I think books are like people, in the sense that they'll turn up in your life when you most need them. After my father died, the book that sort of saved my life was Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Because of that experience, I firmly believe there are books whose greatness actually enables you to live, to do something.
And sometimes, human beings need story and narrative more than they need nourishment and food.
Next: See the first book on Emma Thompson's list
By Beatrix Potter
I've rediscovered this book because I've been reading it to my daughter. It's fantastically unpleasant, involving, as it does, the kidnapping of baby rabbits with a view to eating them. The rabbits who go to rescue the bunnies at Mr. Tod's sit at the back of the house as the sun goes down with all these unpleasant things, like rabbit skulls, lying around. They're in a dreadful place, in the heart of enemy country. Reading it as an adult is a great treat, but looking back, I see that it started me on all my childhood reading—C.S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, the people I read with such compulsion.
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
When I was 10 years old, my grandfather gave me the complete works of Doyle, so I grew up passionate about Sherlock Holmes. Through these books—The Valley of Fear is one of his lesser-known novels—I became hooked on narrative. And Doyle was spooky. He led me to the ghost stories of M.R. James, as well as the Brontës, Austen, Trollope, all the great Victorians. But I do remember Sherlock Holmes was my great comfort. I used to get tonsillitis until I had my tonsils taken out. After which, of course, I got bronchitis. I'd lie in bed with cream of celery soup in a can and read these stories.
By William S. Burroughs
My third choice, which covers my years from 14 to 21, was a tricky one. I remember where I was when I read it: in my father's study, in a big chair, with my jaw on my lap. At that stage, I was steeped in Victorian culture (I suppose my greatest pleasures were George Eliot and Jane Austen more than almost anyone else). However, I've always been fascinated and inspired by otherness and by the forbidden and, in the case of Naked Lunch, by deviance. I remember in particular a scene where a naked bloke crashes through a plate glass window. The book is about sex, drugs, and...and drugs, really. I can't remember any rock 'n' roll. Certainly, I was shocked and scared by Naked Lunch, but what it did was open my mind up.
By Viginia Woolf
Woolf wrote this after receiving requests for one guinea from three charitable organizations. It's largely about education—women's education—and the fact that it really wasn't believed in. Woolf's position was that it was important, and that's become central to feminist thinking. Reading the book gave me the feeling that higher education sometimes stifled questions, and that the best type of instruction makes you able to ask the right questions and to continue asking those questions for the rest of your life. Three Guineas led me to Noam Chomsky and others like him—you know, the great dissenters.
By Fergal Keane
This is about the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. It's the response of a profoundly civilized man to one of the largest and least talked about genocides of the last century. I've always been interested in human rights, and Keane presents very simply the way in which human beings make it possible for other human beings to be massacred on a large scale.
By Spike Milligan
When I was 35–42-years old, my husband, Greg Wise, found me in a gloomy state, having researched an awful lot of gloomy subjects, including the catastrophes in Chile and El Salvador and the uglier aspects of our natures. He insisted I read Milligan's autobiographical memoirs of World War II. I put this book in because it made me laugh till I was nearly sick. It's a fantastic portrait of the culture of war and a great cure for too much information.
By Elizabeth Knox
With my last book, I've gone back to narrative. This is the best story I've read in the past few years. I came across it because I was about to play an angel in Mike Nichols's adaptation of Angels in America, and I bought everything I could find on that topic. This is the story of a man who finds an angel in his vineyard and who meets the angel every year on the same night for the rest of his life. It's about their discoveries over time, and in the end, it's a quite extraordinary portrait of a fallen angel.