“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?