I’ve not long watched ‘Scotland’s Favourite Book’ on the iPlayer, one of those progammes produced periodically listing our country’s best books. Of the top 10 featured in the programme, I have read seven of them, including the winner of the public poll, Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Unusually, given that book’s place on the Higher English syllabus for generations, I didn’t actually read it for school, rather I read it the summer before fifth year, the summer I actually visited the Grassic Gibbon Centre in the Mearns when on holiday in that bit of the world. For those who don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it for you. But it is one of those books that stays with you and every time I am in the Mearns, I imagine scenes from the book, the landscape evoked and brought to life in its pages.
As a matter of fact, I read a lot of the books on the list during my high school years. I went through the senior section of the school library and read many of the Scottish classics during that time, including The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (which I read around the same time as I did its creative descendant, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was on the longlist), The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Just around the time I left school, I discovered Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels and devoured the lot within a couple of months. As a matter of fact, with my first wage, I went to the now defunct Borders book shop at Fort Kinnaird, a retail park on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and spent a fair few quid on books, including many of the Rebus books I hadn’t yet read, including Exit Music, which at the time was the latest one. I’ve been in and out of love with the Rebus books over the years. Some of them are better written than others. The most recent one, Rather Be The Devil, which came out on Thursday, I read the day it came out and it was better than some of the last few. Malcolm Fox is a decent addition to the series and balances Rebus and Siobhan Clarke well. Anyway, Knots and Crosses was the Rebus novel chosen for ‘Scotland’s Favourite Books’ and it is the first one in the series, with a very different feel, written in a more deliberately literary way than later books.
Of the other books, I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 10, just around when the third book came out. I think I have written here before about my Harry Potter love. I re-read them still at least once a year and I read at least three of the books the day they came out.
Very different is The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which I read in my early twenties. It and many of Banks’s other works had been recommended to me and I went through a few. The Wasp Factory is very weird and that is my only memory of it, if I am honest.
The other three books on the list – Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, Lanark by Alasdair Gray and the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – I haven’t read yet, though I have seen Lanark on the stage when it was put on by the Citizens Theatre last year some time. It is all too rich and allegorical for me. Alasdair Gray is a talented writer and artist but I always feel like I am swimming full-pelt to keep up with the ideas in his work.
My high school library was surprisingly decent. It wasn’t well-funded but the librarian did her best. I have no overarching vision about how we should get children and teenagers to read but having a well-stocked library to hand, and people to encourage you to explore it, is invaluable. I read before I went to school and I certainly read a fair bit nearly a decade after I left it and it is because I have had access to libraries. Plus having been fortunate to afford to buy or been given some books occasionally. Books make you stronger in just about every sense, including physically if you have to humpf loads of them about the place, and I have no doubt that in my teenage years, as now, books made me who I am today.