June 23, 2024

Sam Byers: ‘JM Coetzee made me vegetarian’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
Like many people who go on to have an overactive imagination, I was unwell as a child. I remember long weeks at home, in bed or with a duvet on the sofa, reading whatever I could get my hands on. My childhood hero was Tintin – so many frames from those books are indelibly imprinted on my mind. I also reread Roald Dahl’s The Witches again and again – despite, or perhaps because of, the nightmares it gave me.

The writer who changed my mind
Everything we encounter changes our mind to some degree. We’re works in progress, and the process is additive and cumulative. Just in the past few years: Karen Armstrong challenged my misconceptions about faith, Robin Wall Kimmerer permanently altered my perception of plants, and JM Coetzee made me a vegetarian.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I can imagine the eye-rolls this answer will provoke, but it’s important not to retrofit our inspirations. The now much-maligned Beat generation showed me a vision of literature totally unlike anything I’d encountered: unstructured and improvisatory, free and full of abandon. I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at 18 and set off for Asia, where I spewed forth a torrent of unpunctuated and unreadable spontaneous thought. My writing has changed profoundly since, but my joy in the doing of it, which the Beats instilled, has never waned.

The author I came back to
I remember some years ago reading an essay by Richard Ford in which he said that Anton Chekhov is not a writer the young can readily understand. I felt sure at the time that I could understand anything I wanted, but this year I dipped back into Chekhov and saw exactly what Ford meant. I’d never disliked Chekhov as such, but I see now that the full extent of his brilliance wasn’t always available to me.

The book I discovered later in life
I’m 42, so I hope the discoveries of later life are still to come. It has been a long, slow journey with poetry. The first half of my life has been dominated by the novel form. Now the balance is shifting. A few years ago I read Louise Glück’s poem The Wild Iris and felt my whole self slide sideways. Last year I read John Ashbery’s Flow Chart and my sense of time and its passing has never recovered. This year I’ve been reading Paul Celan, and it’s as if I must go back to language all over again and rethink it.

The book I am currently reading
I am making my way, very slowly, through two equally intimidating and thrilling books: Péter Nádas’s hypnotic, almost unbearably vivid masterpiece Parallel Stories, and two decades of Pierre Boulez’s rigorous, fascinating, wonderfully inspiring lectures at the Collège de France, collected under the title Music Lessons.

My comfort read
I’m suspicious of the notion that those with comfortable lives should look to art to provide more. I have a cat, a sofa, a cupboard full of chocolate. How much comfort do I need? Given that he spent his life in a cave, the Tibetan yogi Milarepa is hardly a great evangelist for comfort. But as a model for life and creativity, he’s peerless – a joyful, clear-eyed prankster, overflowing with songs, at once delighted and healthily unimpressed by everything.

Come Join Our Disease by Sam Byers is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.