Why adults should read children’s books

During a recent family trip to South Africa, there was one book from my holiday reading pile that I simply couldn’t put down. It had everything: suspense, mystery, humour, fantasy, plot twists, heroes, villains and, ultimately, a happy ending. It also contained talking animals, unicorns and fauns. Because this wasn’t the latest bestselling crime or psychological thriller – my usual genres of choice. It was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the children’s story by C.S. Lewis that I’d first read almost 40 years earlier. Given that I have a nine-year-old son who adores books, you might imagine that my motivation for re-reading it was to do so aloud to

Beyond Dickens: the best Christmas short fiction

Claire Keegan’s Booker-shortlisted Small Things Like These this year revived the tradition of Christmas short fiction. It’s a deftly done parable about cruelty and kindness in the run-up to Christmas, with actual snow – and tears.   Although Keegan’s novella eventually lost out to Shehan Karunatilaka for the Booker, it perhaps served a greater purpose than prizes: it was a reminder of the value of stories that connect us with our humanity, particularly around this time of year.  It was also a reminder that cultural consumption at Christmas needn’t merely be about overloading on films. There’s much to be said for the quiet refuge from festive overload offered by reading – and

Can I really be turning 80?

A princess of Hanover wrote in her diary: ‘My 30th birthday. There must be some mistake.’ Substitute 30th for 80th and you have how I feel this week. But age is all relative, being dependent on your genes, immune system and how it was primed in childhood; on your location, your income and luck. I had long-lived grandparents on both sides; had measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough and scarlet fever before five; and in spite of semi-permanent tonsillitis was 20 before any antibiotic entered my body. I spent the years until 16 on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, through bitter snowbound winters, my lungs loaded with fresh sea

Stalin the intellectual: the dictator cast in a new light

The link between mass-murdering dictators and the gentle occupation of reading and writing books is a curious one, but it definitely exists. Mao was a much- praised practitioner of traditional Chinese poetry; Hitler was widely if haphazardly read, dictated Mein Kampf and was a fan of Karl May’s Wild West stories; and Stalin, as Geoffrey Roberts shows, took books at least as seriously as the purging of foes, real and imagined. Though we may wonder whether Enver Hoxha and Kim Il-sung really wrote the dense works of Marxist-Leninist theory with which they’re credited, there is no doubt that Stalin found the time while running the Soviet Union and fighting the

How TikTok can turn a book into a bestseller

I have an American friend who loves reading, but is clueless about technology. The last time I visited him he was still using Internet Explorer, which even Microsoft has given up on. My friend was puzzled when he walked into his local bookshop and was met by a table of books with the sign ‘#BookTok made me read it’. Soon afterwards I received a bewildered WhatsApp message: ‘What is BookTok?!’ Until recently, I didn’t know. Before the pandemic, I was a working stand-up comic. I’ve never been on television and you probably haven’t heard of me, but I was happy. I worked six nights a week, made enough to pay

How I learned to love audio books

According to a charity called Fight For Sight, 38 per cent of people who’ve been using screens more during lockdown believe their eyesight has deteriorated. I am definitely in that category. This time last year, I didn’t need reading glasses; now I do. When I’m working at my desk this doesn’t much matter, but it has made reading in bed more difficult because I was in the habit of doing this on an iPad under the covers so as not to wake Caroline. Keeping my glasses in place while lying on my side, with one hand clutching my iPad and the other pulling the duvet tight over my head to

Most-read 2020: What isn’t being said about the Reading attack victims?

We’re closing 2020 by republishing our ten most-read articles of the year. Here’s No. 9: Douglas Murray on June’s Reading attack Imagine if on Saturday evening a white neo-Nazi had stabbed three men to death. Imagine, furthermore, if in the wake of the killings it had turned out that all three of the victims were gay. Or ‘members of the LGBT community’, to use the lexicon of the time. And then imagine if two days later nobody in the UK or anywhere else was very interested in any of this. So what if the victims were all gay? Why bother sifting around for motives. What are you trying to say?

Why I stopped reading novels

New York I received a letter from a long-time Spectator reader, James Hackett, enquiring about books I am reading. It is not often that I get letters that delight me, as this one did. It is a far cry from the readers’ letters you see in newspapers and magazines in the United States. Lots of them seem sanctimonious, holier than thou; others, I suspect, are written by the glossy magazines themselves promoting their own celebrity culture worship. James Hackett is an American gent whom I’ve never met, and I hope I don’t disappoint with my choices. The last time I read novels was literally some 50 years ago. I stopped

From half a shelf to a library: my life in books

‘Yes, I will have a coffee,’ said the van driver. He’d driven down to the south of France from Devon. I motioned him to take a pew at the kitchen table and asked him about himself. Ron was ex-army. Aged 17, he was faced with a stark choice: the building site or the army. Because he’d seen his builder father working in a trench all day with water up to his waist, he chose the army. He joined the Royal Engineers and trained as a driver. In the early 1970s he drove two SAS men around Belfast in an unmarked saloon car. That was the job. All day every day.

In defence of modern children’s books

A few years ago, I was surprised to open a newspaper and read that the head teacher of a London public school had decided to ban my books from his library. He described the adventures of Alex Rider, which have sold around 20  million- copies worldwide, in terms so derogatory that I have no mind to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the article quite put me off my cornflakes. But the strange thing was that — once I had got past the sheer offensiveness of his language and a mindset that believed that banning books could ever have good connotations — I was actually quite sympathetic to his wider

Lydia Davis, like an inspirational teacher, tempts her readers into more reading

A good indicator of just how interesting and alluring Lydia Davis’s Essays proved might be my recent credit card statement. It was hard to read very far without being introduced to an unfamiliar author, and the terms of the introduction were frequently so seductive that I found myself breaking off to order several secondhand books. The fee for writing this review had long been swallowed up when I realised that if I read everything that Davis made sound irresistible I would probably never reach the end of this splendid collection — and end up like Achilles chasing the tortoise in Zeno’s paradox. A writer of literary essays who encourages her

Low life | 25 October 2018

My reactionary first world war reading jag continues. The literature is vast, but so is my capacity and fascination. I began reading systematically, then went in search of thrills. Typing ‘my top ten first world war books’ into a search engine has also been a wonderfully fruitful source of leads. Space, and probably your boredom threshold, won’t allow me to list mine. I want to stick my neck out, however, and give a cheer for two books by liaison officers: one a Anglophile Frenchman liaising with the British, the other a Francophile Englishman liaising with the French. As one might imagine, both books are tragicomic. Emile Herzog was the son

Miss Marple to the rescue

Girl with Dove is a memoir by Sally Bayley, a writer who teaches at Oxford University, of growing up in a squalid, dilapidated house in a Sussex seaside town. It contains her mother Ange, her aunt Di, her grandmother, an unspecified number of siblings and a variety of temporary inhabitants who joined the Zion-seeking cult that evolved around Ange and Di. There are also a few longer-lasting denizens, such as Uncle David (first encountered unconscious on the sitting room floor), the sinister Woman Upstairs, and Poor Sue, who later seems to come to some kind of Poor End. If this all seems a little hazy, it is because — as

It’s World Book Day again. God help us

For parents of primary school children, the first Thursday in March has got to be the worst day of the year. Even an attendance Nazi like me, who won’t countenance any excuse for keeping a child home from school, would accept that on this occasion a ‘tummy ache’ is a perfectly legitimate reason. Why do I say this? Because the first Thursday of March is World Book Day. Now, for those of you without children, or whose children went to school before this annual ritual was invented by Unesco in 1995, I should explain that the reason it’s such a colossal bore is because parents are expected to mark the

The tyranny of the bedtime story

All surveys carried out by retail businesses with a view to generating press coverage should be treated with extreme caution, but I cannot resist writing about one that has just been published by The press release is headed ‘The Decline of the Bedtime Story’ and the key finding is that 64 per cent of parents do not regularly read a bedtime story to their children. Just 10 per cent say they do, while 6 per cent say they have never done it. Oh how I envy that 6 per cent! I am a member of the wretched 10 per cent who read to their children at night. Why wretched?

Philip K Dick: Five of his best books

Most science fiction writers got the future wrong. That’s OK. We don’t read sci-fi for predictions and, often, books set in the future tell us far more about the times they written in. But two 20th Century authors stand out as both relevant and prescient to anyone living in 2017. The great JG Ballard is one, and Philip K Dick, the other. While the majority of 20th Century science fiction writers predicted full automation, huge advances in propulsion technology or the colonisation of other planets, Ballard and Dick were visionaries of inner space, telling us what life would feel like for 21st Century (and later) humans. The sense of a

Low life | 14 September 2017

The army patrols at Nice airport go around three abreast, steely-eyed, fingers on the trigger. They walk slowly and scrutinise the passengers carefully, assessing each individual for minute clues to their psychology. They take the incredibly boring job incredibly seriously, or appear to do so, which must be great comfort to those with honourable intentions but a nervous disposition. Contrast, then, these highly disciplined men with the armed pair I saw recently patrolling the floor of the departures lounge at Bristol airport. One had a comic, fall-guy, laughter-prone face, as characterful and funny to look at as George Formby’s. His boon companion looked like a great fellow to sink a

The pleasures of reading aloud | 24 August 2017

‘I have nothing to doe but work and read my Eyes out,’ complained Anne Vernon in 1734, writing from her country residence in Oxfordshire to a friend in London. She and her circle of correspondents (who included Mary Delany, the artist and bluestocking) swapped rhyming jokes, ‘a Dictionary of hard words’, and notes on what they were currently reading. Their letters are suggestive of the boredom suffered by women of a certain class, constrained by social respectability and suffering the restlessness of busy but unfulfilled minds. But that’s not their interest for Abigail Williams in this fascinating study of habits of reading in the Georgian period. Her quest is rather

The pleasures of reading aloud

pkkkfffffffrrrffff-ffff! pkkkfffffffrrrffff-fff! Hobble leg, hobble leg, Hobble leg owhmmm! Into the bottle of fluff, rubbed the stuff under! pkkkfffffffrrrffff-ffff! pkkkfffffffrrrffff-fff! This is the voice of Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, as recorded by Thomas Edison in 1890 and phonetically or farcically transcribed in a novel by Nicholson Baker over a century later. Drowned in static, ‘valley of death’ sounds like ‘bottle of fluff’, ‘rode the six hundred’ becomes ‘rubbed the stuff under’ and ‘Hobble leg owhmmm’ is — of course — ‘Half a league onward’. It’s as if Edison had invented a machine for dismantling sense, or a mechanical ‘medium’ for psychical research (nonsense and disembodied voices

Why Enid Blyton is still the queen of children’s books

As a child, I couldn’t get enough of Enid Blyton’s books. From the moment I discovered the Malory Towers series, set in a girls’ boarding school on a windswept Cornish clifftop, I was hooked. My strict grandmother called me a spendthrift for frittering all my pocket money (the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence a week) on paperback editions of Malory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl and the Famous Five but I was too engrossed to care. Blyton’s first book, a slim volume of poetry called Child Whispers, was published in 1922 and she went on to publish more than 800 titles before her death in 1968. In