September 5th, 2010


Books -- or horses -- for courses.

If you were to ask me my favourite book, there is no doubt you'd get the immediate reply, The Three Musketeers. That is the book at the very heart of my best obsession, the core and key and very feel of what I most want out of reading, the other-place I aim to echo and reference and reflect and emulate when I write. It is my book of books, the book that somewhere in the most selfish corner of my mind I know was written just for me.
And yet, if you were to ask me that question in another way, you'd probably get a whole set of different answers. Because while T3M is my Ur-book, there are so many others that have woven themselves into me over my years.If you asked me for my desert island book, I might be forced to answer Twenty Years After, because while T3M is my core book, the core of the changing relationships between Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan -- which is, for me, the core of the whole series, the reason for reading and loving the books -- is found in 20YA, not T3M, and especially in the chapter 'La Place Royale'. All but one of my favourite scenes from the series are in 20YA, even though T3M is the better book. But it's 20YA I'd want on my island.
And then there are the books that set me on my various tangled footpaths. There's Lord of the Rings (of course), which built the shape of the genre I wanted to work in, and its deep deep scholarly roots, which pulled me down into the mangrove swamps of academe and mediaeval history. There's Peter Sawyer's Age of the Vikings, which set my standard for what analytical, exciting early mediaeval history should read like, and Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor, which taught me thoroughness. There's J E Lloyd, A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest, which irritates and inspires me in equal parts, which set up the sacred cows of my field and informs every single out-of-line, against-trend, awkward, spikey and revisionist word of my academic writings. But the first book to teach me to love history and to love its sources was Eugenia Ginsberg, Into the Whirlwind, which my O' Level history teacher, Mr Roger Vandevelde, lent to me in 1977. Hello, Mr Vandevelde. You're still the best teacher I ever had, and even though I didn't do history A' Level, I turned into a historian anyway. If by chance you see this, do get in touch. I want to say 'Thank you' and send you some books.
I've written about Anne of Green Gables before, about how tightly I cleave to Anne Shirley and her imagination that gets out of control. She's the first role-model I ever had, the first of the many writing girls who populate children's books. I didn't relate as much to tomboy Jo March or self-leaning Emily Starr, but I loved Anne, and her close descendant Cassandra Mortmain, of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. They taught me it was okay to write, that books could be for and by spikey girls, misfit girls, girls of little account.
There are books that I loved and left, or books I've outgrown and and longer reread, but which remain and will remain on my shelves -- Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight and Restoree, Andre Norton, Forerunner Foray, Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond books, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre and Shirley, even, in some ways, Babel 17, Samuel R Delany. I still love the latter, but it no longer blows me away it as it did when I was 15, I see where the strains and the holes are, I see through the cleverness (though Delany remains one of the finest, the greatest, the shiniest of all).
And then there are the books I go back to just because. Tanith Lee, Drinking Sapphire Wine, which I can practically recite. Georgette Heyer, Cotillion and Friday's Child. Elizabeth Peters, Devil May Care, Robert Heinlein, Starman Jones, the book that introduced me to sf. Margery Allingham, The Fashion in Shrouds. Anne Bronte, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. These are all books of my years.
Which books are yours?
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