To Honour a Blessed Companion

My entire life has revolved, in one manner or another, around books, and I honestly cannot remember a time in my life, after I had learned to read at age 5,  when I did not have a book of some description close at hand, be it unread, waiting to be read, or read to the point of falling apart from too much love. Books are the defining constant of my life.

A 19th Century English playwright called Douglas Jerrold once famously said, “A blessed companion is a book… A book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend.” I have never disputed that, even when I was a boy, and as an adult I’ve made my living from it, writing books that many people gratefully insist they have read and re-read time and again.

As a working author, though, I find the two most common questions I’m asked by people familiar with what I do are: “What is your personal ‘best’ of all the novels you’ve written?” and “What’s your own very favourite book of all time?”  Now those are topics I can write about…

Over the years, my answer to the first of those questions has always been short and simple, though it’s one I’ve always hoped would be correct: “My very best? My next one.”

The other question, though, about my favourite book of all time, is one that I now know is unanswerable. I have been reading voraciously, every day of my life, since I was five. That has entailed a very large number of books of all kinds across the decades, resulting in a virtually endless list of books that qualify, one and all, as “favourites”—old friends I have revisited, reread and actively enjoyed over and over again throughout my life. So I have no single, specific or particular favourite book, but I have several lists of all-time favourites in different genres, and that’s what I intend to write about, for a while at least, in these columns, in the hope that I might be able to introduce some wonderful and magnificent old books to new readers.

I’m smiling as I start writing this again, because I’ve been sitting here daydreaming, thinking about book tours I’ve been on, and the thousands of readers I’ve met and spoken to in the course of them over the years throughout North America—ordinary people whose lives I’ve been fortunate enough to touch and perhaps even to influence at times, if only very slightly. I’ve always considered book tours to be my top-ranking perk as an author, because I love the interaction I get to enjoy with the people who read my stories, and my favourite part of any public presentation is when I set aside the pre-planned business and ask for questions from the people there. I get some of my best inspirations in those sessions, because I never know what’s coming next, and some of the questions are really tightly focused, forcing me to think more deeply about related aspects and incidental nuances of things I might not yet have analyzed or considered sufficiently in my early research, leading me to explore them even further than I might have prior to that insight.

Research—ongoing, sustained research into the daily lives and customs of people in ancient times—can get complex, and it can get challenging, and sometimes it can be frustrating, but I’ve found that there is no emotional high more intense that the one I experience when something clicks unexpectedly and two or more elements of what I’m working on, previously separate and unrelated, come together to make perfect sense and throw an unanticipated, revealing light on an event that has always been believed to be otherwise. That’s called a breakthrough and in historical novels it’s the kind of discovery that can make an otherwise ordinary novel magical and memorable. It’s also the principal reason why I believe in doing my own research, rather than hiring people to do the donkey work for me: you’ll never make that breakthrough connection, never have that Aha! moment, if you’re leaving the digging to other people.

And so for the next little while, you’ll find me here from time to time talking about books I’ve loved and books I recommend to friends, students and associates—books that have influenced me throughout various stages of my life. Some readers may disagree with my opinions and my suggestions, but that is all they are: opinions and suggestions. And so next week I’ll tell you about some of my very favourite books in my own genre—Historical novels.