I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes… I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.
First things first: I don’t read enough fiction. It’s not that I don’t try. I do, I really do. Disregarding Christopher Hitchens’ witty riposte to the old adage that everyone has a book inside them (actually said by Hitchens in relation to autobiographies and memoirs, it seems), I am not immune to the urge to write fiction: it is the middle-of-the-back itch that remains unscratched. So I know that I really ought to be immersing myself in the form. After all, isn’t the experts’ advice always the same: read, read and read some more?
Besides, who needs a reason to pick up a novel? I love words. I am in awe of skilful writing, regardless of genre. I enjoy a good story well told, and I delight in piecing together well-crafted, meandering, multi-layered plots. And yet, for all my good intentions, a familiar pattern invariably repeats, like a Newtonian law of reading: barely have I negotiated the opening chapters of a novel before the gravitational pull of non-fiction, usually something historical, political and/or biographical, becomes irresistible.
I hold learned and literary types in ridiculously high esteem, if for no other reason than their assumed ability to handle the question: what should I read next? An adjustment to my work-life balance two years ago created significant additional reading time: a wonderful opportunity but also a source of frustration, as bookish retirees the world over have doubtless discovered. So many intriguing literary avenues along which to wander for the first time; so many interesting new titles to explore, even down the relatively well-trodden paths of modern and contemporary history.
At the same time, there are books upon books shouting out to be re-read. Perhaps I didn’t really appreciate or grasp them first time around. Maybe they are just so bloody good. They are here now, sitting impatiently on the shelves around me, vying for my attention. I am, for good or ill, a relatively slow reader, so these classics from my younger days come with an opportunity cost attached: each one is a significant investment in time, to be read at the expense of something perhaps equally worthy. The list is long and getting longer as time passes: to pick a random selection, Volume III of Bullock’s biography of Ernie Bevin (900 pages), Bullock’s earlier biography of Hitler (800 pages), Michael Foot’s two-volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1100 pages) and Kenneth O Morgan’s history of the Attlee government (a mere 500 pages). I have succumbed to the bibliophile’s curse: the terrifying realisation that there will actually never be enough time to finish the ‘to do’ list.
A word about my reading habits. I read every day and usually have three texts (one of which is the daily newspaper) on the go. The ‘classic’ slot kick-starts a typical day, the theory being that my mind is at its freshest first thing in the morning. Hatched as a way of negotiating War and Peace, the plan was then to tackle Dickens in chronological order, having been drawn in by David Copperfield. However, after The Pickwick Papers I was immediately sidetracked by Tess of the D’Urbervilles (terrific) and The Rainbow (a real struggle). Now this pre-breakfast window is used for anything I consider too intense or ‘high-brow’ to be my main read of the day. For the last three months, I have been working through Leszek Kolakowski’s three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. My ‘main’ read — picked up at various points of the day — alternates between non-fiction and fiction, probably on something like a — crikey — 5:1 ratio.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading fiction, popular as well as so-called ‘middle-brow’. Opening Stephen King’s 11. 22. 63 was like being transported back (sorry) to my teenage years, lapping up King classics such as Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot for the first time. Gripping, all of them – or so it felt to my fourteen-year-old self. To experience the frisson that comes with not wanting to put a book down — rushing home from wherever, desperate to discover what happens next, recklessly staying up late to devour another chapter. To suffer the exquisite torture of reading a book that is almost literally unputdownable, at once exciting and excruciating. It’s the best kind of legal high, recommended for young and old alike.
It was the horror genre that weaned me away from football and music magazines and hooked me instead on reading books for pleasure. Back in the late ‘70s, virtually all horror films were certified ‘X’ (re-labelled as ‘18’ in 1982). This was before home video so, as a teenager, they were off-limits at the cinema. But no such restriction existed on books; the horror section of Wigan’s main bookshop quickly became a regular stop-off during Saturday-afternoon trawls of the town’s record shops. Stephen King was an early favourite, though I eventually tired of his formulaic writing style, as were James Herbert and even Dennis Wheatley from a different era. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist scared the shit out of me. Impossible to see at the cinema, of course, but nobody even lifted a disapproving eyebrow at the bookshop. Speaking of Wheatley, black magic films, as opposed to gory horror, were more likely to be shown on television. I consider The Devil Rides Out as the acme, Christopher Lee as the noble white knight playing wonderfully against type.
And so to The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Why this particular book — and why now?
Cover quotes from The Independent and The Observer, plus the accompanying back-page blurb, did their job in piquing my interest, though references to The Da Vinci Code were mildly off-putting and any combination of words — usually involving ‘effortlessly’ or ‘seamlessly’ — about weaving together past and present must qualify as a cliché by now. Anyway, Kate Mosse has since set the back-and-forth-in-time bar dizzyingly high with Labyrinth. The Rule of Four has a modern-day Princeton University setting but links back to Renaissance Italy.
Although modern history has always been my passion, I have strayed with increasing confidence over recent years from the familiar world of twentieth-century politics. Well-researched historical fiction is an accessible and enticing way into other historical worlds and, if the writing itch is ever scratched, my novel will likely be — at least in part — historical. As an aside, Jim Naughtie’s recent Meet the Author interview with Alison Weir was illuminating. An acclaimed (Tudor) historian who inhabits both writing worlds — fiction and non-fiction — it was fascinating to hear her discuss the different disciplines and methodologies involved.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies hold my attention far better than a David Starkey tome, though this may merely reflect my low opinion of acerbic, odious, right-wing historians. The depictions of nineteenth-century England in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Essex Serpent are enchanting. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s One Night in Winter (set in the Soviet Union) stands out, as does more or less everything — past or present — by Robert Harris. There’s Sebastian Faulks, of course. Human Traces may well be my favourite novel: dense, complex and challenging, it perfectly captures the intellectual temper of the times. I also have a particular penchant for time-travel stories, whatever the medium: Stephen Fry’s Making History and Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again are bona fide page-turners.
Having first engaged with John Le Carré aged seventeen via Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am drawn to the puzzles, politics and moral ambiguities of the espionage world. The plot of The Rule of Four revolves around a historical mystery – more precisely, a secret hidden within an arcane Renaissance text. Mainstream television usually leaves me cold but I make time for well-written mysteries and detective dramas – the likes of Inspector Morse (plus sequel and prequel), Poirot and Jonathan Creek. The recent Maigret reboot on ITV, with Rowan Atkinson as the title character, is terrific. Lucy Mangan in The Guardian dismissed the pilot as plodding and wooden (‘leaden’, to be precise), but I found it to be deliciously dark and broody.
I am also a Holmesian of sorts. Watching re-runs of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes a couple of years ago found me reaching again for my dog-eared collection of the original Conan Doyle stories. The Name of the Rose is another satisfyingly dense and intricate novel (complete with a sprinkling of Sherlock Holmes references) that thoroughly merits a re-read. Umberto Eco was, of course, a polymath — an expert in semiotics and aesthetics as well as medieval history and much else besides. In other words, a learned and literary type. My kind of writer.
And so, back to Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset. I am currently on page 204. What’s next on the ‘to do’ list, I wonder…