Sebastian Faulks: “George Orwell showed me authorities are usually wrong” | Books

My earliest reading memory
Something called Beacon Readers in a small village school in the corner of a field. I can picture the jacket’s tapered flare design on a brown fabric background.

My favorite book growing up
I liked books about witches, there seemed to be quite a lot of them lying around. A little later, around the age of 11, I discovered Alistair MacLean, whose formula – a group of desperadoes on a war mission but with a traitor in their numbers – I found almost unbearably exciting.

The book that changed me as a teenager
DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers opened my eyes to the fact that a novel doesn’t need a plot. Character development can be story enough. I was blown away by the affection Lawrence seemed to have for his characters. He actually loved her.

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The writer who changed my mind
George Orwell. I remember reading his essay A Hanging, set in Burma, when I was 14 years old. In simple prose he describes a condemned man walking to the scaffold, stepping aside at one point to avoid a puddle. Orwell showed me that authorities are usually wrong. That appealed to me because I went to a school that I didn’t like very much. After that I read all his essays and he directed my mind towards a liberal attitude towards the world.

The book that made me want to be a writer
At the same time I was reading David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice. I loved Jane Austen. She was so rude to the authority figures. Apparently you could be a national treasure and a rebel at the same time. Charles Dickens has that inventiveness. But something else was inspiring: his ability, by focusing on the quirks of his quirky characters, to reveal the whole fabric of the society they came from. Wonder.

The author I returned to
I couldn’t get a hold of Evelyn Waugh at first, but I eventually got there by reading the Sword of Honor trilogy in 1991 when we were living in a remote farmhouse in Italy with our first child, who was a year old. After that I found A Handful of Dust and my ear tuned into his prose. I still wish he’d put that gift to better use, but here we go.

The book I read again
The Catcher in the Rye, at the age of 15, seemed to sum up all my youthful discontents. At 31, when I was a journalist in London, I saw it as an almost clinical description of a nervous breakdown. When I was 48 and a full-time writer at the time, it didn’t seem to be about Holden at all, but rather a country undergoing mysterious changes.

The book I discovered later in life
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis. I had heard about it many times, but didn’t read it until I was almost 60 and at a literary festival in Bali. A wonderful book.

The book I’m reading right now
How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford. Popular science (genetics in this case) is hard to get right, but Rutherford is both scientific and entertaining.

read my consolation
I read to get confused or at least to learn something new, so I can’t answer that question; although I must say that there is usually a welcome light on at 221b Baker Street.

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