How to Write Like Tolstoy by Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen’s 2016 book acted as a tonic to me. It didn’t make me more Russian, but it fired up my imagination. I have never annotated a book so fiercely. I scribbled most of a short story on the blank pages at the back, and on those at the front began my long-contemplated Dullest Novel of the Nineteenth Century. I recommend this book to any writer, whether she is making a tentative beginning or reeling under the weight of her own words.
The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica by Stephen J Pyne
It was published in 1986 and for me was an extraordinary eye-opener: at the same time, geology, physics, intensely poetic prose in its descriptive passages, and a rich history of a place wrongly assumed to have none. It is in its way a perfect book and a trailblazer in environmental writing, and turned me towards the kind of research and writing that eventually produced Landscape and Memory.
‘Quarantine’ by Eavan Boland
“In the worst hour of the worst season / of the worst year of a whole people / a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.” I don’t know where I was when I read Eavan Boland’s poem “Quarantine”, but its first line stayed with me. Of course I didn’t anticipate that a pandemic would come along to give fresh resonance to a poem set during the Irish famine. But thanks to Boland, whom I began reading in university and who died in April, the lives and experiences of individuals often erased from history took centre stage. Mothers, grandmothers and young girls appeared, often in small moments. Boland rendered their voices and characters so vividly that I found them achingly familiar. What some labelled the “domestic” side of life, Boland made clear was simply life. She used her writing to convey the inherent dignity of individuals – especially those denied it in daily life.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is one of the finest memoirs I’ve ever read, with the best title ever. It introduced to me to worlds I had engaged with but understood only inadequately. To address matters of sexual orientation and religious bigotry with such humanity and generosity of spirit caused me to revisit my own prejudices. Nothing is ever only quite what it seems. Like no other, this book helped me discover a different voice of my own as I wrote East West Street. I feel eternal gratitude.
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
When I was young, I studied Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas Bertram was absent in Antigua, but I remember feeling something more than the patriarch was missing. Underneath Austen’s pages was another novel, which might, once and for all, explain to me the roots of such English wealth and power and give me more than a weak echo of the colony, this tropical state of mind. About a decade later, I found The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, and my other education began. Set on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the 18th century, and seen through the eyes of those who were forced to serve it, it is one of the most expanding, lyrical, relevant novels I will ever read.
The Argos catalogue
I know how ludicrous this seems, but context is everything. We were kids in Nigeria, my father had just returned from his overseas work travels. My sisters and I raided his luggage and found no toys, but discovered an Argos catalogue. We had seen nothing like it before; there were no such stores in Lagos. We were fascinated that there was a book of things that you could buy, and that you could buy everything from one shop. We turned to the toy section and found some items marked, which was proof Dad had been thinking of us. The thought did count, and buoyed by this, my sisters and I began imagining, then playing out, skirmishes where we recruited toys to form fearless imaginary armies with which we waged war against each other. This involved three solid hours of intense battle strategy, the suspension of belief and the power of imagination. We attached narratives to those static images, and it is all I have done ever since.
Your Baby & Child by Penelope Leach
I’m thinking of another moment when it seemed I might never make it out of the house again. Cornwall, a cottage in a dark hollow surrounded by woods in the hugger-mugger days following the birth of my first son, our horizon hidden behind fat dark rain clouds, November, mud, puddles, bitter winds. The book that promised wider horizons then was Penelope Leach’s Your Baby & Child. Hers is such a sensible, reassuring, anti-consumerist voice (no need to buy special things, make toys from rubbish) and includes the best advice I’ve ever been given, which is to train your child as early as possible to relish apple and cheese because then you are free to go anywhere without fuss. I’m in lockdown with that son and his wife and their baby and now I dream of the day that my granddaughter and I can safely set out on an adventure with our apple and cheese.
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
I have devoted my life to the study of poor people and how they live their lives. Two books that I read roughly at the same time, although they were written at different times, have deeply affected my perspective. Beginning in 1990, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent 10 years immersed in the life of an extended clan (the “random” family in the title refers to the set of connections people form with friends, boyfriends, relatives) in the Bronx, New York. LeBlanc writes about the lives of a cast of interconnected characters, giving them a depth and a sense of tragedy that makes one think of the rich world of Balzac’s sprawling novels. Katherine Boo writes about lives in a slum of Bombay, hidden from the traveller on the airport highway by advertising billboards. There again, the main characters live complicated and rewarding lives full of agency and autonomy, but also constrained by political and economic structures. My own work relies on data, rather than the particulars of any one destiny, but I try to put respect and dignity at the centre of what I do. Reading these books was like seeing my work in a mirror, starting with the individual to reflect on the general. It also taught me the deep power of empathy, something that I have tried to keep with me ever since.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
I have read a lot during this period of being by myself in Washington DC, including The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which I had picked up at an airport but hadn’t got around to reading. It really helped me put the privations of Covid lockdown into context. I suspect if I’d read it when it first came out I would have been moved by the terribleness and evil of the setting, but the story is really about the indomitable nature of the human spirit, how even in the worst of human circumstances there is space for compassion and a sliver of hope. I’m not sure this novel broadened my horizons but as I faced another day and another night without speaking to another human in the flesh, as I felt cut adrift from my family and anxious about what was next, this book nudged me to remember how lucky I am.
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues opened my eyes to the way I thought about pain, to the understanding that my own pain was microscopic in the grand scheme. Of course that’s “self-absorption 101”, but it was early in life when I read Ginzburg and I felt my brain expand under her quiet wisdom. I remembered only the wholeness of the book, the masterpiece of it; it wasn’t until I read it again, this time as a wife and a mother, that I noticed the tiny and giant eviscerations. There is a passage that begins: “My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli … Faced with the horror of his solitary death … I ask myself if this happened to us – to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow.” If you read it again and again, and then read the joyful works that predated that horror, which made the horror all the more horrific, you might hear her say, as I do, that life is neck-breakingly cold and sometimes that’s what also makes it beautiful. And you might feel, as I do, that Ginzburg is one of the best writers who ever lived, who also died while she was living.
Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies by bell hooks
I discovered bell hooks by accident in my 30s while I was studying for an MA in screenwriting. She challenged the way I performed an “ethnic hop” to submerge myself in mainstream culture. I loved 80s films such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, but to identify with those characters I had to pretend to be white. (A black kid as a jock or princess? That’s a whole different film.) Romcoms told me that black girls like me couldn’t be romantic leads. Our highest aspiration should be “sassy sidekick”. (Or the underwritten fourth bloke in Ghostbusters.) Hooks taught me that my perspective is valid, and that authentic and nuanced representation is essential.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
I read this as an A-level student and it blew me away. It’s incredible that the issues raised in a book 160 years old are directly relevant to how we deal with the most pressing issues of our time, including Covid-19.
Ancient Greek Myths and Legends (1979)
My childhood copy was illustrated with often erotic ancient pottery scenes, frescoes and bas reliefs, and translated into Bulgarian from an earlier Soviet edition by Nikolai Kun, published in Moscow in 1957. The images of Chiron the centaur and his pupil Odysseus, or the purposeful winged Harpies, are burned into me. It has fallen apart at the spine but lost none of its power. I still open it at random and ride the waves of these earliest human narratives that already contain all of literature.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
This is the book that sparked a thousand and one new fires under me and made me rethink the struggle for women’s equality in a new light. Steinem has never shied away from lifting up the stories of women whose differences to her own privileged position in life have meant reconfiguring the fight for equality. This book, at its core, is a deeply personal and beautiful tribute to them. It traverses the long, uneven road Steinem has taken to keep women’s issues at the forefront of political thinking, and makes it clear that this is a road built by many hands, belonging to women whose names aren’t in the history books or in any halls of fame, but who deserve to be known about and honoured. A signed copy (bought minutes after hearing her speak in 2016) sits proudly on my shelf, ready to remind me that horizons are there to be shifted, and are being shifted for the better.
The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 by Lawrence Stone
I’ve loved history since I was a child, but it wasn’t until quite late in my undergraduate education that I decided I wanted to make the study of it my profession. This was the book that opened the door to that path. It was a complete revelation to me. Until that time, I hadn’t truly appreciated that social history, or the examination of the experience of everyday life, was a legitimate area of investigation. Stone’s work addressed so many of my basic questions about the fundamentals of life in the early modern period; everything from how men and women perceived themselves and others, to what they thought of their bodies, and how they experienced love or loss. I was astounded by this. Ultimately, it set light to my passion for human-centric micro-history.
Leviathan by Paul Auster
I suppose I should pick a book by Darwin, whose words have defined my professional adulthood. Or something from science fiction or comics that taught me to poke, prod and test the universe – Alan Moore, Stan Lee or Kurt Vonnegut. But Paul Auster’s Leviathan cracked the world open for me. It is the tale of lived lives, friendships and love, all carved out of a meander through cosmic happenstance, randomness and failure, and the elusive nature of truth. It is the telling of these stories that is important, more than the story itself, and to me, these are all ideas that are the bedrock of science, and of exploration. It also taught me the singular importance of first lines: “Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin … ” The only question is “why?”
The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams
I’ve loved cave paintings since I was a child, but this enthralling book transformed my ideas about the stone age. Lewis-Williams envisages ancient shamans entering the deepest, most inaccessible caves in order to interact with the spirits. He suggests that they may have perceived the cave walls as a kind of membrane between their world and the spirits, and thus created their paintings as a means of propitiating them. An eminent anthropologist, he is also a terrific writer, and when the book came out in 2002 I devoured it in one go. A year later, I started writing Wolf Brother.
Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano
In the mid 1980s when magic realism was having its day, I came across the work of Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan writer who blended history and myth in a way that tilted towards the real. He was like a more grounded Márquez, you could say, and there were hints of John Berger in there too. His Memory of Fire Trilogy (1982-86) is a mosaic of tiny stories from Latin American history. Each vignette is lyrical and clear, and the result is a genre-defying work of art. If a book is a world, then the world these books contain is both detailed and vast. It made me long to travel in a way that, I later realised, is not actually possible. When you travel you see only what is on view, and although this can be charming, it does not change you. With a writer like Galeano, you are not a tourist or an outsider, you are a kind of participant. I felt, after I had read them, that the world was a larger place than I could ever know.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I first read it in secondary school sixth form. I was a teen of the 90s, into wearing Levis 501s and desperately trying to fit in. Written in 1931, the book was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Set in 2540, it is about a society in which mindless consumption is actively encouraged. Children are taught from an early age “riches not stitches”: throw things away and buy more to pump money into the system. It is a world in which people are manipulated. I went on to do a dissertation on consumerism and “want creation” as part of my economics degree and purchased fewer 501s. Further down the line still, I purchase nearly nothing except food.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
Ever the naive romantic, I hope every book will change my thinking, but there are occasional gamechangers. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads knocked me sideways. Reading it was a humbling experience that revealed the vast, gaping crevasse of my ignorance. As a public historian, I thought I was doing a good job of moving the conversation beyond just the Nazis and Tudors, but I suddenly realised I’d barely covered two-thirds of the planet. Since reading it, I’ve pushed to include more global history in my podcasts, books, radio programmes and in the Horrible Histories TV series. And if I get nervous pushback about whether there’s an appetite for unfamiliar stories, I point to Frankopan’s 2m book sales.
The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig
This book was read aloud to me by my teacher when I was about 10 years old. It’s about Esther Rudomin, who was transported from Poland to a labour camp in Siberia by the Russian regime in 1941, along with her family, for being “capitalists”. Esther’s story really resonated because she was 10 years old just like me, but she went through hardships and trials that were unimaginable to a little girl growing up, as I was, in comfortable peacetime London. Books read aloud to you by an adult live with you all your life, as this book has with me.
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