Friday 30 May 2014


'High Fidelity for bookworms' The Telegraph
The next Books That Built Me Salon will be on 1st July at 18.30 with Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously.  

Infinitely more than 'High Fidelity for bookworms', catchy as that Telegraph pull-quote is, The Year of Reading Dangerously is an irreverent, witty and inspiring memoir in which Andy Miller, editor, writer and former bookseller, sets out to read the books he's claimed to have read, but never has. He prescribes himself a 'List of Betterment' of thirteen books, which soon swells to fifty-two, and creates a heroically methodical approach to getting through them - fifty pages a day, one word in front of the other, a sensible discipline designed to get one to the end of books which are far from readerly - Beckett's The Unnameables, The Communist Manifesto, The Ragged Trousered Philanthopists - as well as those which have a more conventional narrative pull - Anna Karenin, Middlemarch, for example. 

What I love about The Year of Reading Dangerously is that it's a thoughtful, engaging meditation on the nourishing pleasures of really great books, yet it's no Leavisite canon. It's true that what we might call classics form the backbone of the List of Betterment, but Miller's reading is eclectic and unashamedly no-brow: he explores Tolstoy and Austen in the same breath as Judith Kerr and Douglas Adams, and, in one of the book's triumphant set-pieces, there's a deftly written and vastly entertaining comparative reading of Moby Dick and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code

The sub-title of The Year of Reading Dangerously is 'how fifty great books saved my life': one might argue that 'life-saving' is going a little far, but it's certainly life-changing: contained in its three hundred or so pages is its own complex and powerful theory of bibliotherapy. Good books come with the promise of metamorphosis, but in A Year of Reading Dangerously, it's not only books that have the power to change one, but the action of reading itself that effects the transformation. 

Inspired by The Year of Reading Dangerously, I've begun Anna Karenin, one of the many books whose presence on my bookshelf implies, quite wrongly, that I've read it already. Three days and one hundred and fifty pages in (see, sticking to the formula works), I'm already in thrall to what Miller describes as a book with "the perfect balance of art and entertainment - no, not a balance, a union of the two". For prompting me to read this extraordinary book, and his own, I'm very much looking forward to discussing with Andy Miller the Books That Built him. 

The Books That Built Me. 1st July, 18.30 to 20.30 at The Club at Café Royal. Tickets include a pre-event cocktail reception, a signed copy of the hardback edition, a copy of Harper's Bazaar and a Penhaligon's gift. 


By way of an addendum, I must confess that I have been at various points in my life an incorrigible liar about the books that I've read - I even wrote several excellent essays at university on books with which I had a less than intimate relationship, armed only with the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and a cursory flick through the first and last hundred pages. I'm no slouch when it comes to reading, but I have managed to convince myself, and others, that I have read more widely than I have: here are a few I'll readily admit to (yes, yes I know, great works of fiction in Playmobil - I was once bored in charge of  a tiny Trefusis Minor and these tableaux were the result)....

I've read the first fifty pages of the first book of A La Récherche du Temps Perdu, yet I can talk very intensely and, I feel, convincingly, about hawthorn, madeleines, memory, the kiss not given, Odette, Baron du Charlus etc etc. Here is Proust reading a copy of his own book and eating a giant madeleine in his famous cork-lined room.
Paradise Lost. Despite Milton being the subject of one of my greatest friend's books (Milton's Angels by Professor Joad Raymond), I've read the good bit with Satan in it and that's it. Do I need to read it? Probably. Am I dogged by guilt about not having read it? Definitely.

Julius Caesar. I can quote quite a lot of it. Not sure I feel I must read, rather than watch, Shakespeare, but you know, Et tu, Brute.....

Actually, I jolly well have read Beowulf. I've read it on several occasions and in several translations - the one to read is the blissful Seamus Heaney, rich and delicious with Heaney's ear for cadence and his love of the  'word hoard'.

Saturday 24 May 2014


Last Thursday evening, in the elegant setting of The Club at Café Royal, I played literary hostess to Sarah Churchwell, author of Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, in the first of a series of salons called  The Books That Built Me.

The Books That Built Me is an idea borne of the belief that inside every book-lover is a memory-palace full of stories – tales of enchanted princesses and magical beasts, of smugglers, spies and buried treasure, stepmothers and boarding schools, something nasty in the woodshed, loves lost and found, vanquished enemies – perpetual summer holidays in other people’s imaginations. None of us is the book we’ve just read, we’re the sum of all the novels in our lives – the books that built us.

In a sense, that's is the inspiration for The Books That Built Me, but its catalyst was something I read in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography, Slipstream. She reminded me it’s not only readers who are built of books, but authors. Howard was, by virtue of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, stepmother to a teenage Martin Amis, who apparently read nothing but comics, Harold Robbins and ‘the dirty bits in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He's about sixteen, I think, when she asks him what he wants to do when he’s older. ‘I'm going to be a writer, Jane’ he says. Howard stares at him, askance,

" ‘You – a writer? But you’ve never read anything. If you’re so interested in writing, why don’t you read? He looked at me and said ‘give me a book to read then.’ And I gave him Pride and Prejudice. " 

Howard goes onto give him a reading list that adds Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Waugh, Green and Golding to Austen, and these are the books that built Amis into the author he aspired to be. 

So the purpose of The Books that Built Me is to bring to life a writer’s reading list, not an exhaustive one, but a sample of the books that have stayed with them, comforted or nourished them or informed them as a writer.  It's also a literary desert island discs, or as Sarah Churchwell put it so beautifully, 'how the books you love meet the books you write'.

The Club at Café Royal is an exceptionally chic and appropriate place in which to host a literary salon - the Café Royal’s reputation could be said to have been built on books, counting many literary greats as frequent visitors, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf amongst them. Virginia Woolf links the Café Royal to Harper’s Bazaar, for whose support I’m very grateful – Woolf wrote a number of short stories for Bazaar, never published outside the pages of the magazine until after her death. I’d also like to thank Penhaligons for scenting the room with their Juniper Sling, in homage to F Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite tipple, The Gin Rickey, and to Prestat for the delicious 'Art Deco' chocolate in the goody-bags, and to Carat* for lending me diamonds so I could feel properly swanky when up on stage.

The Club at Café Royal created a delicious Careless People cocktail for the evening -  a beautiful, jewel-coloured blend of vodka, plum sake, pomegranate juice and fresh lime juice, served in a cocktail coupe with a curl of orange zest: 'suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform....The party has begun'. 
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, quoted in Careless People in a chapter that so glitters with detail you step straight through a magic door into one of the real jazz-age parties that inspired those in Gatsby.

The Club at Café Royal is ordinarily only open to members. For enquiries please email or telephone +44(0)207 406 3370

The Books That Built Sarah Churchwell
1.F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: subject of Careless People, her 'histoire trouvé'. Gatsby is, she tells us, the book that 'taught her how to read as a writer', a 'litmus test'
2.Andrew Lang's Fairy Books: Andrew Lang's fairy books are a compendium of every familiar and unfamiliar fairy story. 
3.Georgette Heyer, The Grand Sophy: screwball comedy meets Jane Austen. 
4. Willa Cather, My Antonia.
5. Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises (with a nod to Eliot along the way, not so much for his being one of Sarah's desert island books, but because like Cather, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Eliot is another extraordinary writer that bubbled from the literary wellspring of the American Midwest: I'd add Sarah Churchwell to that list. Interestingly, Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald all, like Sarah, migrated to Europe - only as expatriates were they able to write so eloquently about America. 
6. Careless People - the book, which as Harper's Bazaar wrote, 'will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about The Great Gatsby.' It's an exhilarating read and a stunning piece of scholarship, a unique literary biography which reconstructs in exquisite detail the year in which Fitzgerald set his finest novel. 

Careless People, Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of the Great Gatsby is published by Virago.
Follow Sarah Churchwell on twitter @sarahchurchwell - she is giving the London Library Lecture at the Hay Literary Festival on The American Dream - do go.

The next Books That Built Me will be on Tuesday 1st July. Details will be published next Wednesday, 28th May.