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

My earliest reading memory
My father and I dragging ourselves through the unbelievably snory Peter and Jane, who should both be in prison. Then, when I was four, we discovered the funny, modern Monster books, illustrated by Quentin Blake, and life improved.

My favourite book growing up
I am the product of my father’s interested, silly, deeply knowledgeable brain. His passion for the wit and chaos of the Molesworth books formed me: their deceptively casual prose and ridiculous, brilliant illustrations. We still email in Molesworth speak.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Everything I read as a teenager changed me, thankfully, from Judy Blume and Alison Lurie to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good was my first fictional insight into love’s complexity: the pain of loving the wrong person, and the lengths it will drive us to.

The writer who changed my mind
Susan Cain’s Quiet made me realise I’m a noisy introvert; being chatty at parties, then very quiet, isn’t a character flaw. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider helped me understand the narrowness of my feminism. And, thanks to Emily Berry’s Dear Boy, I re-fell in love with poetry.

The poems that made me want to be a writer
I always wanted to be a writer but it didn’t occur to me that I could, without being a genius, and/or male. Then I started to notice how poets focused on unexpected words or details to touch the root of a feeling, which led me to want to do the same: Laurie Lee’s April Rise; Louis MacNeice’s Snow; Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Spring and Fall.

The book or author I came back to
As a contrary teenager I rejected all Dickens except the deservedly unpopular ones – Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewitand hated them. Then, as an adult, I read Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and suddenly understood all the fuss.

The book I reread
War and Peace is what Snoopy read in Peanuts, to show his intellectual superiority. When at last I thought “might as well give it a whirl”, I couldn’t believe how immersively enjoyable it was, as well as intensely sad, illuminating, brilliant, stimulating and heart-opening. Rereading it during Covid, it moved me even more: one of the indisputable pinnacles of human achievement.

The book I could never read again
In childhood I was addicted to Willard Price’s Adventure series and the Beano; sadly those submarines/catapults/ships have sailed.

The book I discovered later in life
Although I loved his short stories, I can’t believe no one told me about Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The beauty of its writing, the inventiveness, the layers of strangeness are thrilling, and it’s truly funny.

The book I am currently reading
In a Country of Mothers. I love AM Homes and this, her least-known, second novel, is full of her daring darkness and emotional subtlety. Right now one protagonist is, I think, losing it completely just beneath the surface: one of my favourite genres. See below.

My comfort read
Crime, in the bath, particularly bleak (Don Winslow, Adrian McKinty, Mick Herron); butch (Lee Child); and, the greatest of them all, Ruth Rendell, particularly her standalone novels about sane-ish people driven to desperation.

Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist is published in paperback by Picador. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Charlotte Mendelson

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