The Boy Who Loved Books, By John Sutherland

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The Independent Culture

John Sutherland has had a substantial career as an academic writing about books. This touching, and in places extremely funny memoir, shows how his leap into literature was far from straightforward.

After his father died in a wartime accident when Sutherland was four, his mother, Maud, abandoned him with relatives in Colchester, so she could go to Argentina with a lover. When she returned, their relationship was strained: "She ... cultivated a long relationship with a man who, like her, made something of himself – rising by almost Nietzschean will ... to wealth in the motor trade... The two of them, rich bitch and rich bastard, ended up on a yacht in the South of France". This is a memoir uncompromised by sentimentality.

Sutherland's days at Colchester Grammar school are described in witheringly funny detail. The account of his scramble into adulthood with the aid of "books, booze, and jazz", and his subsequent alcoholism and recovery, comes across as impressively honest.