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The Spyglass of Tranquil Recollection

There are books which sit on our bookshelves for years, getting slightly more foxed as time passes. My Dubliners has followed me to five different addresses and, although a rather flimsy paperback (picked up second-hand, I see, for 1s 6d), remains in fairly decent condition. It was published in 1947 for Jonathan Cape by Guild Books, an imprint of the Publishers’ Guild ‘dedicated to bringing out the best from the lists of the twenty-six members’. I like the idea of trying to capture the spirit of a place through a series of stories such as Dickens’s sketches of London life, Mavis Gallant’s Paris stories and Jack London’s tales of San Francisco. Joyce wrote almost all his Dubliners’ stories away from Ireland and, like most of his work, they focus unremittingly on a brief period at the turn of the twentieth century – years around which the whole of his imaginative life revolved.
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Bentley Gently

Bentley Gently

One of the literary forms that has always given me most pleasure, in between the serious stuff, has been the clerihew, named after its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875–1956). Bentley was chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph from 1912 to 1934. In 1905, a decade before he produced another of his inventions, the modern detective novel, with Trent’s Last Case, he published a slim volume entitled Biography for Beginners, which opens, under the heading ‘Introductory Remarks’, with this four-liner: The Art of Biography / Is different from Geography. / Geography is about Maps, / But Biography is about Chaps.
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Islands of the Mind

Islands of the Mind

I was not aware when I read Treasure Island of the affinities between its famous author and my obscure self: Calvinism, a hellfire-breathing female, a father problem, a terrorized mind and a fevered imagination. Or that I would one day become an Edinburgher, live in Stevenson’s precipitous city. And indeed one of the marvellous things about Treasure Island is that there is nothing in it that could have told me anything at all about its creator. Rereading it now – an experience I heartily recommend – you can of course see scores of clues. The book is a treasure trove in more ways than one. It is eloquent of its author’s personality, apart from being a thoroughly ripping yarn.
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A Whiff of Sulphur

When an Italian friend recommended a Sicilian writer of detective fiction called Leonardo Sciascia (and pronounced, in the author’s island dialect, as sash-arr), I listened politely but unenthusiastically. He explained that I should begin with A Man’s Blessings, first published in English in 1968 (and in 1992 reissued under the title To Each His Own). In this book, I was told, I would discover the essence of the Sciascia style, and if it was not to my taste I would be saved reading anything else by him.
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Dining in Parnassus

Second-hand booksellers often find the reading of their books not just an occupational hazard but a waste of their precious time. They would rather spend it on keeping up with auction prices, reading their competitors’ catalogues or, nowadays, coursing the net. Literary values are left on the margin. Earlier this year, I found myself looking for likely candidates in our catalogue selection of Anthologies and fell deep into the trap of reading beyond the title-page and becoming immersed in delightful contents.
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Murder Most Civilized

Murder Most Civilized

When I was at school I tried to start an Agatha Christie Club. Number of members (including the Chairman – myself ): three. Number of meetings: zero. This somewhat unenthusiastic response has not tempered my love of ‘good old Agatha’, although she was rather – as one of my friends described her – ‘a fascist in tights’. In her huge collection of whodunnits, the dodgy women always live around Bayswater, there is always a ten-to-one chance that the husband did it, and in Poirot, her much-loved Belgian detective, she gives us a wonderfully clichéd portrait of A Foreigner. But perhaps that’s why I enjoy her books. Reading Agatha Christie is a welcome relief from both political correctness and the convolutions of the modern world. She wrote books you can take into hospital with you – indeed, they were what my mother read when she was awaiting the birth of the Agatha Christie Chairman – or curl up with when you feel like being simultaneously scared and sentimental about an age you didn’t even experience.
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Legging It for Lotte

Werner Herzog, the German film-maker, was friends with the late Chatwin (on the subject of walking they once compared legs together). He is known for such expansive and luminous works as Aguirre, Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and recently Grizzly Man, as well as some eye-catching stunts in real life. He pulled a ship through jungle and pointed a gun at an actor. But that winter journey? The resulting book? It appeared rather slimly, all of eighty-eight pages. Vom Gehem im Eis, translated as Of Walking in Ice, outdoes his other exploits by a country mile.
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Confessions of a TV Tie-in

Confessions of a TV Tie-in

I’m no lover of rats. At various times I’ve shot, bludgeoned and poisoned them (Warfarin Creams work best: take a standard Bourbon biscuit and mix the poison with the chocolate filling). I’d certainly never dreamed of buying a rat, much less carrying one about in my pocket; but a few months ago I walked into a Crimean pet shop with just that in mind. I should explain. We – Dan the director, Larissa the fixer, the rest of the TV crew and I, the presenter – were in the port of Feodosia on the Black Sea, filming a series on Ibn Battutah for the BBC . . .
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For Pheasant Read Peasant

For Pheasant Read Peasant

1066 and All That is a book that for me gleams so strongly with the same spirit of redress as to be a work of satirical genius. This is, I know, a little stronger than the usual estimate of Sellar and Yeatman’s ‘humour classic’. Its phrases are still commonly cited, and it appears never to have been out of print since first published in 1930. (I own two copies, one from 1936 – already the twenty-second edition – and another from 1994, reprinted twice in that year.) Yet literary criticism has paid it hardly any tributes at all. Presumably, this is because a) it contains cartoons and b) its preferred modus operandi is the pun. The pun is sometimes said to be the lowest form of wit. There is another way of looking at it, though – not as the lowest, but the most levelling.
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J. C. T. Jennings and the Problem of Evil

J. C. T. Jennings and the Problem of Evil

My first parting of ways came fifty years ago, when I was 8. In September 1957 I was to be sent away to prep school. I could hardly wait. A brand-new brown trunk, inscribed with my name and school number, had been acquired weeks before. My mother had immediately begun assembling, name-tagging and ticking off items from a printed schedule sent to her by Matron, and then laying them neatly in the trunk. Meanwhile, no doubt to prime me, I was given a Jennings book to read, one of a series of prep-school stories written by Anthony Buckeridge. I was soon comprehensively hooked, and began working my way methodically through all eight existing titles, from Jennings Goes to School, first published in 1950, to the latest, Thanks to Jennings. Three days before the start of term, with my trunk packed at last, I was brimming with Jennings-fuelled excitement.
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Vatican Evasions

In 1986, when I had just started at the bookshop where I still work, I was given a book by a tall, amiable man in late middle age. He was the book’s author and he had just reprinted it himself. He imagined I might be interested. Branko Bokun’s Spy in the Vatican begins, ‘In April 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany and her allies. With the surrender, a new State of Croatia was formed. The Ustashi, a band of Catholic fanatics, backed by the clergy, decided to eliminate all non- Catholics in Croatia. Orthodox Jews, Serbs and Gypsies – men, women and children – were slaughtered in their thousands.’
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Light Reading

Light Reading

When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase.
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A Cat’s Life

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf – an ordinary act – and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.
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