In praise of older books
Istand in front of my bookshelves. There are books here which I’ve had since I was a child. Packed up and shipped in an old tin trunk all the way from New Zealand 54 years ago. Their covers are tattered, worn and faded. There is a row of tall green hardbacks, their spines decorated with gold leaf which spells out The Novels of the Sisters Brontë, passed down from my grandmother Elsie Purefoy to my mother, Elizabeth Chamberlain, and thence to me.
The shelves are crammed with a collection of hardbacks and paperbacks. A haphazard collection it must be said. Fiction and nonfiction jumbled up together. Not a hint of order or category. They could be the shelves of any old secondhand shop. But one thing unites them. They are my favourite books. I’ve read most of them more than once. They are the books to which I turn in the middle of the night, when the cares of the world press down and sleep is longed for but elusive.
Books such as The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956), the story of a marriage, told backwards from despair to hope; Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion (1987) which showed me how to write a thriller; and The
Vanishing (1993) by Tim Krabbe, whose 108 devastating pages demonstrated how to break all the rules. Or Guest of Honour (1970), Nadine Gordimer’s analysis of the transition of an African colony to independence and the corruption which accompanies it. Books I read as a child. The wonderful Thunderhead (1943) by Mary O’Hara and Mary
Treadgold’s We Couldn’t Leave Dinah (1941), which managed to combine two of my childhood preoccupations, horses and the horrors of the second World War. Books I sneaked from my mother’s bedside table: Alberto Moravia’s The
Woman of Rome (1947), the city in the aftermath of Nazi occupation, its women at the mercy of the American soldiers who now hold power; and
A Diary of Love (1953) written by the American writer, Maude Hutchins. A writer who’s forgotten now but who weaves the story of Noel, a wealthy young woman, orphaned, struck down by TB, and her interior life, her fantasies, suffused with eroticism.
Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965), the story of Rosamund, a defiantly unmarried mother in 1960s’ London; Life and Fate (1960) where Vasily Grossman dumps the reader in the gas chambers of Auschwitz then takes them into the brooding presence of Stalin as he plots in Moscow. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) which revolutionised nonfiction. And even my favourite cookery books, Elizabeth David’s classic Italian Cooking (1942) and Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food (1997) which I continue to use all the time.
So I’ve made a list. It’s a personal choice. Perhaps it’s the history of my life, or perhaps it’s just a collection of good books. Either way read them, enjoy them and next time you pass a secondhand shop drop in. You never know what wonders you’ll find.
■ Julie Parsons’ latest novel, The Therapy House, won Crime Novel of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Every week this year, she will write about oneofherfavouritebooks