do that? How do you make readers feel what I’m feeling now?”
The book I came back to
James Joyce’s Ulysses was my lockdown read. It was getting embarrassing having to go silent and vague when the subject of Joyce came up. I’m a professional novelist living in Ireland, for heaven’s sake. This time, it clicked.
The book I reread
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin, once a decade. It’s trippy, human, mind-expanding, curious, feels more prescient by the year and has one of my favourite lines from anything: “The King was pregnant.” The book is a chance to catch up with my past and future selves and see how we’re getting on.
The book I could never read again
I devoured Willard Price’s Adventure series books as a kid, about two white American brothers, Hal and Roger Hunt, who scour the globe for endangered fauna to put in crates and send back to their father’s New York zoo. Our plucky heroes outwit rival animal hunters, Africans, Asians and “savages” too damn stubborn to recognise a white messiah when they see one. For some reason, you don’t see the books around any more …
The books I discovered later in life
Halldór Laxness’s Independent People. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Literature is an all-you-can-eat buffet with no expiry date.
The book I am currently reading
Sudden Traveller, Sarah Hall’s latest short story collection. Ye Gods, Ms Hall is talented.
My comfort read
Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients cookbook, a Father’s Day present from my wife a couple of years ago. Choose something you have the ingredients for, follow the instructions, serve it up and yell: “It’s ready!” Bask as everyone eats the first forkful, goes quiet and my wife says: “You should make this when your brother comes.”. If I need cheering up, that usually works.