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?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Rees-Jones: 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).
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: Viola Di Grada’s Hollow Heart.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Rees-Jones: Clauda Rankine. The philosopher Rosi Braidotti.
Do you have any comfort reads?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Rees-Jones: A set of osteopathic exercises that release tension in the middle of your back.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Rees-Jones: Old age.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: In increasingly precarious piles.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: I’m always changing my mind.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Rees-Jones: I read more globally.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: 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?
Rees-Jones: 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.
Recommended for you:
Award-winning novelist and short story writer Carys Davies divulges her reading likes and dislikes in the latest of our Q&A series.