Whenever I venture out into the world and meet children and adults who have read my books, one of the questions I am asked is what books I read. Curiosity is definitely the primary reason behind this question, a very natural curiosity about what a writer herself reads. But I think there’s also the sense that if only the list of my favourite authors was discovered, it would help crack the secret of why I write and perhaps also a little peek into how I write.
I understand that since I too take an avid interest in the reading lists of other people. But because I do this, I can say with the greatest confidence that these lists don’t really make a difference. What I like to read need not necessarily make it to the list of most read books for another person. Or what inspires me may well leave another person completely cold and mystified. I am asked if I read the classics and if I would recommend reading the classics. I never know how to answer this question, because as time passes and I grow in my writing and thinking years and also in human years, the books on my list change. When I began writing, yes, the books I read were definitely the ones that would feature on any list of books that must be read. But as the years passed several of these books were replaced.
I discovered new authors and their books, I was inspired by the style and the philosophy behind the books. I was filled with admiration at the various ways in which language could be used, the elegant bends and twists that resulted in an entirely new way of narration. Here were writers and storytellers who created new worlds that seemed far more real and believable than the one I lived in. These were people whose command over the language left me stunned so I spent hours marvelling at the way they created a sense of the atmosphere. I was impressed at the apparent ease with which they made me love or hate the characters, the magic they wove so that I was reluctant to part from them and obsessed about them as if they were real people. How, I wondered, did they do it? How did they take a difficult topic and weave in a variety of apparently unrelated issues and come up with a story that kept me hooked from the first page?
The answers to these difficult questions lay in the writing and so, I spent a lot of time chasing down every single book, essay and interview by these authors. My respect grew with every word I read by them, every word about them. And so, I returned to their books and yes, I read them multiple times. They seemed sparkling new and fresh with every reading. And with every reading these books managed to show me a new facet, a new angle and a new reason to admire the authors. They gave me reason to think and ponder on the magic these authors wove and the huge skill that lay behind this magic.
Every time I read these books, I came away with something new, something that inspired me and got me thinking about writing. Even better, a reading of these books sparked off an idea so my brain buzzed with excitement too big to contain and all I longed for was to sit down that very minute and write something new.
And that’s when I realised that you recognise a classic not by the number of years it’s been in existence or the number of copies that it’s sold. You recognise a classic by how much it has inspired you, by the doors and windows it has opened in your mind and the thirst it has filled you with. You recognise a classic by the different ways in which it has inspired you, the multiple drafts it has forced you to write in search of that elusive perfection and by the constant need, sharp as hunger, to always improve your own writing, always hoping to come somewhere in the vicinity of the brilliance within its pages.
And that is the kind of book that will always remain on your list.