Inside Story: In the beginning were the words

They have authored their own fortunes in British broadcasting and journalism, but it was one book that started it all. Sue Bradbury talks to 14 of our most successful media personalities about the writers and stories that have moulded and shaped their brilliant careers
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The Independent Online

From Simone de Beauvoir (Kirsty Wark) to P G Wodehouse (Terry Wogan) and George Orwell (John Humphrys), certain authors have shaped the outlooks of the British media's biggest stars. Sue Bradbury, editorial director of the Folio Society, asks key media personalities about the books that have most influenced their lives and careers.


The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The impact of this written account of what it was like to be a young Jew caught up in the horror of Nazi persecution has never left me. It awakened my conscience in relation to any incidence of persecution. The book has as much relevance today as it did when it was first published."


The Plums of P G Wodehouse, edited by Joe Whitlock Blundell and illustrated by Paul Cox

Whoever said that "Plum" was the finest writer of English of his time has my wholehearted support. His mastery of the language, his supreme turn of phrase, his wit and his extraordinary plotting have been my constant delight for 50 years. Whatever I'm reading, I always have a Wodehouse by my little trundle bed as well.


Carry On, Jeeves, by P G Wodehouse

A wet Sunday afternoon at home. I was 13 and bored, looking for something to read. On my parents' bookshelves I found a green hardback published by Herbert Jenkins with a sketch on the cover of a slender valet bearing a tray and a martini glass: Carry On, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse, of whom I had never heard. But I started to read it and didn't stop until I had read it all, by which time I was literally aching with mirth. This was when I discovered the magic of beautifully written English and decided that writing was how I wanted to earn my living.


The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

It explores the relationships that exist between a group of young intellectuals in Paris directly after the Second World War. A thinly disguised autobiography, involving the author, Sartre and Nelson Algren among others, it's a love story full of jealousies and hurt. I loved the voices in The Mandarins and the idea that some of the women, at least, were in charge of their own destiny.


Animal Farm by George Orwell

Predictable, I'm afraid, but the book that most influenced me. I first read it when I was 14. I bought it in a bookshop in the centre of Cardiff, walked through the city reading it and finished it by the time I got home. Animal Farm stirred my interest in politics and made me realise that a great author may not be able to change the world, but they can certainly alert it to what's happening out there.


Animal Farm by George Orwell

When I was about 10, I picked up a book in our school library called Animal Farm. Knowing nothing of Soviet politics, Trotsky, the ideological struggle, or, indeed, George Orwell, I thought this was just a simple tale about some animals taking over a farm, and read it on that level alone. I became totally absorbed, not only in the narrative, but also in what it said about human (or animal) nature, and the way fine and unselfish ideals could go wrong. I never forgot the book or its lesson, and though it was only later that politics and ethics came to interest me, the lesson was ready in my mind when they did. Orwell, poor chap, helped to make me a Conservative.


Middlemarch by George Eliot

My diary entry at 18 read, "I have just finished Middlemarch and it has changed my life." That doesn't embarrass me now; sometimes the intensity of one's youth seems enviable. I felt then that if I never read another book, it would be OK, because the sum total of human experience is contained in George Eliot's greatest novel. It blew me away. Now (having read countless other books since) I return to it again and again for its wisdom, its astonishing grasp of character and, above all, the compassion that observes human frailty, weighs it justly in the scale, and then offers understanding and forgiveness. George Eliot sees the capacity for heroism within the most ordinary person, and it is for that hope that I want extracts from Middlemarch to be read to me when I'm dying.


The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

I've enjoyed everything from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens, Kazuo Ishiguro to Paulo Coelho, but the book that had the earliest and most lasting influence on me was Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit. From an early age it filled me with the romance of the garden and a fondness for animals, which I have never lost. And I can now do joined-up writing.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's historical and human sweep is breathtaking. His vision, humanity and his knowledge that love and pain are at the heart of life is the most important of all the profound truths revealed in this great novel.


Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

I read Vanity Fair when I was a young teenager, and it did a great many things, quite apart from entrancing me. Although its own moral compass is strong, it reminded my priggish young self that badly behaved people can be irresistible and good people rather dull. It demonstrated how the most powerful thing in the world is a gripping narrative, and made me long to write my own; and it made me see that the world, whatever the current social conventions, has always been a place where a buccaneering spirit can find a lot of fun by taking chances.



You never forget the moment you first encounter a book that turns out to be a treasure for life. Especially works that open up new worlds. I still remember buying Penguin's wonderful Late Tang Poetry at school, and Rae Dalven's The Complete Poems of Cavafy at university; and Kingsbury and Phillips's Hymns of the Tamil Saivite Saints years ago in Pondicherry; and finding Arthur John Arberry's edition of al-Niffari in Saadun Street in Baghdad before the 1991 war. I still get a thrill of pleasure when I pass them on the shelf. But for the writer that influenced my life, it has to be Shakespeare. He is just full of humanity. "Read him, and again and again," wrote his old friends Heminges and Condell, "and if then you do not like him, then surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him."


The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

If I had to choose one book as having most influenced my life and career it would be The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield. It is hilariously funny and gives a vivid and evocative account of the day-to-day living of the pre- and mid-Second World War middle classes. It made me realise how amusing and yet completely accessible comedy of a different era can be.


Woodbrook by David Thomson

David Thomson went to an Anglo-Irish country house as a tutor and stayed for 10 years creating Woodbrook. It's a haunting evocation of a lost Ireland, a country between the two world wars in which the diminishing Anglo-Irish class struggles to keep a hold on its land and on to the last of the great houses. Thomson paints a lyrical portrait of that vanished world and writes of Ireland with great sympathy and understanding; he is capable of mourning the decline yet fully understanding the historic forces which made it inevitable. It is the finest book about Ireland I have ever read - and it was written by an Englishman!


Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

I read Scoop by Evelyn Waugh as a teenager with astonishment; when I became a journalist, I realised that every word of it was not only true, but still true.

The Folio Society, which had its beginnings in George Bernard Shaw's lifetime and set out to restore high standards of design, production and illustration to books, is keeping alive the tradition of a good story today with its new website The site is designed to promote a passion for good literature among a 21st-century audience