My Favourite Book

“What is your all-time favourite book?” I asked. We were chatting about reading and writing, as one does. Answers were as varied as the people present: Lord of the Rings, said one; Pride and Prejudice, said another; Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street was the choice of an older man; A.S. Byatt’s Possession was mine.

It was that phrase “all-time favourite” that made us all think back to those earlier, more impressionable days and remember how we were transported into another world, a world we did not want to leave, a world to which we often choose to return. When I first read Possession, I was so enthralled that when I reached the end, I immediately turned back to the beginning to start again. I could not leave it!

I wish I understood quite how A.S. Byatt achieved her effect. For I was not alone in loving the book, even if my response was somewhat extreme: there was a period when it first appeared that you could not go to any dinner party, any gathering, without someone asking, “Have you read Possession?”  Unlike her previous somewhat cerebral novels, this one became a best-seller, and rumour had it that she quite deliberately set out to write what was called then “an airport novel”.

So if this towering intellectual could analyse the essentials of a block-buster, it should surely be possible for a lesser brain like mine to work out what she did. After all, rival academics searching archives for secrets about two fictional Victorian poets is not an obvious topic for a book that stormed the best-seller lists. And that first chapter – a young academic researcher, somewhat poverty-stricken and with an unhappy love-life, concealing his discovery of an unknown letter by a long-dead poet – is this the stuff that grabs the ordinary reader and doesn’t let go?

One has to conclude that ‘the ordinary reader’ is not so easily categorised. I read voraciously, but I do not think the books I choose to read fit into the pigeon-hole usually labelled ‘block-buster’. Oh yes, I enjoy some best-selling authors, like John Grisham, Sara Paretsky and Val McDermid, and I loved the Harry Potter series. But my tastes do tend to be more literary. I will always sample books short-listed for the major literary prizes, and I prefer to read anything by Helen Dunmore, Rose Tremain or Ian McEwan. Looking at that last short list, and at the several thousand books on my shelves that are only going to the charity shop over my dead body, I realize that there must be a lot of us. Despite appearances, I cannot be alone!

I should love to hear from anyone who cares to comment: Which is your favourite book of all time? Do you find the question difficult to answer? Or does one title immediately come to mind? Perhaps if I wrote this blog on a different day, I might choose a different book – Margaret Atwood’s Robber Bride, say, or George Eliot’s Middlemarch. But Possession gets my vote most days. What about yours?

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About Elizabeth Mapstone

Author of novels, short stories, a self-help book that really works and a serious work on the psychology of argument. Former psychotherapist, now retired and writing fiction.
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3 Responses to My Favourite Book

  1. Raili Taylor says:

    Dear Elizabeth,
    Your letter in the current issue of Mslexia gave me much comfort. I’m 70 and still struggling to find an agent (although I started writing with focus only five years ago). Reading about your travails with agents reminded me that getting one interested in your work is only one step towards being published. I’ve now resolved to keep on writing as long as I feel I’m producing something worthwhile/interesting. After that I’ll consider self-publishing via Amazon.
    Having signed up to follow your blog your piece on “All time favourite book” made me think – but not for long. For me, it has to be Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet which I read at 18, soon after it came out in paperback. It left a deep impression and the set has moved with me from house to house, marriage to marriage and from one country to the other. But I’ve never re-read them since my teenage. Recently I’ve wanted to but don’t dare. What if I’d now be disappointed? The Quartet hasn’t changed but I’m not the same as I was at 20 – and this is a different world.

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    • I am delighted to hear from you, though it’s sad that it should be the difficulties of finding an agent in old age that brought us together! I have recently chosen to self-publish, but definitely find I feel awkward, even apologetic about it – even though all my reviews are positive and anyone who actually gets a chance to handle the paperback always buys. (The cover is brilliant, thanks to designer Ana Grigoriu.) Another aspect of being older: selling oneself via the New Social Media not the Way We Were Brought Up. Other younger writers I have met love it. Sigh.

      If you are brave, and actually reread the Alexandria Quartet one day soon, I’d love to hear from you. I have found when I return to old favourites, I fall in love anew. But then perhaps I have never grown up…

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  2. Dave Wilcox says:

    Thanks Elizabeth for the nudge about Possession – my copy has been gathering dust on my “ToRead” shelf for a good while. You have now nudged it up to the front of the queue.
    If only there was time to read them all.
    My vote for a great literary book goes to Louis De Bernieres “Birds Without Wings”, or his South American trilogy.

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