Shelf Life: Stig Abell on five books that made him

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of How Britain Really Works picks the novels that have shaped his life, from Bill Bryson and Jane Austen to the writer who became his 'mid-life saver'.

Told to Sam Parker
Stig Abell
Abell at his office in central London, February 2020. Photo: Stuart Simpson / Penguin Books

When I was a child, I’d go to the shed at the bottom of my garden and sit on top of it reading Just William by Richmal Crompton. It was my first feeling of total immersion in a book. Sometimes, I’d be eating an apple I’d stolen from the neighbour’s tree, which is the kind of thing William would do. I was also, like him, perennially scruffy – to the point of almost embarrassing people. I could walk down the street on the way to school and immediately just be a mess. 

There’s not much jeopardy in William’s world, so it’s kind of reassuring. But there is an aspect of wildness that was already removed from modern life by the time I got to it. These kids have penknives and cut themselves, and they make fires and get into fights. It’s all just part of the rough and tumble of life. 

They're great stories that still stand up now, but my kids can’t get into them. I think it's a shame. One of the things I think children don't have now is negative capability, when you open a book and don’t know what's going on for a while but it’s OK, you live with it and keep reading. These days, exposition happens right away. You see it in movies, too. My kids are clever, but they're not used to that approach to writing.

'I've always aspired to his ability to turn a sentence'

I would have been in my early teens when The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson came out. I think the reason I loved it so much – and still do – is that it taught me a person with a warm, witty voice could write about anything and it would be worth reading. 

It also started my lifelong love of Americana, and was my gateway into American literature. When I did my interview for Cambridge, which I felt very overawed by, they asked me to name my favourite author and I said Bill Bryson. I’ve always aspired to his ability to turn a sentence, to summarise something deftly. I regard him as a sort of governing angel of my prose, and have done since I was 11.

In my mid 20s, I started to have moments of mental unrest where I’d wake up shaking. It wasn't full-blown panic, but it was in that realm. I used to often feel these moments of unease, as well as low-level anxiety. It was very manageable, in the sense that most people didn't know and I petered along in my professional life, but it was always there.  I found that the moments where I  felt most repose was when reading.

It's a brilliant story about a world of 1950/60s America which has been endlessly mythologised, and yet it has the freshness of a new take on it. It’s full of morally questionable people, including perhaps my favourite character in all of fiction, Pete Bondrant, the 6'5" Canadian mercenary who is a good guy, in the sense that he tries to have a certain moral code, but is also, you know, a gangster who kills people for money. It's a very violent novel that makes you question your enjoyment of violence, and knows it's doing that. It’s one of the books I always give to people.

On a scale of reading cosiness, for me you’d have James Ellroy at one end and P.G. Wodehouse at the other. Psmith, Journalist is the best book ever written about journalism, which is the trade I am in, and the idea of taking on a magazine and revamping it, as Psmith does in the book, is not a million miles away from my life either, so that makes me laugh. 

‘Smith with the silent P’ is another of my favourite characters, because he combines what I think of as ideals in a person: he's very kind and thoughtful, but he also doesn't care what people think and is a great free spirit. Even though he’s a toff with a monocle, he can mix it up a bit. He is also endlessly interested in the world and in people.

'He became a mid-life saver for me'

Wodehouse is very funny, but he has meant so much more to me than that. When I read Psmith, Journalist I had just finished with the PCC [Press Complaints Commision] and the Leveson Inquiry, I had two young kids, and it was one of those moments in my life when I was teetering. Wodehouse became a sort of mid-life saver. I would read him every day, for ten minutes before I went to sleep. His work kept me sane, kept me together. Even now I read him almost all the time. It’s so familiar and comforting, but there is also a sort of hard-earned wisdom to it. The great thing about books is that they mark stages in your life. They always seem to stand for something larger than they are.

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