How the books we read shape our lives

What’s the most important book you’ve ever read? The question strikes at the heart of our sense of self

Not long ago, in the course of a cross-examination by one of the music papers, the musician Florence Welch found herself faced with a question that many a celebrity, and quite a lot of ordinary people, are regularly called upon to answer: what was the most important book she had ever read? Easy, Ms Welch deposed: the first one, for it was this unnamed outlier that inspired in her the love of reading. She then produced a memory of her first day at school, on which – already blessed with the gift of literacy  – she was left unsupervised in the corner of the classroom and, nothing loath, began to work her way through every single one of the books its shelves contained.

As it happens, I have a very similar memory of my own, of being set down  at Colman Road Infants’ School, Norwich, on a September morning in 1965, and eyeing up the collection of age-appropriate literature provided for the bunch of newly-arrived first years. Here, I thought to myself, in a succession of dog-eared paperbacks, brightly coloured picture books and squat, graffiti-covered volumes with titles such as A Child’s Poetry Primer, lay the prospect of nirvana. “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more”, Morrissey famously sang (in The Smiths’ “Handsome Devil”) 20 years later – a line that had me nodding my head in fanatical agreement for already, long ago, as a child of five, I had known it to be true.

No doubt everyone who cultivates what the opinion-brokers of the early Victorian age called “a taste for literature” has more or less the same recollection of the moment when books took up residency in their mental lumber room, when the spirals of print mysteriously assumed a recognisable shape and, sometimes over an abyss extending into tens or hundreds of years, writer began to speak to reader. “He wrote this for me. He knows all about me”, George Orwell once declared, of his first experience of reading the novels of Henry Miller, and the same – mutatis mutandis – applies to the child in the school library who has just decided that Roald Dahl, or JK Rowling or some lesser-known talent light-years away from the pre-teen canon, has something to say to them than no one else, whether parent, teacher or guardian, has ever been able to articulate. 

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How do people establish they prefer one type of book to another type? (Alamy)

On the other hand, the sociological questions that lie behind what might be called the origins of the literary sensibility are a great deal less easy to answer. How do people learn to read? How do they fashion their own individual tastes? How do they establish why they prefer one type of book to another type? Where do they acquire the information that enables them to make these selections, and, having acquired it, what do they do with it? After all, there are no hard-and-fast rules about aesthetic choice and how it operates: it was Anthony Powell who, presented by an admirer of his novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time with an ornamental clock on which the names of Poussin and Proust had been engraved, truly remarked that books “have odd effects on different people”.

If these impulses are so hard to quantify, it is precisely because they are so individual, so random, so susceptible to influences that are only tangential to books and what lies inside them. When, for example, in Patrick Hamilton’s novel Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse (1952), set amid the inter-war era Home Counties mock-Tudor, the pretentious Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce is described as a “voracious” reader who devours “every popular, illustrated and hysterically laudatory book about Marie Antoinette upon which she could lay hands”, the modern reader instantly deduces that her literary interests are secondary to the badge of gentility which ownership of them supposedly confers. Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, in other words is a literary snob, in the same way as the dinner-party hosts of decades later who left copies of Birdsong and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin out on the patio for their guests to admire, or, to move a little closer to home, like yours truly, tripping through the college quadrangles with a copy of Structuralist Poetics (title outward) under his arm.

So how can we track the development of Virginia Woolf’s “Common Reader”, of the late 20th century through his, or her, serial engagements with books? What can be said about this celebrated abstraction’s tastes, aspirations, doubts and pleasures? Naturally, the task is a statistician’s nightmare, if only because it strays into areas where statistics are sometimes impossible to come by. Certainly, there are best-seller lists; there are samples of library borrowings (many fewer of these in the current climate of budget cuts); there are regular publishing-industry questionnaires; there is, at any rate, earlier in the period, the evidence of Mass Observation surveys. None of them, though, quite does justice to the overstuffed mental bookcase that most people carry around in their heads or the complex set of circumstances that arranged its contents on the shelves.

 If, to particularise, I had to name one of my own favourite books from early teendom, it would be not Tolkien, or CS Lewis, or Rosemary Sutcliffe, or any of the authors routinely pressed on middle-class children in the 1970s, but a deeply recherché – so recherché that I  have never seen another copy – item called Putting the Clock Back, in which, from the vantage point of 1938, an aged Quaker lady named Agnes Yates remembered a tough-sounding Victorian upbringing in the West Country, founded on frugal high-mindedness, humility and fear of the Lord. As for the nature of Ms Yates’s attractions, I can only put it down to the almost Gothic atmosphere of a world without the advantages of modern medicine, where children died in droves, and an air of self-abnegation, a placid acceptance of whatever it was that her creator had planned for her, which even in the 1970s seemed as detached from contemporary life as a picture hat or a jar of hundreds and thousands.

So what do we know about the Common Reader in the world before the internet, the free download and the Amazon reviewer? Naturally, the books he, or she, didn’t read are just as interesting as the books he did. The latter category, you won’t perhaps be surprised to discover, included many of the novels, biographies and collections of poems that tend to be reviewed on the books pages of national newspapers, and it has always been horribly short of new authors. The reluctance of even the most enthusiastic consumer actually to spend money on the literature of the day has had publishers wringing their hands since at least the mid-Victorian era. 

As for the Common Reader’s preferential gaze this, most of the evidence suggests, was determinedly backward-looking. Nella Last, the Carlisle housewife whose voluminous diary is a highlight of the Mass Observation project, was still enjoying Hugh Walpole and John Galsworthy in the 1950s, several decades after the critics had consigned their reputations to the dust-heap. Come the 1970s, when the smart reviewer’s money was on such hot new talents as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, the shelves of the nation’s branch libraries were still packed out with middlebrow crowd-pleasers such as RF Delderfield, AJ Cronin, Jean Plaidy and Mazo de la Roche. The Victorian “classics” still loomed large in the popular imagination, abetted by television and radio’s habit of commissioning adaptations whose appeal extended to every layer of society. The novelist Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010), born into abject East Midlands poverty, remembered his family clustering around the radio to listen to Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, terrified all the while lest it should be repossessed by the hire-purchase company whose payment schedule they had failed to maintain.

Meanwhile, there was a reading revolution going on, inaugurated, come the later 1930s, by the widespread availability of cheap paperbacks, courtesy of Sir Allen Lane and his Penguin operation. The Penguin impact may very well have been at the upper end of the market – the really big sales were racked up by mass-audience successors such as Pan and Corgi – but no enquiry into the late-20th century reading habits of the young can ignore the influence of Lane’s juvenile imprint, Puffin. As Francis Spufford has shown in The Child that Books Built, a whole generation of British children were raised on such Puffin bestsellers as Tove Jansson’s Moomin books or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of life on the 1870s US pioneer trail, and the values they indirectly preached – see the scene in Wilder’s The Long Winter, in which Pa Ingalls stops the local capitalist from profiting from the snow-bound Dakota township’s limited supply of wheat – went straight to the heart of the moral imagination.

A profound attachment to the past; a delight in reading coupled with a practised disinclination to spend money on the habit; the rise of the paperback; the onrush of new media; an educational system increasingly keen on “set books”: the influences to which the mainstream book-fancier of the post-war period was subject are so various as to be barely quantifiable. As to how they worked their effect, anyone who tries to make sense of reading habits over the past 70 years or so will be struck by some of the patterns that emerge. The distinguishing mark of practically any modern autobiography in which the subject is a “reader” is the sameness of the paraphernalia: the locked parental, or grand-parental bookcase; the collected editions of Dickens or Jane Austen, often acquired through newspaper promotions; the friendly English master recommending favourites; the parents anxious to encourage “bookish” children who make serendipitous purchases in second-hand shops.

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A scene in an illustrated edition of ‘Little Women’ captures the lure of parents’ books

To David Lodge (born 1935), whose recent autobiography is a mine of information on the cultural preferences of the post-war lower-middle-class, the prompt was a Dickens-loving father with a collected edition garnered in a Daily Express promotion, Richmal Crompton’s William books borrowed from Deptford Public Library, Ivanhoe alternating with cheap boys’ magazines. Even Alan Johnson (born 1950), raised in absolute poverty in pre-gentrified North Kensington, turns out to have benefited from the same kind of stimuli: the glass-fronted bookcase at the house of a friend, containing copies of Pride and Prejudice and Treasure Island; presents brought home from the local working men’s Christmas party, which introduced him to Little Women and Robinson Crusoe; the friendly schoolmaster, Mr Carlen, who gave him the money to buy four copies of any paperback he fancied for the school library. Johnson invested in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

The odd, or not so odd, aspect of these early reading experiences is how closely they mirror my own. As a child growing up in a middle-class East Anglian home, I was aware of the sensibilities of four adult readers: father, mother, and maternal grandparents. None of them had studied literature at school beyond the age of 16, but all of them read novels of varying kinds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. There was a glass-fronted bookcase in my grandparents’ living room which, surreptitiously unlocked, revealed moralising religious tracts from the late-Victorian era, but also – so tightly pressed between two larger books as to give the faint impression that it had been hidden there – a copy of the original Penguin paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which suggested that my grandfather was a darker horse than he let on.

To add to this literary bran tub were my father’s bookshelves, which contained everything from battered school editions of Nicholas Nickleby to smutty American paperbacks with titles like A Cold Wind in August, and my mother’s, which, along with such genteel middlebrow standards as JB Priestley and Somerset Maugham harboured two items for which I shall always be grateful – Penguin paperbacks of Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall

What was the extent of my literary knowledge at the age of 15? I had read every line of Tolkien then available, CS Lewis’s Narnia series, and a couple of hundred superior children’s books, not all of them chosen for their silent reinforcement of bourgeois values. Then there were countless boys’ school stories from the 1930s, handed down by my father, with titles like The Liveliest Term at Templeton and Strickland of the Sixth, in which fresh-faced teenagers enjoyed ripping teas in the shadow of the elms – books whose spell was such that when despatched to prep school at the age of nine, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t like Havenhall, North Yorkshire, where Strickland exercised such a healthy moral influence and why the bullies didn’t shrink away at my touch.

As for the sort of books it was possible to respect, I admired Orwell, knew about Dickens – always part of the child’s televisual furniture – and had even, thanks to a highbrow children’s weekly called Look and Learn, heard of Proust and Balzac. Meanwhile, contemporary fiction might just as well not have existed. Who were the outstanding home-grown novelists of the 1970s? As a teenager, I couldn’t have told you, for I had no information. My only resource was the Earlham Branch Library, where I browsed impressionably on, sometimes making a discovery (John Fowles, Piers Paul Read), at other times (when chancing upon some piece of avant-gardery  whose code could not be cracked) sadly conceding defeat.

And then, almost without warning, came the moment when, paying a visit to the University of East Anglia’s campus bookshop, I came upon a paperback copy of Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites, read the first story – about a teenage boy who schemes to seduce his younger sister – and discovered that here, mysteriously, was a book unlike anything I had previously encountered. Some time after that, driven by who knows what impulse, I started buying The Spectator and reading the book reviews in the back, where a young Peter Ackroyd was making hay of the established reputations thrown into his path. Tantalisingly and incrementally, like some lost, sub-tropical island emerging out of a weed-strewn lagoon, a whole new world had begun to take shape – a world that, like most inner literary landscapes, is all the more enticing for being self-fashioned and, as such, a fundamental part of the experience that makes us who we are. Like Florence in her infant classroom, like David Lodge in Deptford Library, or Alan Johnson before the glass-fronted bookcase, like anyone else stuck irretrievably in the web of words, I had learnt to read.

‘The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918’ by DJ Taylor (£16.99, Chatto & Windus) is published on 7 January

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