The biographer and journalist, whose latest book is “The Husband Hunters,” avoids thrillers: “I get all the mayhem I want in the newspapers.”
What books are on your nightstand?
My bedside table would be a literary archaeologist’s dream (or nightmare), layer upon layer of books, some dating back years, some picked up and dropped, others read avidly until they go back to their home bookshelf. At the bottom is “The Best Calorie Counter Ever” — residue of a time when I vainly tried to lose an unwanted two kilograms — followed by a book of Byron’s poetry, a perennial favorite. Then, in no particular order, come the Bible I was given by my mother when I was confirmed (the Revised version); “The Duff Cooper Diaries”; “The Golden Ass,” by Apuleius; “Nothing Sacred” (a collection of essays), by Angela Carter; the last chunk of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn; and an iPhone-size booklet of Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad.”
When and where do you like to read?
The short answer is: almost everywhere. I read the newspapers over an early, leisurely breakfast (freshly ground coffee, fruit and homemade granola, in case you’re wondering), then usually have to tackle something work-related, which means more books. I never leave the house without something to read in my bag — the horror of being trapped for half an hour on the tube between Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly Circus, owing to a signal failure, with nothing to read, is still with me. And I always read for half an hour in bed before going to sleep.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, I suppose. Despite its age, it’s still one of the best authorities on grammar, punctuation and sentence construction; and if these basics are second nature, sentences that are lucid and smooth-flowing are more likely, leading the reader on.
Your own books excluded, what books would you recommend about the British upper classes?
There are loads, many by the British upper classes themselves — memoirs, diaries, novels, etc. — if only because historically they tended to be the only classes with time to write. Many of the other classes were kept too busy working for them. But for a brilliant run-down, try David Cannadine’s “The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.” Or indeed, Chips Channon’s diaries.
What books did you feel were overrated?
I came to Henry James with huge expectations but found I could not digest his orotundities and much prefer his contemporary Edith Wharton. She was absolutely one of New York’s upper crust and, as she wrote about what she knew — and knew what she wrote about — when I read her novel “The Buccaneers” I wondered who had been the real-life “buccaneers” … hence my book about them, “The Husband Hunters.” Of living authors, I have difficulties with much of Martin Amis, huge, windy American blockbusters — Jonathan Franzen springs to mind — most of Salman Rushdie, books by women who think that no one else has ever had a baby or brought up teenagers or been through a divorce, etc. And any book where the author refers to him/herself as “going on a personal journey.”
What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
Perhaps every volume of Pepys’s diaries? Plus various obscure ones that I have needed to research my own.
What’s your favorite genre, and are there any genres you avoid?
That’s easy — a really good biography by a really good writer, about someone fascinating. The best often read almost like novels: They have light and shade, pace in the right places, a broad social context that explains the subject’s motivation and actions and, in some cases, a life whose trajectory is almost like a plotline. Selina Hastings’s “The Secret Life of Somerset Maugham” is an example.
Enormously long books, too heavy to hold when I’m reading in bed, are a no-no, nor do I ever read thrillers, detective stories or murder mysteries — they just don’t interest me. Besides, I get all the mayhem I want in the newspapers.
Which books by contemporary historians — both academic and amateur — do you most admire?
I loved Jane Ridley’s “Bertie,” a wonderful biography of Edward VII (published in the United States as “The Heir Apparent”), which was impeccably researched, highly entertaining and brilliantly envisioned. Another that really captured me was Nicholas Shakespeare’s “Six Minutes in May,” the story of how Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940 — although one knew what was going to happen, it was a real page-turner.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — do you admire most?
India Knight of The Sunday Times and Jan Moir of The Daily Mail are brilliant columnists. Rod Liddle, also of The Sunday Times, is one of my heroes: so witty, so trenchant, so unafraid of political correctness — I read every word he writes and laugh over many of them. I loved Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Catherine the Great and Potemkin,” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” Miranda Seymour’s “Ottoline Morrell” and any well-written diary or volume of letters.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
As a child I used to be in floods over the death of Akela in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” and the bad patches in the life of Black Beauty (a handsome black thoroughbred horse) in Anna Sewell’s eponymous story. I cried a lot when I was writing the story of the Thetis (a terrible submarine tragedy) in my book about 1939. But today it’s mainly clunking prose that makes me want to weep.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?
I had always believed that growing tea was just as much a part of Indian agriculture as it was of China’s — an age-old custom rather than a comparatively recent introduction. “For All the Tea in China,” by Sarah Rose, is a fascinating account of how tea came to India in the 19th century, with stories of stolen seedlings, a merchant disguised as a mandarin and the correct way to brew a cup of tea.
What three writers, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
Nancy Mitford, for her wit, funniness and immense chic; Michael Wolff, for the riveting stories he could tell about the White House; and the diarist James Lees-Milne, for his all-around erudition, charm and good conversation.