A royal mistress, monastery murders, Edwardian intrigues and the most soul-catching poetry ever make novelist Sarah Dunant's best-books list.
Books and writers: not so much a love affair as an addiction. In my case, it hit around puberty with my weekly bagful from the local library. It was a form of early rebellion, really—the flashlight under the covers, Thomas Hardy nuzzling up to Raymond Chandler, Sylvia Plath in bed with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Who needed a career counselor when one had novels? Howard Fast's Spartacus made me want to lead a slave revolt; Edith Sitwell's portrait of Elizabeth I [ A Fanfare for Elizabeth ] made me want to lead a country. Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin set me thinking about crime; Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley convinced me I might get away with it. And Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina just made me want to get married so I could be tragically unfaithful.
In the end, I didn't do any of those things. But the novels were a great apprenticeship for my imagination. In my twenties, when I set out to travel the world on $15 a day, the only book in my rucksack was an empty one. By the time I got back, its pages were full, and I was about to become a writer, as well as a reader.
Sarah Dunant is the author of The Birth of Venus (Random House).
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From the September 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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