Season of reading lists

Oxford. A long way from Salford.

Autumn in Bloomsbury means the squares and pavements are filled with bright young people, from all over the world, arriving to take up their places at University College London. There’s a quickening in the air, a new purpose after the meandering summer, a sense of pencils being sharpened and eager minds turning to study.

Maybe it’s romantic, but I rather love this time of year, even though my own university days were sadly played out among the ivory tower blocks of Salford, where elegant quads and dreaming spires were in short supply (an unfortunate turn of events entirely down to messing up my A-levels). As the leaves turn and the air freshens, I feel the need to pull up socks, knuckle down, make a fresh start.

I’ve enrolled on a new course, Novel Writing 1, at Birkbeck College. I’ve read the first term’s ‘set text’ – Anne Tyler’s Patchwork Planet, much recommended – and done my first piece of homework. But what I really need is a reading list.

Oh, my reading is all over the place at the moment! Anne Tyler aside, I’ve been hopping from one random book to another, enjoying myself very much, but without any strategy or purpose. I spent half a paralysed hour in Hatchard’s on Sunday, and came out with nothing. Not because I couldn’t find anything I wanted, but because there was so much. Should I read the Booker shortlist? Or wait till later tonight and just read the winner? Should I fill in some of my missing classics; finally tackle the great Russians novelists? What about re-reading a few Dickens novels, to gear up for the bicentenary? Maybe travel writing – I’ve never read Jan Morris on Venice – or what about the Jessica Mitford memoir, Hons and Rebels? So many books, so little time.

I remember when I finished my English degree, back in the depths of time. (They did teach us perfectly adequately at Salford, even if the surroundings weren’t pretty). I floundered around, trying  to read Virginia Woolf for pleasure, turning to George Orwell for light relief, trying to remember with bewilderment which of the Victorian novels on my shelves I had actually read, and which I’d just filleted for an essay.

Jilly Cooper came to my rescue, with her enormous, fat, bouncing novels of sex and horses (not, please note, sex with horses), full of groan-worthy puns and improbable fallings-in-love. Phew, I remembered, you could read novels for fun as well as self-improvement.

But right now, I’m ready for a bit of self-improvement. I’ll alternate – a Booker shortlistee, a classic I’ve not read yet, a history or biography, and a dark, exciting thriller. Now, which shall they be? Some recommendations, please, and I’ll let you know what I think.

Image: my own. I’ve been there, you know.

Update: thanks to those who sent suggestions. I’m re-reading David Copperfield (and loving the detail, like young David peeking in the mirror after his mother’s death, to see how sad he looks); with Booker winner Julian Barnes’  The Sense of an Ending lined up next as a short novel to counteract Dickens’ great tome. I went for Alexandra Harris’ new biography of Virginia Woolf for my biography, because I’m turning over the idea of a Bloomsbury setting for my next novel. I’m still in the market for a cracking, dark thriller, so please do carry one with the recommendations, in comments or on Twitter to @bloomsburyblue.

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