David Mitchell: ‘If I need cheering up, Jamie Oliver’s recipes usually help’

The novelist on mind-expanding Ursula K Le Guin, reading Joyce’s Ulysses during lockdown and taking comfort in cookbooks

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.

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind the scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

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.

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

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.


David Mitchell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dreda Say Mitchell: ‘I’m a massive historical romance fangirl’
The crime novelist on the allure of Poldark, the power of The Color Purple and joys of Jack Reacher

Dreda Say Mitchell

05, May, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
David Baddiel: The book that changed me? John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
The comedian and writer on growing up with Billy Bunter, the beauty of John Updike, and why Middlemarch is the greatest novel written in English

David Baddiel

07, Jan, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Jenny Erpenbeck: ‘There’s a time in life when you need to read Hermann Hesse’
The German author on her early fascination with fairytales, the joy of Tristram Shandy, and the mysteries of Ovid

Jenny Erpenbeck

02, Jun, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
Olivia Laing: ‘I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrendous little hysteric’
The British writer on discovering Barthes, channelling Burroughs and appreciating the talents of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley

Olivia Laing

25, Feb, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Viet Thanh Nguyen: ‘I didn’t notice the racism of Tintin’
The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist on the depiction of Vietnamese people, the fun in Voltaire’s Candide and memorable masturbation scenes

Viet Thanh Nguyen

04, Mar, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Lee Child: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale changed me – hopefully for the better’
The Jack Reacher novelist on Shakespeare’s casual knack for magnificence, finally discovering the joy of Jane Eyre, and the transformative power of Margaret Atwood

Lee Child

06, May, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Curtis Sittenfeld: ‘Sweet Valley High is not respected – but I found the books riveting’
The American Wife author on The Snowman, Saturday Night Live and her lifelong love of Alice Munro

Curtis Sittenfeld

22, Oct, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Charlotte Mendelson: ‘Susan Cain’s Quiet made me realise I’m a noisy introvert’
The novelist on why she finally gave Tolstoy and Dickens a whirl, being a noisy introvert, and reading crime in the bath

Charlotte Mendelson

10, Mar, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Colson Whitehead: ‘When I read Invisible Man I thought maybe there’s room for a Black weirdo like me’
The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist on discovering Ralph Ellison as a child, his passion for esoteric encyclopedias and why he loves World War Z

Colson Whitehead

14, Apr, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
Kamila Shamsie: ‘There’s nothing more comforting than Seinfeld scripts’
The novelist on the dangerous allure of Gone With the Wind, taking comfort in comedy and discovering George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Kamila Shamsie

26, May, 2023 @9:00 AM