Like many people, I spend way too long contemplating what records I’d pick if I was inexplicably chosen as a guest on Desert Island Discs. But I’ve always thought they had it wrong – eight records and only one book?
There’s no way I could pick just one book to last me from here to eternity. Poetry? A novel? A book of short stories? Or should you just ask for Boat-building for Beginners? And anyway, beach reading is one of the great pleasures in life. How better to while away my time as a castaway?
So I decided to invert the format and choose the books that have built my life in literature. It’s quite a conventional list, but then I’ve had quite a conventional life.
I’d love to hear other people’s choices, too – do make suggestions for your Desert Island Books in the comments section.
Book 1: Five on a Treasure Island, Enid Blyton. The adventures of the five were probably the first books I read for pure pleasure, rather than while learning to read. I’d been given a stack of them by an older cousin. Red linen covers, chunky paper, and a world where adults barely existed, camping was de rigour and girls could call themselves George. I waited anxiously for my ninth birthday, having noted that Ann (the youngest) was nine when they had their first adventure. I firmly expected the same to happen to me.
Book 2: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Another tomboy heroine – and one who wrote. Jo March was my first prompt to pick up a pencil and start writing my own stories. My copy was my mother’s, bound in blue leather with gold lettering. It had such a distinctive smell that I took it away on holiday, instead of a teddy bear, to remind me of home. Little Women is my first memory of weeping over a book – I cried so hard over poor angelic Beth that my father said I should stop reading it. I’ve been over-identifying with literature ever since.
Book 3: The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. A level English, and what seemed at first to be a completely impenetrable book written in a foreign language. Fortunately, our teacher selected The Wife of Bath’s prologue and The Millers’ Tale for our introduction. Once I’d figured out that speaking the words aloud can unlock the language (especially if you have some schoolgirl German), I was away, revelling in the bawdy, energetic life of the Middle Ages, fart gags and all. Many years later, the Canterbury Tales set me on the path to writing my own first novel.
Book 4: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake. These little books of little poems had a profound impact on me at university. The simplicity of the language and the complexity of the dualistic world view they convey means I return to them time and again. Each word, each rhyme and repetition, is there for a purpose. They’re packed full of contradictions, evocations. The Songs were an introduction to the wilder woods of Blake’s prophetic books, in which I wandered and wondered for a while, before returning with relief to these gems.
Book 5: The Color Purple, Alice Walker. It took a while, after university, to find my own taste, after the blitzkrieg survey of English literature I’d been through. Then I found Alice Walker’s searing novel of the American south. It was a lot of things I thought I didn’t like (epistolary, dialect, American). The strength of the voice, the restraint in what you are or are not told, showed me that different stories need different storytelling.
Book 6: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons. Comic novels have been a comfort to me on many a long, dark night, so I’ll need one for my desert island. I could have picked Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, or Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, or any of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, to buck up my spirits while wild beasts circled. But Cold Comfort Farm would reassure me that, no matter what the challenges, a girl with her wits about her can soon make everything neat and comfortable.
Book 7: Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Dickens is the quintessential London novelist of the Victorian period, conjuring up the fogs swirling the riverside like no-one else. A few years ago I began re-reading Dickens and filling in the gaps of those I’d missed, and found myself utterly absorbed in this menacing thriller. Dickens’ vivid characters and deep knowledge of the city would have me treading London streets in my mind, while the desert island waters lapped at my bare feet.
Book 8: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Every so often, a new book comes along that changes everything. I found Wolf Hall astonishing. The complete evocation of an unfamiliar world, the up-ending of everything you thought you know about the Tudors, the steely focus on one, utterly-believable point of view. Mantel’s book makes every historical novel before it seem about as authentic as a costumed re-enactment at a National Trust castle.
Record: Iestyn Davies singing Henry Purcell’s Sound The Trumpet.
Luxury: Radio 4. Told you I was conventional.