Book Bag: What Nick Harkaway Is Reading

The author of the rollicking spy novel Angelmaker, just out in paperback, tells us why reading novels is difficult for him.

I’m usually reading too many books—in fact I’m usually reading enough books that if the stack fell on me I’d be injured. They break into two main groups: novels I am reading because the story grips me, and nonfiction I am reading because it is too extraordinary to miss.

Patrons and PaintersBy Francis Haskell

Patrons and Painters by Francis Haskell is from the second group—a doorstop of a book about Baroque Italy. I don’t read it as one would a novel: I dip in and pull out the crazed, furious rivalries and feuds. These guys put any modern soap opera to shame. Artists steal the lovers of collectors and get drummed out of cities; fathers and sons commission opposing artworks and compete for the attention of the same women. And, of course, they all keep diaries, the tell-all blogs of the day.

The Black Count By Tom Reiss

In the same vein, but more robustly readable, is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, about the first Alexandre Dumas, father of the author of The Three Musketeers. The book begins with the 3-year-old Dumas discovering that his father has died, and promptly arming himself and heading upstairs. When his mother wants to know why, he explains that he’s going to heaven to kill God for taking his dad. You can’t argue with it as a place to begin a story (wish I’d thought of it). Much looking forward to going on with what is apparently also a trenchant and enlightening book.

The Garden of Evening Mists By Tan Twan Eng

Novels are more difficult, in a way, because I have to be careful: if what I read is too close to the topic I’m writing about, or if the author’s voice is too similar to mine, I can end up producing lousy mimicry by accident. Fortunately, Tan Twan Eng’s superb The Garden of Evening Mists is both a million miles from anything I would do and a gripping read. A new favorite.

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether PartsBy Louis de Bernières

That expression brings up, inevitably, the question of what’s an old favorite, and I’ve just found my copy of The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, Louis de Bernières’s first novel from 1990. Hilarious, mystical, bloody and appalling, it’s great stuff.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyBy Douglas Adams

And because he’s been on my mind recently, my book stack also includes a slim and very elderly paperback by the late great Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams is someone I read when I was young and I would be a different person without his scathing, witty strangeness. There are many people I wish I could have met, but of those I would love to have given a copy of my books and said, “Here: this probably wouldn’t be what it is without you,” Adams is near the top.