Spectator Books of the Year: A celebration of the London Library

Far and Away: How Travel Can Change the World is a collection of pieces by the American essayist Andrew Solomon (Chatto, £25). From Moscow to Mongolia, Antarctica to Afghanistan, Solomon observes the world and reflects what he sees both on himself and on his own country. Resilience, hope, flux: Solomon has an outsider’s eagle eye. A dazzling volume. I also enjoyed On Reading, Writing and Living with Books (Pushkin Press, £4.99). This slim tome is among the first of a gorgeous new series culling extracts from the shelves of the London Library, an institution which celebrates its 175th birthday this year. Authors anthologised include Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. In

Holiday reading

Holidays are a welcome chance to lose ourselves between the covers of a book, especially for those of us who struggle to find time to read amid the assorted tyrannies of daily life. So the book that ends up in your suitcase had better be a worthy companion. The disorganised need not fear: you could do worse than grabbing a paperback at the airport. A holiday is a great time to read an easy new bestseller, not least because your friends are likely to have read it, so you can all discuss it over the third bottle of rosé during a long lunch. Just one note of caution: time tells.

Low life | 10 March 2016

Nice airport was more or less deserted. Two-and-a-half hours early for the easyJet flight to Gatwick, I had a leisurely cup of tea and a bun at a café kiosk before going through security, sharing a counter with a couple of young gay Frenchmen who were bickering respectfully over the timing of some future arrangement. I took out my 99p 1987 charity-shop paperback, Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton, and began to read. I love Patrick Hamilton’s novels, but until that moment hadn’t bothered to try the later ones, which he wrote when his alcoholism had taken a grip and he couldn’t get out of bed, as they

Books will survive the age of the Kindle

The Kindle doesn’t seem to be doing too well. According to Waterstones, sales of the e-reader have virtually disappeared, while in America, the Nook is losing $70 million a year. I’m not sure whether this is something to mourn or to celebrate; a triumph of bibliophilia over the new technology or the loss of an opportunity to promote reading. My old Kindle is useful on planes, but the technology is actually quite clumsy: the pages sometimes refuse to swipe and I’ve never quite got used to finding my place at ‘location 15,597’ or wherever. Anyway, I’ve always believed that books have an aesthetic quality, that they are more than the sum

Notebook | 10 December 2015

This time last year I was running around excitedly telling all my friends that I had an African president in the family, something none of them could boast. My younger daughter Theo is married to Sasha Scott, son of Dr Guy Scott, who was president of Zambia from October 2014 to January 2015, and the only white African president since apartheid. When I first met him five years ago he was an opposition MP, but then in 2011 his party won the elections and the new president, Michael Sata, appointed him vice-president. Dr Scott’s job as veep seemed to involve constant travelling. President Sata was reluctant to leave the country,

Lessons in dyslexia

The term ‘dyslexia’ has always been emotive, and it remains so. Julian Elliott and Elena Grigorenko’s book The Dyslexia Debate (2014) has done nothing to dispel the controversy. In a recent paper, ‘Why Children Fail To Read’, Sir Jim Rose, an apologist for dyslexia, said, ‘Dyslexia continues to come under fire as a myth. At its unkindest, this myth portrays dyslexia as an expensive invention to ease the pain of largely, but not only, middle-class parents who cannot bear to have their child thought of as incapable of learning to read for reasons of low intelligence, idleness, or both.’ Rose emphasises that both environmental and genetic factors influence reading ability

These I have loved

In the preface to his great collection of essays The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden claimed: ‘I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ Auden’s criticism is like that: a passage of insights instead of a single sustained argument, and the same is true of Samuel Johnson, whose works are a pleasure to read for the feeling of the pressure of a great mind at play. Clive James belongs in this company. His new book Latest Readings is a kind of reading diary: a collection of short essays, each prompted by one book or a handful he happens to be reading. They are not in any logical order or sequence, but

Sharpen your pencil

‘I had had a fantasy for years about owning a dairy farm,’ says Mary Norris, as she considers her career options in the first section of this odd but charming cross between a memoir and a usage guide. ‘I liked cows: they led a placid yet productive life.’ Instead, she found a productive life — if not always as placid as she might have liked — as a copy editor on the New Yorker magazine. In Between You and Me, she presents the accumulated wisdom and winsome anecdotes of several decades of proof-reading, editorial queries and office arguments, ‘for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar’.

The civil war for books: where is the money going?

This is a transcript of a speech given at this year’s London Book Fair: Over the course of the last few years, it has come to feel that we bookish types are stuck in our very own world war one re-enactment, in trench warfare over where the money lines are drawn. The skirmishes in the global book industry are internecine and unrelenting: the independent authors bombard the traditional publishers; the traditional authors bombard the literary festival directors; the traditional publishers bombard the retailers; academics denounce those who would defend copyright as traitors to the public good; and the retailers take the publishers to courts martial. Who will taste defeat first? The publishers?

Reading about your school is always a terrible idea

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is a depressing book. It’s hard to see why anyone would encourage their child to read it before starting school, particularly Rugby, where the story is set. Tom Brown’s peers stand in the window near the school gates, surveying the town as if they own it. They fight behind the chapel, where the masters cannot see them, and bully and fag, day and night. Writing in The Spectator in 1956, Richard Usborne, the great scholar of P.G. Wodehouse, cursed the novel for inspiring fear in young boys. A present from his father, he read it shortly before starting prep school and, needless to say, understood why he’d

Warning: these books could seriously damage your health

Welcome to 2015, the year that speaking and writing freely had to stop. Anything that might cause trauma to anyone of any race except the white one will be expunged, and the perpetrators of politically incorrect speech or written word will be airbrushed for ever. The word trauma derives from the Greek and means wound. The literary canon will be the first to bite the dust as it’s one big trauma, especially for feminists. The Great Gatsby, for example, is bonfire material because of a variety of scenes ‘that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence’. And let’s not forget The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as racist a book as ever

Farewell, Speccie

So we are all going to have to pay for fatties to have stomach bands and bypasses, are we? It may be ‘cost-effective’ to treat the obese before they go on to develop diabetes and other medical problems, but I’m not sure how much sympathy they will get when we already hear about cancer patients having operations delayed and drugs withheld because of stretched NHS budgets. According to the OECD, Hungarians are the most obese people in the EU, followed by Brits. Rather surprisingly, Romanians are the least fat. Surprising, because on a recent holiday to the island of Lefkada, there were a huge number of Bulgarians, Serbs and Romanians.

Kindles will kill off the bookish loner (thank God)

The Kindle has changed reading in so many ways. A library in your pocket rather than the hulk of a hardback. Uniform pixels where once dust motes rose from an ancient page. But the biggest change, the most fundamental one, is emotional rather than physical. Reading, which used to be the most private of activities, is now an increasingly public one. The same internet that lets you download a book’s content also lets you upload your reaction to that content. As well as allowing you to mark passages in a book, Kindle’s highlighting feature shows you which passages other readers have marked. What’s more, Amazon ranks the results. Of the

Would prisoners kill for Carol Ann Duffy?

It is of course shocking that the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling should ban prisoners from receiving books sent by their friends and relatives. We might all agree with author Philip Pullman who said that the ban is worthy of Hitler and Pol Pot and entirely typical of a government whose most senior members regularly eat their own offspring, raw, tearing away at the flesh like crazed wolverines. Or something like that, anyway. Various other authors have ranted and raved. But will it make a huge difference to the lives of the inmates? Do they often importune family members with these sort of requests: ‘I see that Carol Ann Duffy has a

The girl who hadn’t heard of the Berlin Wall

‘Question 2. In which year did the Berlin Wall come down?’ shouted the quizmaster. And then he repeated this with dramatic pauses, as quizmasters are apt to do: ‘In which year…did the Berlin Wall…come down?’ ‘Oh, yeah!’ said the youngest person in our team. ‘I just got that!’ ‘What?’ I said. ‘Berlin Wall!’ she said, with a huge grin on her face. ‘1989,’ hissed one of the team members. ‘Yup, 89, definitely,’ whispered another member. ‘I remember because I’d just got divorced and I was driving down the Santa Monica Freeway and…’ But the youngest member of the team was still having something of an epiphany. ‘Berlin Wall!’ she kept

Jeffrey Archer’s diary: My personal trainer only smiles when I’m in pain

The week leading up to publication is a strange time for any author. You subject yourself to doing everything from BBC Radio Hebrides to reviewing the Sunday papers on TV, as long as they’ll give your latest book a plug. Mind you, most of them want to talk about anything except the new book. The Alan Titchmarsh Show wants to know whether I trained to be an auctioneer; the Daily Mail are more interested in how Mary (my wife) conquered cancer; The Telegraph are determined to learn more about a murderer I knew, who’s just got his MA, while the Times are keen to find out how often I attend

Middlemarch: the novel that reads you

The genesis of The Road to Middlemarch was a fine article in the New Yorker about  Rebecca Mead’s unsuccessful search for the origin of the remark, sometimes attributed to George Eliot, that ‘it’s never too late to become the person you might have been’. To Mead this seemed at variance with the concentration in Middlemarch on ‘the melancholy acknowledgment of limitation’. She sets her vain attempt to re-attribute that sentence in apposition to Eliot’s story of  Lydgate, the doctor whose scientific ambitions are dashed in the wake of his marriage to the implacable Rosamond Vincy: ‘I had aspired to make a link in the chain of discovery, and had failed.’

How to get old without getting boring

When one notices the first symptoms of senile dementia (forgetting names, trying to remember the purpose of moving from one room to another, and so on), books can be wonderfully helpful. At the age of 80, Penelope Lively, the prolific, generally esteemed, novelist, has written an encouraging guidebook for the ageing: For me, reading is the palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too — try her, try him, try that. Born Penelope Low in Cairo and brought up there and in England, she read

Tell me a story! Anne Fine, Amanda Mitichison, Terence Blacker and Keith Crossley-Holland on the joy – and importance – of reading aloud

A dark afternoon in December, aged about ten, I was in a class waiting for double geography. Mr Blake breezed in, told us to put our books away and, as a treat, he read us a story. It was ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, the famous ghost story by M.R. James. Heads resting on our arms, we listened to this chilling tale of a scholar who takes a winter holiday at an English seaside town, finds a whistle buried in the sand engraved with the inscription of the story’s title, and makes the mistake of blowing it. An evil thing is summoned — a flapping, sheet-like,

Summer reading? What about summer re-reading?

What will you read over the summer? The newly announced Booker longlist? A selection of books from newspaper and magazine summer reading lists? A book that a Spectator columnist is taking on holiday? There are so many good new books to read – if not newly published, then at least new to you – and now is a good time to get stuck in. Why not, however, also choose something to re-read this summer? There is something about summer and its particular feeling of stepping off the treadmill and slowing down that makes it ripe for taking the extra time to re-read a book. It’s a good moment to look