What Writers Read: Pandora Sykes Asks Nick Hornby What His Favourite Book Is - The Gloss Magazine

What Writers Read: Pandora Sykes Asks Nick Hornby What His Favourite Book Is

Writer and broadcaster Pandora Sykes asked writers, including Nick Hornby, for short essays on their favourite books for a collection in aid of a literacy charity …

Knowing an author’s favourite book feels like a delicious piece of insider information – like peeking behind their brain curtains to see the cogs turning within. It’s highly unlikely that reading said book will confer a similar set of writing skills, but being in the same reading space that your favourite author has dwelt in is a lovely sort of alchemy. Why not create a whole book of moments like this? I thought. Elif Shafak writes about the solace and freedom she found in Virginia Woolf’s fluid Orlando as a young bisexual woman growing up in conservative Turkey. Nick Hornby writes about escaping into Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives aged eleven, as his father prepared to leave the family home for his other family. Marian Keyes writes about the book that lifted her when she was suicidal. Emma Dabiri marvels at how changed you can find yourself as a reader, to return to a book you were bored by twelve years earlier, and find it so nourishing, so personally resonant. It’s true that many of these writers are bona fide literary stars. But in this collection, they are simply readers. To go one further, they are writers because they are readers. Which is why we must think of the next generation of readers, many of whom are growing up without as much access to books. As Margaret Atwood said last year: “If there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.”

Below, read an extract from What Writers Read, 35 Writers on Their Favourite Book, edited by Pandora Sykes, Bloomsbury, £12.99; profits from sales will be donated to The National Literacy Trust.


I turned eleven in April 1968, which was around the time the wheels came off the family car. They were already pretty loose. My father was one of those 1960s men who, in the pre-digital crossed line age of phoneboxes and busy signals and telegrams in an emergency, managed to start a second family without the first one knowing anything about it. When the truth was revealed (not to everyone – it would be another four or five years before my sister and I discovered that we had half-siblings), that wasn’t the end of the calamity. The First Family, or three-quarters of it, had to move house in the new belt-tightening regime, but there was a short period between houses, maybe a couple of months, that was partly spent in what might have been called a pensione if it had been in Italy rather than on the outskirts of Maidenhead, and partly spent in the house of a family friend who already had three children of her own.

It was there and then that I got sick, quite badly, with hepatitis, and I missed a term of school. When I was well enough to eat and drink, I lived off Lucozade and Twiglets and nothing else. But right at the beginning of the illness, when I was feverish and a little hallucinatory, I started to become extremely worried about Emil Tischbein’s missing money and to express that worry out loud, several times. Emil Tischbein was the hero of Erich Kästner’s great children’s book, Emil and the Detectives. I had read the book for the first time a couple of years before, and I suspect I had reread it for comfort when I was merely feeling under the weather and in bed, before the nasty stuff kicked in.

Like many people of my generation, I read a lot when I was a kid, not because I was a swot but because I loathed and feared being bored, and the 1960s and 1970s were boring times for kids: two television channels worth watching, neither of them showing anything during the day, no live sport, nothing open at all on Sundays, no games apart from the board games that Henry VIII had probably played: Snakes & Ladders, Mouse Trap and so on. I chose to read authors who had written hundreds of books that were exactly the same – Captain WE Johns and the Biggles books, Enid Blyton with her Fives and Sevens, Anthony Buckeridge and Jennings, Charles Hamilton’s Billy Bunter, Pamela Lyndon Travers’ Mary Poppins. My mother took us to the library every Saturday morning, and on finding a likely candidate for borrowing, I would check the page listing the author’s publications. If there weren’t 20 or 30 books listed with almost identical titles, I wouldn’t bother. I hadn’t heard of Harper Lee, but I’d have needed a lot more from her before she could have persuaded me to take out To Kill A Mockingbird. I would have needed her to kill most of the birds in North America at a rate of one a year.

I don’t know how Emil and the Detectives, or Erich Kästner, sneaked through. There was a sequel, but only one, and I have only discovered recently, on an idle googling afternoon, that Kästner wasn’t really a children’s book author at all. He was a satirist and a poet and a scriptwriter, he was nominated for the Nobel six times, he was a German pacifist during World War II and he had his books burned by the Nazis in 1933. Yet, he wrote the immortal Emil and another undisputed classic: Lottie and Lisa, which you may know better through one of the two versions of the movie The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills and then Lindsay Lohan.

Kästner was quite a guy. I think one can tell that Emil and the Detectives is a children’s book written by someone who wasn’t a children’s writer most of the time. The plot takes the form of an adventure: Emil’s mother, a widow, sends him from the provinces to Berlin to stay with his aunt and grandmother while she works. He travels on his own on the train and falls asleep. When he wakes up, the money that his mother had provided for the trip – at great personal cost – has disappeared from the lining of his jacket, where Emil had hidden it. When he arrives in Berlin at the wrong station, he falls in with a gang of kids who help him find the thief.

But this is a children’s book where everything seems real. Real and a little bit sad, despite the familiar form and Walter Trier’s beautiful, optimistic illustrations. There is no innocent explanation: the thief is a thief. The money is felt, by the reader and the characters, as a devastating loss. The effect is like a bad dream, where each step takes Emil further and further from where he wants to be. It’s no wonder, really, that a sick boy would hallucinate it.

When a writer looks back on their cultural consumption, you can make an argument that everything that was swallowed up was important and influential in some way. But there are some books that you know are there, at the core of you; I have never had to be reminded of Emil and the Detectives. I think I still have my original copy – I certainly own a paperback of Lottie and Lisa with Hayley Mills on the cover. Why did that children’s book climb above all the others? Maybe the realism? I try not to write about things that don’t seem real to me. Maybe the sense that this was a defining moment in a character’s life? None of my characters have returned for another defining moment. Maybe the combination of humour and sadness, a mixture important to me as a writer and a reader? But this is me trying to talk myself into making a case for my discovery of Kästner’s lovely novel as a crucial step on my professional journey. I suspect it provided something much more than that: comfort, distraction and companionship at a time when I was struggling badly. And you can’t ask for more from a book than that.

From What Writers Read, 35 Writers on Their Favourite Book, edited by Pandora Sykes, Bloomsbury, £12.99; profits from sales will be donated to The National Literacy Trust.


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