Since my late teens, I’ve read widely motivated by people who seemed to know everything. The list of people who inspired me and forced me to question everything I knew includes rappers and authors, but the most authoritative figure in my literary adventure is beyond doubt, the incredible Stephan Fry. I thought I’d never fall in love with fiction, but I once thought I’d never enjoy reading. I was wrong.
QI, and Questioning Everything
QI is a British panel show based around interesting facts that often have a more in-depth story behind their truthfulness, resulting in some absurd observations. Did you know, for example, Oscar Wilde tore off and ate a corner of each page after he’d read it. But what’s more absurd is that I wrote an article about strange writer facts without this little titbit.
Stephen Fry hosted the programme for 18 years before stepping down from what he called the “best job on television.” The teenage me was a massive fan of the comical quiz show, but the main draw for more was the wit and intelligence of Stephan Fry.
And so, I lost my self in the newest series on the BBC and repeats on Watch and Dave. Stephan Fry grew to become one of my idols and fuelled a desire to learn more about history. However, my passion for new information never seemed to find reading as fun in its fictional form, despite the intense admiration Stephan held for the literary classics.
The Politics of Music
Reading never seemed cool. I remember an interview with my Favourite rapper, Eminem, talking about the only book he’d ever read being LL Cool J’s autobiography. Yet, he grew to become one of the most revered wordsmiths of a generation and reading appeared to be an outdated medium. What could I learn from a book that I couldn’t gain from a documentary?
I’ve always enjoyed music from the London grime scene. Today, it has gained traction, but back then, it was still mostly underground. In my school days, it was even further from the mainstream, although there were few notable breakout artists such as Dizzee Rascal, one of my favourite rappers was a young man named Akala, who does far more than just rap nowadays.
Akala and Lowkey transitioned into more socially political topics and boasted about the extent of their bookshelves. Akala raps a line about owing a library that costs more than a rapper’s chain, signalling the importance of knowledge over material wealth in the quest for power. Suddenly understanding the world in today’s climate as opposed to history seemed more important than being perceived as cool.
The First Impact
Stephen Fry had me reading books by Niall Ferguson and delving into a whole range of historical non-fiction. Ferguson’s books have earned criticism for his celebration of the British Empire, despite depriving indigenous populations their rights to own land and a vote in a democracy. His book rarely mentions the struggles of life at home in the empire of Britain. But that doesn’t mean they don’t offer anything intellectually.
However, rappers, like Lowkey, had me engaged with politics and eager to discover the reasoning behind those who wage war and those who campaign against it. The first book I read of this nature was called Secret Affairs. It detailed how America and the UK created groups such as Al Qaeda to fight wars they couldn’t, such as the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Its books like these that contradict the education we’re all fortunate to enjoy for free in this country. I needed to know more.
Writing a Novel and Reading
I sat in a pub and gulped down cocktails with a friend and told her a story from my university days. She gawked at the relationship dynamics between friends, the sex and lies and told me it was something that could only happen in my world. Which I must admit, seemed accurate until I’d done some digging. However, she planted the seed, and I decided to try and write a novel.
The problem was I’d only ever written in rhyme schemes and measured everything by the complexity of these patterns. My knowledge of fiction and literature, in general, came from music. I’d used formal language to write scholarly essays and used different techniques to write poetry, but beyond that, I had no idea how to write a novel.
All the advice suggested reading was essential to good writing, but I was stubborn and defiant. However, reading over my appalling first draft for the first time, I realised I needed to understand the mechanism behind a good story. So, I headed to Kindle and searched for something to guide me in the right directions. With endless options and pages of free to read e-books, I settled on something that appeared easy to read.
The First Fictional Novel
Nobody Has Sex in the Suburbs was the second book in a series, but I’d learned that after reading. The story follows a couple having their first baby after an affair and uncertainty around who the baby’s father is. The book is essentially a cliched comedy of errors, however on my first read-through, with limited knowledge of literature, I enjoyed it.
I’m not suggesting I’ve grown into a literary expert, far from it, but I have developed an understanding of what I want from a story. Back then, I wanted something to show me that I could write a novel, regardless of quality. That’s what this book did, it motivated me.
Books didn’t have to be crime thrillers that my mother enjoyed, but they could be comical at times about affairs, love and relationships. That’s what my novels about, and if this can find its way to my new reading list. Surely, I can capture the hearts of readers everywhere.
I Fell in Love with Harry Potter, And Then Fiction
How can anyone not fall in love with fiction after reading Harry Potter?
I read the first few books as a child then grew up and convinced myself reading wasn’t worth the effort. However, I read the entire series and found myself in love with the characters all over again. I’d always loved the films, but the books gave us more information and insight into the lives of the young side characters.
Of course, the series isn’t without its faults. Plot holes are easy to find, if you look for them, which I have no desire to do out of a fondness for the story. But I can’t help thinking how much better The Goblet of Fire book would have been had Hermione not gone on a crusade to free the elves from a life of servitude.
It isn’t that I agree with the principle of forced labour, I just think when used as a plot device, it needs to add something to the overall plot. By this point, we all knew Hermione’s character. We all loved dobby and sympathised with his flaws and his struggles under the wicked Lucius Malfoy. I’m not sure why I needed these scenes dragging me away from Lord Voldemort’s return.
White Teeth, To Kill a Mockingbird and Atonement
If you ask me for my favourite novels of all time, I’ll list the three above. To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book I’d read after revisiting Harry Potter and I fell in love with Scout’s innocence, and the wholehearted good nature of her father, Atticus Finch. The book begins with Scout recounting the day her brother broke his arm, which leads to the story. It was the first real lesson I learnt in writing. The start and the end must be in sync. The story doesn’t have to start at the end, but the conclusion must feel inevitable from the first page, as though everything has come full circle, and reunited.
For example, Atonement begins with a play, written by Briony, who we later learn is the real narrator. The events in the story take over the performance of the young writer’s beloved work. However, the tragic ending also offers up a sense of redemption, or atonement, when a now aged Briony’s grandchildren, nieces, nephews, perform the forgotten play. The play has no effect on the basic story, except to show Briony’s character. However, the final performance suggests that the non-performance may have been the reason why everything dissolved into chaos. Has the performance put everything right again?
But White Teeth, made me want to wake up and read. And write. I need to reread it.