When I was a child—in wartime, pre-television—books were my life. I had very bad asthma and often spent two weeks in bed reading. I didn't like books about real children; I liked books about other worlds, full of forests and strange creatures. My childhood reading made me want to write, and so for this piece, I've picked two books I discovered at that time— Alice in Wonderland
, full of mystery and common sense, and (cheating slightly), a series of illustrated books of 19th-century poems my mother gave me. They were wonderful stories in singing verse: Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
and Morte d'Arthur
, Browning's The Pied Piper of Hamelin
and Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
. I got my sense of rhythm from these magical verses.
I've also chosen novels by George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Marcel Proust. In the sixties, I taught an adult evening class on the novel, and the class insisted on doing not contemporary British but large 19th-century European novels. The class was, over many years, my education in the art of the novel, and these three are the authors who most extended my sense of what a novel could do besides tell a story—what it could talk about and think about, how it could make patterns inside what Henry James called the "loose baggy monster" of the form.
Books that change you, even later in life, give you a kind of electrical shock as the world takes a different shape. Emily Dickinson's completely individual voice did that to me when I was a student in America. And I've added my latest such shock—the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan.
A.S. Byatt is the author of Possession
; a film based on it was released June 2002.
What's on A.S. Byatt's Bookshelf? Read more!