In this instalment of ‘The Joy of Books’, Deryn Rees-Jones, Professor of Poetry at the University of Liverpool, reveals her reading tastes and habits. Rees-Jones’ 2019 publication, Erato, was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2020 as well as the T. S. Eliot Prize 2019.
What books are on your nightstand?
Wanda Coleman’s Selected Poems edited by Terence Hayes; Richard Mabey’s Weeds; Toni Morrison’s Sula; Ariana Reines’ The Cow; Sasha Dugdale’s brilliant new Deformations.
What’s the last great book you read?
Adam Phillips’ Becoming Freud is one of the few books I’ve finished and immediately wanted to begin again. Recently a friend sent me Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here is Everything, a short lyrical biography of the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. I loved it.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I haven’t read it for maybe thirty years, but D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow springs to mind.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
For the last few years I have saved novels for trains, largely because I have found it hard to really settle with fiction. I’m nearly five months in now convalescing from COVID-19. It’s a long and slow recovery, and it’s made me value anew being quiet and still. A huge ordinary pleasure has been sitting in an armchair by an open window, looking out onto my inner city backyard. It’s a soundscape of seagulls and blackbirds and finches. A buddleia grew up against the back fence over lockdown and just being able to look up and out at its movements and blossoming as I read has been wonderful.
What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
Viola Di Grada’s Hollow Heart.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Clauda Rankine. The philosopher Rosi Braidotti.
Do you have any comfort reads?
It used to be Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I also recently read some detective novels by Barbara Wilson that took me back to the time I was first reading them in the early 1990s.
What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
Martin Gayford’s Modernists and Mavericks. It’s an account of the painters in London from the 1940s to the 1970s. A mini series. Would that work?
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
A set of osteopathic exercises that release tension in the middle of your back.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I like biography and memoir, art history, detective novels; I enjoy satire. I am not too good with gory.
How do you organize your books?
In increasingly precarious piles.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I don’t know about surprised, but Alain De Botton’s Essays in Love. It was a present. I loathed it.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
I’m always changing my mind.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read more globally.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Paul Celan, Elizabeth Bishop, Toni Morrison. I’d be overwhelmed, of course. Can we go for a walk instead?
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I didn’t like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work when it came out. By contrast I love her Outline trilogy.
What do you plan to read next?
I prefer arbitrariness. I like the feeling of not knowing until you start. My daughter is reading through the Booker longlist, though, so those books are temptingly around.
Erato by Deryn Rees-Jones is available now from Seren.