Books: a book that changed me

IAN BOSTRIDGE on Keith Thomas's 'Religion and the Decline of Magic'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? The summer before my A levels on a cross-channel ferry and a series of crowded European trains.

Why did it strike you so much? I'd never read history like it before. It was as readable and humane as a novel, full of humour and anecdote and compassion for the people whose lives it described. But it also had a gripping intellectual argument. It changed our notion of the mental life of 16th and 17th-century people by getting us to take their beliefs seriously and to see things through their eyes. Unlike many academic tomes, it is written with the reader's enjoyment in mind.

What effect did it have on your life? It meant I spent 10 years in Oxford trying to be a historian, and eventually published a book called Witchcraft and its Transformations, which is basically a footnote to Keith Thomas. Having changed career and become a singer, I've realised that Thomas taught me a lot of things which are still relevant to me in what I do now - about imaginative empathy with the past, and about how important it is not to bore your audience. I've also realised that the professional conditions which made it possible for Religion and the Decline of Magic to come into being are a thing of the past. These days up-and-coming academics are so pressurised by quotas and targets that they end up publishing reams of undigested research before they're able to form the sort of deep and subtle overview Thomas achieves. First published in 1971, his book is a product of the vanished golden age of post-war British academe.

Have you re-read it? Several times. At first I read it for the stories it told, then it became more of a resource for my own research as a historian. Now that I've left academia, I'm looking forward to re-reading it again for pleasure.

Do you recommend it or is it a private passion? I'd definitely recommend it. Even people who usually prefer to read novels or biographies will enjoy it. Although it's best read cover-to-cover, it's so full of self- contained anecdotes and curiosities that it's also the sort of book you can dip in and out of.

! Ian Bostridge's recording of Schumann songs, settings of texts by Heinrich Heine, has just been released by EMI Classics.