Sam Byers: “JM Coetzee Made Me A Vegetarian” | Books

My earliest reading memory
Like many people who later have overactive imaginations, I was not well off as a child. I remember long weeks at home, in bed or with a duvet on the sofa, reading whatever I could get my hands on. My childhood hero was Tintin – so many images from those books left an indelible mark on my memory. I also keep reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches despite, or maybe because of, the nightmares it gave me.

The writer who changed my mind
Everything we encounter changes our mind to some extent. We are in the works and the process is additive and cumulative. Especially in the last few years: Karen Armstrong has challenged my misconceptions about faith, Robin Wall Kimmerer has fundamentally changed my perception of plants, and JM Coetzee has made me a vegetarian.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I can imagine the eye-rolling this response will evoke, but it’s important not to reverse our inspirations. The now much-maligned Beat Generation presented me with a vision of literature unlike anything I had experienced before: unstructured and improvisational, free and full of devotion. At 18, I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and made my way to Asia, where I spat out a torrent of uninterrupted and unreadable spontaneous thoughts. My writing has changed radically since then, but the joy the beats instilled in me has never waned.

That author I came back
I remember reading an essay by Richard Ford a few years ago in which he said that Anton Chekhov was not a writer that young people could easily understand. At the time I was sure I could understand anything I wanted, but this year I dived back into Chekhov and saw exactly what Ford meant. I never liked Chekhov as such, but I see now that the full extent of his brilliance was not always available to me.

The book I discovered later in life
I’m 42 so I’m hoping for later life discoveries to come. It’s been a long, slow journey with poetry. The first half of my life was shaped by the novel form. Now the balance is shifting. A few years ago I read Louise Glück’s poem The Wild Iris and felt my whole self slip sideways. Last year I read John Ashbery’s flow chart and my sense of time and its passing has never recovered. I read Paul Celan this year and it feels like I have to go back to the language and rethink it.

The book I’m reading right now
I am working my way very slowly through two equally intimidating and thrilling books: Péter Nádas’ hypnotic, almost unbearably lively masterpiece Parallel Stories and two decades of Pierre Boulez’s rigorous, mesmerizing, wonderfully inspiring lectures at the Collège de France, collected under the title Music Lessons.

read my consolation
I’m suspicious of the idea that those who have a comfortable life should expect art to offer more. I have a cat, a sofa, a cupboard full of chocolates. How much comfort do I need? Having spent his life in a cave, the Tibetan yogi Milarepa is hardly a great comforter. But as a role model for life and creativity he is incomparable – a bright-eyed, cheerful prankster, bursting with song while at the same time delighted and sanely unfazed.

Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.

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