Saturday, March 2

Neil Gaiman: ‘Whatever I loved about Enid Blyton isn’t there when I go back as an adult’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
I was three years old, we lived in Purbrook, near Portsmouth, and if I had been remarkably good my mother would order a book at the local bookshop and a month later we would go and pick it up. I remember children’s Hiawatha, a beautiful edition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin illustrated by Margaret Tarrant, and an illustrated Mikado I’d learn the words of the songs without tunes: “Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock from a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block” and so on. Gloriously morbid stuff for a three-year-old.

My favorite book growing up
If you’d asked me at seven or eight it would have been the Narnia books, which I found infinitely re-readable – I wanted to live in them. But if you had asked me at nine or 10 it was The Lord of the Rings. I was convinced it was not only the best book anybody had ever written but that it was the best book anybody ever would write. I just had to find out how it ended, as my school only had the first two books. When I won the school English prize, I asked for The Return of the King as my prize book.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Roger Zelazny’s novels Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness. He was a beautiful writer, with a marvelous prose style, and he just made it look so much fun to write. I’d already wanted to write, but Zelazny made it a certainty.

The writer who changed my mind
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I realized I could stop dreaming of being a writer and instead be a writer. It was Harlan Ellison’s fault of him, from his introduction of him to a short story called Count the Clock that Tells the Time, in a collection called Shatterday. He wrote about wasting time, how you look around and time’s gone. It plugged straight into everything I had ever thought or dreamed about becoming a writer and in that moment I was determined to become a writer. I thought better to try and fail than not to try and let the time blow past.

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The book that made me want to be a writer
I don’t recall there being a time that I ever didn’t want to be a writer, but CS Lewis and his Narnia books definitely made me realize that these stories I loved were being written by a person. Lewis wasn’t pretending to be invisible, he was very happily there in the text, making these lovely friendly asides to the reader. I loved that so much, and loved the idea of ​​doing it too.

The book I came back to
Gene Wolfe was an author I respected but didn’t love, and when I was 20 I struggled to read the first in The Book of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer. I don’t know why I picked it up again, perhaps a year later, but I was surprised to find that it was now the most interesting book in the world.

The book I could never read again
I find it very hard to go back to Enid Blyton. I even find her hard to read to my kids. It’s weird because I remember just how much I loved Blyton, and I’m somebody who loves going back to beloved children’s books, and yet whatever I loved isn’t there when I go back as an adult.

The book I discovered later in life
Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, a book I only came to in my late 40s. I suspect I was only there for the spontaneous human combustion, which really isn’t a terribly important part of the novel. But I fell deeply in love with the book – the plotting, the prose, the techniques – the whole thing, – and rediscovered a childhood fondness for Dickens.

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The book I am currently reading
I’m enjoying Penn Jillette’s forthcoming novel Random enormously. And on Audible, I’m revisiting The Black Ridge: Amongst the Cuillin of Skye by Simon Ingram, narrated by Richard Burnip, a glorious book about Skye and the Cuillin Hills and the people who climbed them. I’m enjoying it so much as an audio experience, if only because everything gets pronounced correctly, which wasn’t the case when I read it to myself.

My comfort read
Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I read it each decade and find new things in it. Although a couple of years ago, during lockdown, when I was on my own for many months, my comfort reads tended to be books I’d loved as a child. The most interesting of the books I rediscovered were by Nicholas Stuart Gray, who is now unfairly forgotten, but who was, at his best, one of the most brilliant children’s authors of the 20th century.

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Colleen Doran, is published by Headline.

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