In praise of older books

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS -

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

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