In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now.
Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?
One is the journalism of Neal Ascherson in The Observer in the 1980s. His columns – about the Polish August and the rise of the Scottish home rule movement, especially – were always about people rather than events. Every story was a human story. Just as important, his columns were beautifully written. They had elegance and clarity.
The second might seem a bit strange for a hard-bitten hack, but it is the experience of reading and writing poetry when I was at school and university. It taught me how to be picky about choosing the right word, and to be brutal about excising words that were superfluous. It showed me how a place, or an emotion, or an event, could be brought to life with a line of words.
Comfort reading is Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Norman MacCaig.
What reading do you choose for a long journey?
For a long journey I like a short book. There is something deeply pleasing about turning to page one as the train is pulling out of the station or the cabin crew are going through the safety drill, and to read the final page just before it’s time to collect your bags.
Your choice of ‘Oh lord I’m bored’ reading?
My ‘oh Lord, I’m bored’ reading is primarily Twitter. There is always something to divert/interest/amuse/outrage you on Twitter. It never lets you down. Alternatively, the magazines from the weekend editions of The Times and The Guardian. I am so old, I still refer to these as ‘the colour supplements’.
I need to name names here. It was a book by poet and critic Robert Crawford, called On Glasgow and Edinburgh. From the blurb I took it to be an examination of the rivalry between Scotland’s two great cities, highlighting their contrasts, through an examination of their history and culture, heavy on anecdotes and full of insight. A great subject.
I’d saved it up for a summer holiday and was really looking forward to it, because I admire Crawford as a poet and an academic. Disappointment came as early as the first few pages, in which he made clear he would largely be ignoring popular culture, sport, music, food, folk music and most contemporary history. It would instead lean heavily on obscure literary journals of centuries past. Bummer.
I think I’ve had the same experience with a Crawford book: he needs a tough editor. And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?
One of those wee, small-format books you buy at the till in a bookshop as a whim purchase while paying for something else. Published by Faber, it’s a short story by Lorrie Moore called How To Become A Writer. Slight, funny, clever and unexpectedly moving.
If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.
Next week: Wendy Bryant, senior lecturer in occupational therapy, and artist