My happiest memory of that first library is spending hours sitting cross-legged in the corner of the children’s section reading all of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Each volume is a different colour – Green, Blue, Crimson etc – and the editions I read were illustrated. I didn’t know they were classics but nearly all the stories were brand new to me and I was spell-bound.
Liz: I did grow up in a book-loving household, with books all over the place, books the main thing I bought with my own money, and books bought for me. I was read to, and I remember the excitement of going through Arthur Ransome’s We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea with my Dad. As for a favourite childhood book, this is a bit difficult, because I’m a great one for re-reading childhood favourites, so it’s hard to differentiate between my favourite books then and now. I loved the E. Nesbit books, and the Noel Streatfeilds, and had a huge passion for pony books. I would guess that maybe The Secret Garden is the book I remember loving as a child and still loving now.
Liz: I read The Hobbit aged 7, because I was a precocious and advanced reader, but I recall not really getting much out of it. May I skip forward to the age of 14, when I was introduced to a whole slew of new authors by a dear neighbour, who was an outpost of socialist feminism in a sea of Tory reactionary village life? She got me into Virago books, Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns, and especially Iris Murdoch. Although I was working my way around the adult section of our TINY village library by then, doing Agatha Christie and Patrick Moore’s sci fi and the James Bond and Georgette Heyer books from my school library, when I read Murdoch’s A Severed Head in my mid-teens, I remember feeling VERY grown-up and sophisticated, even though, as a rather sheltered only child attending a girls’ Grammar School, I have no idea what I would have actually made of it and whether I’d have understood much of it!
The tales crackle with sarcasm and subversion to the point where Terry Jones has even made a case in Who Murdered Chaucer? for the poet’s mysterious disappearance in 1400 (no grave, no official mention of his death, no family story about it) being down to his dangerous use of commoners’ English instead of courtly French and critical portrayal of religious characters like the nun and the pardoner. The tales are vibrant, earthy and foreign and they’re great fun to read aloud. They also switched my interests from formal monarchy-led history to social history. I now have a bookcase entirely filled with non-fiction history books but very few of them are about kings or queens and that’s largely down to Chaucer!
Liz: I discovered a good set of writers in my 20s and 30s – Larry McMurtry, Anne Tyler, Jill McCorkle, Douglas Coupland, and got into a great habit of picking up every new book they wrote, which has seen me through. I especially like Anne Tyler’s A Slipping-Down Life. I suspect that reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth when it came out in the single-volume paperback, which must have been in about 1997 when I was 25, sealed my love of books set on the Indian sub-continent.
Alex: I came to book blogging nine years ago because my personal blog was being overtaken by bookish thoughts. Book blogging in 2004 was an odd thing to be doing and the few of us that were doing it were truly isolated. Watching a book blogging ‘community’ form and then fragment over the years has been fascinating and being part of it has definitely affected my reading. Without book blogging I suspect I’d have lost my childhood enthusiasm for diverse reading and the happy confidence to try just about anything. Without my favourite bloggers’ recommendations I would have missed so many quirky, niche or older books and my reading life would have been much poorer for it.
2012 was a great reading year for me but The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was my favourite book by far. I’d read it in my teens but got much more out of the re-read. It breaks so many literary rules – the main characters don’t show up till halfway through the book, the heroes aren’t actually good people, it’s crazy and cruel… yet it is funny and provocative and just about perfect.
Liz: A favourite author I have discovered in the last few years is Dorothy Whipple, via, of course, the Persephone books imprint. I can’t pick a favourite, but knowing I have Persephone in general and Whipple in particular in my life gives me great joy and comfort.
How did I come to blogging? Well, I’ve been keeping a reading journal in notebooks since 1997, and in August 2005, I decided to put my book reviews onto my new LiveJournal blog – I didn’t really want to blog just about my personal life, and I liked sharing my book reviews. I started my second WordPress blog in November 2011 in order to record my transfer from employment to full-time self-employment, and my book reviews snuck onto there as I transformed it into a blog about my life as a self-employed person, including having time to read (at last, after a couple of sticky years where my reading totals went WAY down). Reading is one of my comforts and keeps me sane, and it was important to me to build that up again, and I started putting my book reviews on this blog, finally bringing my LJ archive through earlier this year.
Blogging hasn’t changed my reading habits, but book review blogging has changed my book review blogging habits (still with me?) as I discovered a few months ago that I was dissatisfied with my short reviews, and decided to review two books at a time in a longer review format, rather than three or four snapshots. I’ve really enjoyed doing this, and my readers have appreciated the new format, too. Amusingly, I thought that blogging about and posting a picture of my current State of the TBR every month, and confessing when I bought new books, would rein my book buying habits in a bit. Nope!
Alex: I don’t really have guilty pleasures! I’m going to pick No Logo by Naomi Klein. Published in 1999 it details how much power the major brands have – in sweat shops and McJobs, in media and lobbying various governments. It quickly became the bible of the culture jamming and anti-globalisation movements and remains one of my favourite social history/political books. I think it’s also one of the first non-IT books I read that cited websites. I don’t often write about my politics so perhaps the fact that I strongly believe in actively avoiding multinational companies and supporting local ones instead, am about to give up my TV for good and have NEVER eaten anything from a McDonalds will surprise people.
Liz: I surprised someone just the other day by having a Jilly Cooper book or two on the bookshelf. Not a guilty pleasure – I like a well-written (and that’s the key – Cooper has awful puns but writes well, Binchy and Keyes catch the nuances of Irish English beautifully) lighter novel, so Cooper, Maeve Binchy (A Scarlet Feather) and Marian Keyes have a happy place on my bookshelves among the Murdochs and Viragoes. I do like a cosy mystery, too, preferably set in the world of quilting or knitting. I don’t count these as a guilty pleasure, either, as they still rank higher than a trashy mag or rubbishy TV programme in my estimation! Another massive passion which many people don’t know about is for mountaineering, sailing and Polar exploration books – such as Tim Moore’s Frost on my Moustache – I am not known for my physical prowess or for venturing far from home, but these are a love that has sustained me from late childhood onwards.
Liz on Alex’s choices: A fairly serious person with an interest in myth and legend, who possibly had a humanities-based education and has been influenced politically by their reading. They like to keep up to date with current themes in sociology and politics and read books for their basic interest rather than trendiness. They’re well-read, fairly serious, and have fairly intellectual pursuits.
Alex, on Liz’s choices: Wow, what an eclectic mix. Let me see, we have a 1911 children’s classic, a 1961 tale of adultery, incest and the sexual revolution and a 1993 monster of a novel (nearly 1500 pages!) about India’s independence and partitioning. Speculating wildly I’d say that was someone who grew up with access to conventionally ‘safe’ books for children with the Hodgson Burnett but quickly developed a taste for pushing their reading boundaries. From picking up books with very risque themes in their early teens to tackling huge tomes to enjoying discovering lost gems like Dorothy Whipple through small printing presses like Persephone Books, this is someone who likes to feel like a literary adventurer when they step into a library or a bookshop. I bet they’re good at finding quirky titles others miss. I’m not at all surprised to see mountaineering and polar exploration books as their guilty pleasure though since it seems an obvious escalation of their interest in discovery and pioneers! I’d actually love to spend some time perusing this reader’s shelves, I think I’d find a lot to challenge and delight me there.