How to read books and be influenced by people

I’m what you might call an avid reader. Or maybe you’d say I spend too much time reading about other people’s lives and it’s about time I got one of my own. Either way, the general gist is that I read a lot of books. Many of them, metaphorically speaking, go in one ear and out the other, but a few stay with me and exert a subtle (or not so subtle) influence on my life.

I confess to being inordinately fond of The Lord of the Rings (yawn! Yes, I know), but it’s never made me set out on an epic quest, and I still refuse to go camping. As it happens, I do work about 150 yards from where Tolkien once worked, but that’s not why I took the job. On the other hand, reading a lot of Dostoyevsky and a bit of Tolstoy as a teenager made me desperate to go to St Petersburg, and I still vaguely intend to someday. My two favourite places to go on holiday (by which I mean a long weekend at very long and irregular intervals) are Paris and the Lake District; Paris is a beautiful and fascinating city in itself but undoubtedly the fact that Remembrance of Things Past (possibly my favourite book) romanticises it in detail helps, and the same book still makes me want to go to Venice, even though I wouldn’t be spending months there in an apartment in an old palace, so could never experience it in the same way. I’d like to be able to say that Wordsworth contributed to my love of the Lakes (Why? Because I’m an intellectual snob) but it’s actually all down to childhood holidays in waterproofs and walking boots; I did read some Wordsworth once, but we pulled apart some poem about gathering nuts for GCSE English (I’ll get back to my dislike of English Literature as a subject later) and I can’t disentangle him from that memory.

Raymond Chandler, who I esteem far more than Dashiell Hammett, and whose sparse style I would love to be able to match, evokes a magical, if dark, 1930s California. It doesn’t make me want to visit LA because Chandler’s world no longer exists, but it did make me want to buy a 1930s travel guide to California, illustrated with copious black and white photos, that I once saw in an Oxfam bookshop. When I went back for it, it was gone, probably snapped up by someone with similar ideas. If only I’d read more books that persuaded me to seize opportunities.

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