My books tend to take a long time — an increasingly, dismayingly long time, in fact. The last big book, “Underland,” took getting on for a decade, though as its subject was deep time I felt I had an excuse not to rush it. Inevitably, then, I read as I go, and nothing much gets outlawed. I do find myself returning increasingly to early epics, which then make their ways in unexpected forms into my books. Finland’s folk epic “The Kalevala” surfaces in “Underland,” and “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are both obliquely present in “Ghostways.”
During lockdown, with the musician and actor Johnny Flynn, I co-wrote an album of songs arising from “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest written story in literature. That remarkable text — surviving as cuneiform on clay tablets — records the first great act of environmental destruction, when Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu take their axes to the sacred trees of the Cedar Forest: a bad idea, as it turns out. “It was the first of the tellings / Of all of the fellings,” starts one of our songs.
Do you count any books as comfort reads? Or guilty pleasures?
Every winter I reread — sometimes for myself, sometimes with my children — Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising,” surely one of the eeriest novels there is. I know many thousands of other people do the same around the world: a true midwinter comfort. And then there’s Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin nautical novel-cycle, which I’ve read three times now, not least for its beautiful portrayal of a long-term male friendship. During lockdown I ran an online Twitter reading group for Nan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain.” Thousands of people from around the world “walked together” into that book and the mountains it describes, at a time when most of us could go no further than the curtilage of our dwellings. There was a comfort in that companionship.
What writers are especially good on the natural world?
Alive now, writing now? Richard Powers and Cormac McCarthy. A young Indian naturalist called Yuvan Aves whose Instagram posts are minor classics of that ultramodern form. Environmental historians such as Bathsheba Demuth, Kate Brown and Elizabeth Rush. Lauret Savoy, whose “Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape” is a landmark text. Jeff VanderMeer for recognizing the sheer eldritch eeriness of “nature”: How can a world that contains the hagfish, the axolotl and the Devil’s Finger fungus not make for weird writing? N. K. Jemisin and M. John Harrison. Among the dead, well, some of the most extraordinary “nature writing” I know is by Celtic monks from the eighth and ninth centuries, or Tang Dynasty wanderer-poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu. And then there’s W. G. Sebald, Nan Shepherd, and J. A. Baker, whose “The Peregrine” is one of the few set-texts for Werner Herzog’s “Rogue Film School” — along with Virgil’s “Eclogues” and “The Warren Report”!
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” Wild landscapes, weird nature, science fiction — this really should be my jam. But no; the violence came to sicken me by halfway through, as did aspects of the politics. So I junked it.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I’m not sure I hold with the distinction. Nabokov has some fine lines about “reading with your spine,” and waiting for the “telltale tingle” between the shoulder-blades that tells you when a book has power. That seems a right rule to me. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle,” he goes on, “Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.” Whoosh!