After a serious operation, clear instruction from medics and family that I must not overdo things came as a rare licence to indulge my joy in reading. There was no dutiful literary task to inhibit me. Nobody was marking me down for discarding what I was not enjoying. Assessing the entries for the New Angle Prize was a task done. I even held back from setting myself my own lists of books to read. The shelves of the home library were open. Whim ruled. The result has been delightful.
Fiction was less tempting when discomfort was acute. I plunged into history. Ian Mortimer's The Perfect King accompanied me through sleepless nights and restless days, so that I was living in the 14th century as much as in the present. This is less odd for a man who has spent so many years responsible for cathedrals, where the age of Edward III is as yesterday. I followed it up with The Hollow Crown by Miri Rubin, which sets the life of late mediaeval England in the context of Europe and beyond. This was exhilarating.
Spacious nineteenth century novels came to hand, and I re-read a couple of old favourites. One was Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, which did not disappoint. It's the dialogue, you see. Whether we’re encountering Edinburgh shopkeepers or the Queen of England, Scott knew how to do it. The plot is not so good, but when you find yourself struggling with what he made of the Scottish dialect you know you are in a goldmine.
Anthony Trollope’s The Kellys and the O'Kellys is one his less known Irish works, and also has brilliant dialogue, but of a different kind. He knew (which Jane Austen did not) how men talk business, in streets, bars, clubs and after meals. He knew how we conceal motives and manipulate arguments, and his love and respect for the Irish peasantry comes through warmly. The real conundrum is that this is set in Ireland in 1844, just before the famine, and was published during the horror of it. Not that you'd know.
While in an Irish frame of mind, I read Sally Rooney's Beautiful World Where are You?, having much enjoyed Normal People. She portrays a world where young people are free of the codes and expectations of their forebears, for whom sex and drugs are immediately within reach, and for whom the complexities of personal relationship are all-consuming. Well, not quite. There is a lot of discussion of what the world is like, what it all means, what's it for. I was nearly touched by these lives, and pleased to be allowed so close to them.
A. K. Blakemore's The Glutton took me into an altogether dislocated world, that of France on the very eve of the revolution and into its horrors. The subject is a man who, as a result of an act of violence, has an insatiable appetite. As with The Manningtree Witches, the compelling ingredient is the language of the story itself, richly sensuous, surprising and inventive. I did not know whether it aroused more of my pity or my sorrow. But then this dilemma is one which I was simultaneously confronting about Ukraine and Gaza. As I reached the end of the book I realised I was feeling rather nauseous.
Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell (who can, it seems, write about anything) is a sparkling life of John Donne the poet, adventurer and clergyman. She makes connections with his own time and our own with ease, and portrays an age in which the world was suddenly, unimaginably diverse and strange, and the human mind itself a puzzle and a mystery. And in his sermons he would bring his hearers to the very edge of what can be known or said.
This is not an exhaustive record. I am dipping and revisiting all the time. It's wonderful. Now re-reading Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow, which is rather like being trapped by the Ancient Mariner, though with some laugh-out-loud sentences.
by Keith Jones