Does anyone who has read more than twenty books have a favourite book of all time? Someone asked for mine recently, and then before I’d even started thinking admitted that it was a silly question.
Avid readers I know do have books they go back to though, for reasons of mood, the desire to indulge in a guaranteed pleasure, or frustration at not finding anything new that they like. I reread two books that I would count as favourites recently, each for different reasons.
As a writer, reading a book that is brilliantly written can be a risky business, as the skill on display can make you want to give up there and then. Other times, the presence of such talent can be so exciting and inspiring that I have to stop reading in order to jot down ideas. Both of these books remind me why it is worth the effort of writing, and trying to improve, in the hope that something even a tenth as good will come out.
The first is The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. This book is my equivalent of a well-worn DVD box set. It demonstrates the kind of writing that is so good you forget that it’s there, and instead enter the world beyond the words. It is long, so can be read for hours at a time, and knowing how it ends takes nothing away from the narrative. It slides effortlessly back and forth in time, following three female friends as their lives are wrecked by the ultimate calculating femme fatale.
It is a book about recovery, really, and how friends can help a person accommodate calamity into the narrative of life. Or at least it bears that reading, being rich in themes that characterise several of Margaret Atwood’s earlier novels to do with self, womanhood, and fitting into a world that doesn’t seem to fit you. I read it greedily, wallowing in the three lead characters and letting them feed me the way they feed each other with defiance and black humour and love.
Occasionally, when I can bring myself to slow down, I notice the deftness of expression, the choice of words and of omissions, and the way the reader can gradually see over the heads of the characters and recognise the fault lines in their versions of their lives. It is rich in humanity, and provides desolation and warmth in equal measure.
The second is Pollard, by Laura Beatty. There is no female solidarity in this book, though plenty of defiance in the face of an unfriendly world. Instead of humanity, it revels in the beauty of nature, as a girl who is a mental and physical misfit in the conventional world attempts to survive alone in the woods.
Her success in doing so, even temporarily, brings an irresistible sense of relief at the achievement of an underdog, but it is the writing about woodland that makes reading this such an intense experience of beauty. It makes me want to run out into the wildest parts of Epping forest and set up camp immediately, but also I turn to my notebook, feeling validated as I indulge in description.
Laura Beatty does it so cleverly though, keeping her description simple in a way that befits her central character, who starts out with no names for flowers or knowledge of bird calls. She is never smug in her understanding of woods in the way some nature writers can be about their subjects.
So, two sort-of favourite books that I wouldn’t recommend to everyone but which I know I will read again and again for many years, in the hope that some of the shine will rub off onto my own writing.