When I was a kid, my mother complained to one of my teachers that I read the same books over and over again. “Just as long as she’s reading,” said the teacher, with a smile. There were, of course several reasons why this happened. Firstly, we didn’t have that many books at home, so the choice was limited. Secondly, I’d often enjoyed a book so much that I wanted to repeat the experience, get that same glow of visiting a favourite haunt once more. I think I practically knew The Chronicles of Narnia off by heart. And thirdly, by the time I was ten I’d read all the ones that interested me in the junior library.
The stories that draw me back time and time again tend to be the ones that immerse me in their world, and it needs to be a world that’s very different to the one in which I live. The Mary Renault books – especially The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea – not only gave me an authentic central character, but opened my eyes to Ancient Greece in a very immediate and intimate way. You can understand Theseus’s belief in the supernatural very easily when the natural world behaves in strange and unpredictable ways, destroying whole cities with its earthquakes, and devastating farmland with tsunamis. I Claudius and Claudius the God do something similar for ancient Rome, and once again the central character is so well-imagined that you really do see a very alien civilisation through the eyes of a member of the imperial family. More recently, Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – have had the same effect on me, and brought to life a period of history with all its intrigue, posturing, plotting and subsequent paranoia. The research has to be exhaustive, so that you totally believe in the world that has been created on the page.
The last one in this list is The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The moment it became available for the Kindle – and free, to boot – I downloaded it and re-read it straight away. Okay, it’s the white Victorian male proclaiming his dominance and superiority over the rest of life-kind, but it’s the first ever book to bring dinosaurs to life. We know a lot more about them now, and they’re not depicted all that accurately – but it doesn’t matter. You have to take it in context. When Conan Doyle wrote it, it was cutting-edge science. Some of the scenes are the most terrifying of anything I’ve ever read; the creator of Sherlock Holmes really knew how to bump up the tension. His description of the narrator being chased by a tyrannosaur is a classic.
…from out of the silence, imminent and threatening, there came once more that low, throaty croaking, far louder and closer than before. There could no longer be a doubt. Something was on my trail, and was closing in upon me every minute…
I think the secret is to create a physical reaction in the reader, which is stored in a different part of the brain. If you smile, laugh out loud, or shed a tear you are far more likely to remember what you’ve read. And those reactions depend on the things a writer can do that a film producer can’t. Touch, taste, and smell – and the thoughts of the character that are so close to the way you’d react yourself that you’re right there beside them. Which books do you read more than once, and why?