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The books that made me Every library is autobiographical

Books beget books. Credit: Jude Edginton/Contour/Getty Images

Books beget books. Credit: Jude Edginton/Contour/Getty Images


February 1, 2023   6 mins

“Where do you get your ideas from?” In the days when I wrote for children, I went into schools to talk to them, and this was a stock question. In replying, I used initially to say, “well, quite a lot of my ideas come from books”, an answer that would sometimes provoke the stern response, “but shouldn’t you think of things for yourself?”

I know just what the child was thinking — she had plagiarism in mind, not yet being aware of the formative, the directive effect of reading. She would be doing it — reading — but did not yet know what it was doing to her. It is hard to explain to a child the way in which fiction arrives, for anyone who tries to write it, out of a personal and specific system of thought that has been primed by all sorts of things — life experience, opinion, outlook, and by the life of the mind, by reading.

Books beget books. Intertextuality, the critics like to call it. I am at the end of a writing life; I just read now. So, the process whereby reading so often became writing is over, for me. It has been an almost unconscious process, from childhood on: I have read for enjoyment, for instruction, for education — but most of all in the serendipitous way that has supplied the essential prompts for 50 years of writing fiction.

It all began in Egypt, where I was born and spent my childhood, most of that during the Second World War. Home educated, my favourite reading matter was Andrew Lang’s Tales from Greece and Rome, the 19th-century retelling of the great mythologies. Part of the fascination was that I was right in there anyway — Penelope — and at eight or nine your grasp of the distinction between fact and fiction is somewhat frail. I simply felt that all this had some direct personal relevance — the siege of Troy, the wanderings of Ulysses, the lot.

The trouble was that I was in there with the wrong role. It is made clear that Penelope is not as beautiful as Helen. She is wise and good — qualities that did not have much appeal. Furthermore, Ulysses is not a patch on Hector or Achilles — he is short in stature and is perceived as unreliable. So, I did some expedient re-jigging of Andrew Lang — re-wrote Penelope’s part and brought things more up to date. The backdrop of our lives in Egypt at the time was the Libyan campaign, with Rommel’s armies pounding their way towards Cairo, and columns of tanks and armoured cars a familiar sight on the roads. So, I set Penelope up with Achilles, and kitted him out with tank and bren gun — no more stuff about swords and horses.

I couldn’t know, of course, that I was operating in a fine tradition — re-working the Homeric stories has gone on for centuries. But for me it was the start; what I read began to direct the imagination. And that has gone on ever since, more often opportune than deliberate, a book I stumble across serving up the idea that will take wings and become the basis of a novel.

Not every reader feels impelled to write, but some do, as though the reading had been some involuntary training for something. I am a great fan of Elizabeth Bowen, who offers a perfect example of one piece of fiction leaving its mark upon another. She has a wonderfully atmospheric story called “Mysterious Kor”, in which a pair of lovers wander the deserted streets of night-time London in 1942. Her descriptions of the moonlit facades of blitzed buildings, the sense of emptiness, abandonment, reads as though there were undertones of something else — and she herself wrote later that she had realised that this was owed to the memory of reading, as a child, Rider Haggard’s novel She, with its mysterious abandoned city.

These influences are made apparent in Alberto Manguel’s lovely book The Library at Night, which is all about reading, what it does to you, what it has done to him. He says: “Every library is autobiographical… our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and where we have been… What makes a library a reflection of its owner is not merely the choice of titles themselves, but the mesh of associations implied in the choice.” A great library — a great national library — is a metaphor for memory. But so, in its small way, is the collection of books in anyone’s house. They tell you where the owner has been, what the collecting mind has been up to.

I have written 17 novels, very many short stories, several rather maverick forms of memoir, and that is that — I am done. If I look along my own shelves, I see their origins. My library reveals an intense concentration on history and archaeology: this has been my favoured reading territory, for 50 years or more. So, it is no accident that several of my novels have featured historians or archaeologists as central characters. Within this area of interest are individual books from which the lightning struck: if I had not read a biography of William Stukeley, the 18th-century antiquarian who mapped Stonehenge, I might never have written a novel about archaeologists (and much else) called Treasures of Time. Picking up a booklet about Martin Frobisher, the Elizabethan seaman, gave me the backdrop for a London novel, City of the Mind. I owe to Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life, about the Cambrian fossils of a rock face in Canada, the sudden explosion of an idea for a novel about choice and contingency — and a love story — Cleopatra’s Sister.

Here is the answer to the child’s question. Ideas come from books — not in any sense of derivation, but entirely in the sense of fertilisation. Something is read that slots in with long-term preoccupations and sets a story going. The account of that gentleman pottering around Stonehenge with his charts and his measuring ropes; the concept of those strange fossils preserved in the Burgess Shale deposits, one of which is ancestral to ourselves.

About 3,000 books line the walls of my house. Most of them I shall never read again, but they must stay there. They define me; they remind me that I thought this, was interested in that; they reassure me, as I hurtle towards 90. Occasionally I shed a few books, but to get rid of many of them would be like discarding part of my mind.

Old age is strange and unexpected territory. I say unexpected because most of us don’t much think about old age until we find ourselves in it. When you are young, it is never going to happen, so why bother? When it begins to appear on the horizon, like a foretaste of bad weather, you look away and get on with something else, which is entirely sensible. Only when you find yourself in it do you appreciate what a new and different life situation it is. A number of years ago, I enjoyed writing a book about my view from 80, Ammonites and Leaping Fish. I was putting my own life into context, setting it against the historical process during which I had lived — the Second World War, the Cold War years, feminism, the legalisation of homosexuality.

I can see that novels of mine written in later life — Consequences, How It All Began — are more reflective about the course of a life, which is a marriage, for anyone, of choice and contingency. These thoughts were prompted both by my own experience of getting older, and an interest in the ideas behind chaos theory, the scientific discussion of the way in which one event triggers another: a butterfly in Brazil flaps its wings and provokes a typhoon in Texas. The science is hard to follow but the implication is fodder for a novelist — in anyone’s life there is an apparently random sequence of events.

This is something you appreciate fully in later life. My late life reading is focussed upon enjoyment and enlightenment, though I know that the lifelong habit of pouncing on something just because it looks promising is still operative, even if the something is no longer going to be the possible prompt for a novel or a story. I seem to have come full cycle — back to the reading addiction of my childhood, with the writing years as a legacy in the middle. There has been a re-read of Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus — goodness, what a stylist, what arresting felicities, what a power to evoke a place, a person, a moment. I have been enjoying our contemporary women novelists — anything by Louise Doughty, Sarah Moss, Carys Davies — and anything by Adam Thorpe, John Lanchester, Ian McEwen. I have revelled in Katherine Rundell’s biography of John Donne, a glittering instance of life writing, intense and evocative.

And there is the way in which this is visible, with what has been written reflecting what is on the bookshelves — the archaeologists and historians who pop up in novels or stories, the themes explored in fiction prompted by subject matter on the shelves. Books beget books.


Dame Penelope Lively is the author of over 40 books. They include Moon Tiger, for which she won the Booker Prize; The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, for which she won the Carnegie Medal; and multiple memoirs.


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Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
1 year ago

What a lovely essay, from a great writer. Thank you.

Graeme Archer
Graeme Archer
1 year ago

What a lovely essay, from a great writer. Thank you.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

The richness of a life, lived with reflective intelligence and rooted in the full scope of our civilisation, encapsulated here for our own entertainment (in its deeper sense) and enjoyment.

Clearly, Penelope is not quite done yet. This contribution to Unherd is priceless, and i sincerely hope its not her last.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

The richness of a life, lived with reflective intelligence and rooted in the full scope of our civilisation, encapsulated here for our own entertainment (in its deeper sense) and enjoyment.

Clearly, Penelope is not quite done yet. This contribution to Unherd is priceless, and i sincerely hope its not her last.

Elliott Bjorn
Elliott Bjorn
1 year ago

I remember once Kipling being asked when he would write another full novel – he wrote short stories and essays later, but after his last great and full novel – and I cannot remember which it was, but at the height of his career, he never did another again.

He told the person who asked that he had none left in him. He had those he wrote, and once they were put down, there were no more left in him.

I always loved that for some reason. Being a book person, and Kipling wrote some of the best, the idea that a great book was a Thing – it was a whole, and very rare, very amazing – not just something one sat down and did, but was this thing – like a great archetype, like the Great Greek Myths; existing in the creative person as a thing as if made by your life, or born in you….

If you love great books like I do it is good to think this – that they are what they are – only that person has that book in them, and it is a book – not just something they produced by mere hard work of stringing words like a brick mason laying bricks to make a wall.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Elliott Bjorn

I remember once hearing an interview with a writer, I think,, and I can’t remember who he was; when the interviewer said isn’t it true that everyone has a book inside him, the writer replied that maybe they do, but in most cases it should be left there.

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago

Absolutely right!
And the same is true, only more so, for poetry. There are many who are too lazy to write a book, but are uninhibited about inflicting their doggerel on us. No statement makes my heart sink to quite the same extent as “I am a poet.” (And it’s usually “I am a poet” rather than “I write poetry.”)

John Solomon
John Solomon
1 year ago

Absolutely right!
And the same is true, only more so, for poetry. There are many who are too lazy to write a book, but are uninhibited about inflicting their doggerel on us. No statement makes my heart sink to quite the same extent as “I am a poet.” (And it’s usually “I am a poet” rather than “I write poetry.”)

B Emery
B Emery
1 year ago
Reply to  Elliott Bjorn

Brilliant article and an inspiring comment Mr Bjorn.
Thank you unherd.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Elliott Bjorn

I remember once hearing an interview with a writer, I think,, and I can’t remember who he was; when the interviewer said isn’t it true that everyone has a book inside him, the writer replied that maybe they do, but in most cases it should be left there.

B Emery
B Emery
1 year ago
Reply to  Elliott Bjorn

Brilliant article and an inspiring comment Mr Bjorn.
Thank you unherd.

Elliott Bjorn
Elliott Bjorn
1 year ago

I remember once Kipling being asked when he would write another full novel – he wrote short stories and essays later, but after his last great and full novel – and I cannot remember which it was, but at the height of his career, he never did another again.

He told the person who asked that he had none left in him. He had those he wrote, and once they were put down, there were no more left in him.

I always loved that for some reason. Being a book person, and Kipling wrote some of the best, the idea that a great book was a Thing – it was a whole, and very rare, very amazing – not just something one sat down and did, but was this thing – like a great archetype, like the Great Greek Myths; existing in the creative person as a thing as if made by your life, or born in you….

If you love great books like I do it is good to think this – that they are what they are – only that person has that book in them, and it is a book – not just something they produced by mere hard work of stringing words like a brick mason laying bricks to make a wall.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I had forgotten all about Penelope Lively (oops, I hope she doesn’t read the comments section!). I’ll check my public library catalogue and see which of her books are there.
I wonder why she has stopped writing? I know she’s very old and perhaps a novel seems too daunting, but perhaps short stories could still be written for fun. I’ve met elderly people, though, who happily accept observation as their primary activity. They seem to be gradually disengaging from active life.
I’m glad the author mentioned Elizabeth Bowen. What a fine writer who is now mostly forgotten. I read her “Demon Lover” not so long ago in an anthology. Yes, it was full of exotic atmosphere even though the story was set in wartime England. She’s another writer I’ll have to revisit.
This article was a pleasant surprise.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There are so many writers who go out of fashion, but are still good, and sometimes wonderful, reads. I bought a couple of books in a charity shop recently by two writers that I’d never heard of – Barbara Pym and Rose Macaulay, and I thoughly enjoyed them both. I couldn’t resist the book by the latter writer especially; any book that has the first line:
“Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
must be worth a read.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There are so many writers who go out of fashion, but are still good, and sometimes wonderful, reads. I bought a couple of books in a charity shop recently by two writers that I’d never heard of – Barbara Pym and Rose Macaulay, and I thoughly enjoyed them both. I couldn’t resist the book by the latter writer especially; any book that has the first line:
“Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
must be worth a read.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I had forgotten all about Penelope Lively (oops, I hope she doesn’t read the comments section!). I’ll check my public library catalogue and see which of her books are there.
I wonder why she has stopped writing? I know she’s very old and perhaps a novel seems too daunting, but perhaps short stories could still be written for fun. I’ve met elderly people, though, who happily accept observation as their primary activity. They seem to be gradually disengaging from active life.
I’m glad the author mentioned Elizabeth Bowen. What a fine writer who is now mostly forgotten. I read her “Demon Lover” not so long ago in an anthology. Yes, it was full of exotic atmosphere even though the story was set in wartime England. She’s another writer I’ll have to revisit.
This article was a pleasant surprise.

Josef O
Josef O
1 year ago

Spot on, books serve as fertilisers to one’s imagination. The more you read the wider it gets. But I would add also travelling. In this sense there is an old saying of chinese origin: walk ten thousand miles, read ten thousand books. The ancient greeks agree, meta hodos, the things I learn while I am on my way (from which derives the word we use today method ie met-hod). Not to mention the books you read while you are travelling.

Josef O
Josef O
1 year ago

Spot on, books serve as fertilisers to one’s imagination. The more you read the wider it gets. But I would add also travelling. In this sense there is an old saying of chinese origin: walk ten thousand miles, read ten thousand books. The ancient greeks agree, meta hodos, the things I learn while I am on my way (from which derives the word we use today method ie met-hod). Not to mention the books you read while you are travelling.

susie Gilchrist
susie Gilchrist
1 year ago

Thank you Penelope Lively! I am not quite as old as you but getting there and my bookshelves are the story of my life – and they include many of yours!

susie Gilchrist
susie Gilchrist
1 year ago

Thank you Penelope Lively! I am not quite as old as you but getting there and my bookshelves are the story of my life – and they include many of yours!

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago

More articles of this quality and interest please! Wonderful

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago

More articles of this quality and interest please! Wonderful

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
1 year ago

I have loved Penelope Lively since her earliest writing for young people. She is priceless. Long may she continue.

Last edited 1 year ago by Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
1 year ago

I have loved Penelope Lively since her earliest writing for young people. She is priceless. Long may she continue.

Last edited 1 year ago by Geraldine Kelley
Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago

A pleasure to read. I have never read any of Penelope Lively’s works, but always mean to – my never-ending list…It’s always interesting to see what writers other writers like to read. I’m afraid her choice of John Lanchester (The Wall was, simply, awful; but his non-fiction work is much better) and Ian McEwen (pick up a book by him, thinking it must be better than the last one I read, but no, it never is) has made me think less of her. I wish I had stopped before I got to her likes.

Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago

A pleasure to read. I have never read any of Penelope Lively’s works, but always mean to – my never-ending list…It’s always interesting to see what writers other writers like to read. I’m afraid her choice of John Lanchester (The Wall was, simply, awful; but his non-fiction work is much better) and Ian McEwen (pick up a book by him, thinking it must be better than the last one I read, but no, it never is) has made me think less of her. I wish I had stopped before I got to her likes.

Ruairi O'Leary
Ruairi O'Leary
1 year ago

What a lovely article. And of course it helps me justify to myself why I spend so much on books, which makes it even better!

Ruairi O'Leary
Ruairi O'Leary
1 year ago

What a lovely article. And of course it helps me justify to myself why I spend so much on books, which makes it even better!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

“Books beget books”; I love that. I hope we hear more from Ms. Lively. And my thanks to UnHerd for introducing me to her work.
My own library (if I may be so bold; it’s mostly found books) has turned out to be a remarkable sort of dopple-ganger of my mind. I don’t write, but if I needed to leave an autobiography a simple list of titles, authors and dates would do very nicely. A description of the covers and spines would help to add some “color”. After all, even though I haven’t opened some of them in decades, the spines are an integral part of my world.
And just now it occured to me that there’s the makings of a lovely ghost story, staring down at me, just waiting to be written. Books beget…

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

“Books beget books”; I love that. I hope we hear more from Ms. Lively. And my thanks to UnHerd for introducing me to her work.
My own library (if I may be so bold; it’s mostly found books) has turned out to be a remarkable sort of dopple-ganger of my mind. I don’t write, but if I needed to leave an autobiography a simple list of titles, authors and dates would do very nicely. A description of the covers and spines would help to add some “color”. After all, even though I haven’t opened some of them in decades, the spines are an integral part of my world.
And just now it occured to me that there’s the makings of a lovely ghost story, staring down at me, just waiting to be written. Books beget…