As a child, living happily in the depths of the Sussex countryside, I travelled the world without ever leaving my room. From the dank cells of the Bastille, to the stalls of Barchester Cathedral, through bleak graveyards, overgrown with nettles, to tropical beaches, empty save an ominous footprint.
I crossed windswept moors with brooding heroes, battled three-headed dogs and white witches alike and climbed Magic Faraway Trees. That is the eternal power of a good book, the joyous escape into another world. My father was a passionate bibliophile who would read to his children every night. Life without books was, for him, a life not worth living. He passed his love of reading on to me.
So last year, as the country locked down for the first time, I decided to compile a list of some of my favourite books…my own “Desert Island Books”. Much to my delight, people from all over the world wrote to me, sharing their views on my choices. Some agreed with my lists, others did not, but many were kind enough to share their own favourites with me.
The most moving letters were those from people who described how books had been their lifeline during lockdown. In some cases, their only company for weeks had been characters from novels. Not surprisingly, the sales of fiction rose by a third during the first lockdown.
Reading was comforting us, making us laugh, taking us on journeys that we could not undertake in the flesh and, crucially, reminding us that we were not alone. We had found community in reading at a time when we were, sadly but necessarily, unable to be with those we love.
Later in the year, I was preparing a speech for the virtual Booker Prize, when I came across Ben Okri’s Poem for the Booker Prize. He described “a universal / Community within / The infinite space / Of our collective reading souls”. I thought – that’s it. That is exactly what I feel part of: a universal community of reading souls. And, notwithstanding my advanced age and entrenched technophobia, I thought the best space for us to meet one another might be online.
I spoke to various book-ish friends to seek their advice. With huge thanks to them, the result is my Reading Room: an Instagram account that explores the magical world of books; the extraordinary people who write them; and the enormous emotional, social and educational benefits of reading. The account launched two days ago, with a selection of my “Desert Island Books” and with some very generous contributions from the fabulous authors: Charlie Mackesy, Hilary Mantel, Elif Shafak, Delia Owens and William Boyd. I fervently hope that the Reading Room will be a resource, a reassurance and a refuge for all book lovers, on a digital desert island of our own.