The book I am currently reading
The New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic memoir of her parents Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It’s about death and dementia, guilt and irritation, and is both heartbreaking and very, very funny.
The book that changed my life
When I was 10 or so, a teacher read us The Storyteller by Saki, about a little girl who is so well-behaved that she is awarded three medals – for obedience, good conduct and punctuality. A few days later, she is hiding from a wolf when the wolf hears the medals clinking against each other, and gobbles her up. It was my first encounter with black humour, and I was filled with joy that this sort of writing was allowed.
The book I wish I’d written:
The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten: a little miracle of word-play and phonetics.
The book that had the greatest influence on my writing:
The Diaries of Auberon Waugh. Such irresponsibility! Such shamelessness! Such bad taste! Who could resist?
The book I think is most overrated/underrated
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. When his hero finally manages a seduction, Hemingway observes: “And all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves.” I rest my case. Underrated: Thy Neighbour’s Wife by Gay Talese, a hands-on study of the sex lives of Americans in the 1970s.
The book that changed my mind
The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons opened my mind to the underused tricks and devices available to writers of nonfiction.
The last book that made me cry
The House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. There’s a moment when one of the family, Rose, realises she is about to be detained by French border police, and quickly scribbles a postcard to her sister Sara in America. “They are coming for me. I love you. Goodbye.” She then hands it to a fellow passenger. “She was killed in Auschwitz,” writes Freeman. “When Sara finally received that postcard after the war, years after Rose sent it, she screamed and collapsed in her hallway, watched by her toddler son Ronald, my father.”
The last book that made me laugh
I’m always dipping into Henry Root’s World of Knowledge, a cod encyclopaedia in which lazy thinking and received opinion are satirised on a global scale. Many entries come with the same definition: thus, of each European capital we are told to “be sure to visit its internationally famous vegetable market”, most famous actors are “only four foot ten” and every cookery book is praised for being “so intensely personal”.
The book I couldn’t finish
Most recently, Lost Illusions by Balzac. For the first hundred or so pages I thought it was one of the most enjoyable books I had ever read. But then the main character went to Paris, and was surrounded by far too many other characters, so it was hard to remember who was who. For me, overpopulation is the kiss of death to many a classic novel. I gave up in a muddle after 400 pages, and felt a deep sense of relief.
The book I’m ashamed not to have read
I’d go mad if I ever allowed myself to feel shame at books unread.
The book I give as a gift
Mark Cocker’s glorious Birds and People, if I’m feeling generous, as it costs £40. Otherwise, Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar, a series of pin-sharp meditations on the way we look at the world.
The book I’d most like to be remembered for
Most of my books have been parodic, and parody inevitably fades as its targets fade, so it has a relatively brief shelf-life. Even the simplest joke about Piers Morgan, say, or Sir Roy Strong will require countless explanatory footnotes a few years from now. But 50 years after their breakup the Beatles remain well known, so I suppose my non-satirical recent book One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time stands a chance.
My earliest reading memory
I remember reading every last detail about the Great Train Robbery in 1963, when I had just turned six, and, later that year, the assassination of JFK. Soon after, I graduated to Tintin and Agatha Christie.
My comfort read
Edwina Currie’s Diaries. I suppose the sense of comfort must spring from the feeling that at least I’m not her. Or John Major, for that matter.
• One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown won this year’s Baillie Gifford prize.