“And perhaps half the number of diet/self-help/well-being books would be quite sufficient,” says the classicist Mary Beard, whose latest book is “Twelve Caesars.”
What books are on your night stand?
Currently I am reading Elif Shafak’s “The Island of Missing Trees,” about love across the divides of civil war in Cyprus, and about a fig tree. It’s wonderful. I never imagined enjoying a book in which one of the main characters is a tree, but it has worked for me. I also have one book there that is (sort of) for work: “The Puffin Book of School Stories” (I’m doing a feature soon on stories about schools, and this seemed a good way to start). And I just finished re-enjoying Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun.”
What’s the last great book you read?
I am not sure what you mean by “great” here. If you mean, “a book that I am as close to certain as possible will still be read in 100 years’ time, will be on school syllabuses, etc. etc.,” then I guess I would say Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Change the definition slightly and you might get a different answer.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I have had a complicated relationship with George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” over the years. I didn’t read it at high school, and for a couple of decades I enjoyed shocking all my literary friends with this dreadful gap in my reading list. I then thought that this was getting silly, and I was missing out, all for the sake of some juvenile contrarianism. So, I had it by my bed for a few months, and I think I could claim to have read it — but I am afraid by then I had ruined it for myself.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In my fantasy, it is sprawling in the sun, by a Mediterranean swimming pool, with a bottle of wine, a bowl of olives and a new novel. But it is a fantasy (in real life it is always too hot, and you can’t quite manage to read easily in your sunglasses … and the wine makes you nod off anyway). The truth is that I enjoy sitting at my desk at home or in a library, with a pile of books in front of me, pen and notebook in hand (I still make notes in the old-fashioned way). A bit dull perhaps, but sensible.
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