Fiction

Five Favourite Books

recommended by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

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The author Philip Pullman—creator of the beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, and one of the world's greatest storytellers—recommends five of his favourite books: from a fragmentary masterpiece by Fernando Pessoa to P. G. Wodehouse's comic triumphs.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

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Philip Pullman, welcome to Five Books. Shall we start with the first book that you’ve chosen?

Yes, that’s The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, of whom I hadn’t heard before I bought the book. Pessoa was a Portuguese writer of all sorts of things, a poet, and a journalist. He was a man of mystery in many ways. He had a large number of what he called ‘heteronyms’—noms de plume, I suppose is how we’d understand it. He invented personalities and characters and backstories and so on for all of his heteronyms, and he would write under any one of these different names. What for? I don’t know. Perhaps he just liked being rather mysterious. The Book of Disquiet seems to be the work of a bookkeeper called Bernardo Suarez, who is, of course, Pessoa.

It’s a book of bits, really. It doesn’t matter what order you read it in, because it is in fragments. In fact, the two editions in English in paperback that exist now are both quite different in terms of ordering. The one that’s published by Penguin Modern Classics is quite long, over 500 pages, and I don’t think it would be terribly easy to read it from end to end. I don’t know what you feel, but I found it extremely good to read at three in the morning if you can’t sleep. It’s suffused with a very Portuguese melancholy, saudade. It’s a book of reflections and memories and thoughts. But it doesn’t seem to be in any helpful order. So it really doesn’t matter to me where I pick it up, where I open it, but I always find something original and quirky and strange—a long paragraph about the virtues of monotony, for example, which fits his life, because he lived a very quiet life. He would go to the same café and have the same drink among a small circle of friends, while at the same time living this extraordinary life full of heteronyms, full of invisible people whom he would impersonate and write in the name of. I don’t know anything else like it.

I was fascinated that you chose this book because you’ve written in very interesting ways about the structure of stories. Yet this seems to be a book which not only doesn’t have an obvious shape, but even comes in different forms with different publications.

There have been two at least two translations into English and the two paperback editions I’ve got are, as I mentioned, quite different in order. But structure, as I always tell people, is a superficial feature of narrative, not a fundamental feature. They tell you, you must get your structure right first and once you have got the structure you can write the book. Well, no, actually. You can change the structure at the last minute, you can re-order the book, you can have the start in the middle of the story. Structure is a superficial thing. What is not superficial, what is really fundamental, is the tone in which the book is written. Here Pessoa is a good example because the tone is is very consistent all the way through. It’s never boring and it’s never dull. It’s always interesting because the mind that wrote it is interesting, and the world he depicts, the Portugal of the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, is a fascinating place. I find it intoxicating. I love it very much. I’m almost inclined to make it my desert island book if I get a second go on Desert Islands Discs. I don’t think you can get tired of it.

I’ve tried to read it several times and I’ve never got through it. But every time I pick it up, wherever I open it I’ve never had the feeling that I’ve read it before.

I wouldn’t be surprised if it changes itself overnight, you know, chapters get out and slip into another place different place in the book. That wouldn’t surprise me a bit. I don’t think there’s anything else like it, as picture of a city. Lisbon as a character comes through very clearly in the book. I suppose, in a very different kind of way, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria does in The Alexandria Quartet—those four books that were so highly thought of for about five years around 1960. The character of the city of Alexandria comes through very powerfully and pungently in those books, but I can’t remember the story. That’s certainly the case with Pessoa’s Lisbon. I’ve never been to Lisbon, but I’m sure I’d recognise it through having absorbed so much of the atmosphere, the saudade. I can’t do without it. I can’t imagine it ever not being on my bookshelves and close at hand.

Some people talk about Pessoa as showing us something about the self and how fragmentary it is. Obviously, you’ve spoken about his heteronyms and how he impersonates a whole range of characters, including Bernardo Suarez. When he writes in these different voices there is a sense in which he’s all of them. Some people read that as a philosophical take on what we all are as human beings, that we really are a cluster of personalities, not some core single self.

Yes, that’s very persuasive. That idea also comes into one of the other books we’re going to discuss. I don’t know if it’s a particularly Portuguese thing—the other book is by an Italian, so perhaps it isn’t. But I wouldn’t want to make it sound willed in any kind of programmatic way. He seems to drift quite happily and easily between this character and that, between this place in Lisbon and that, between this bridge and this riverbank, and that café, as if he’s a ghost almost. He’s the ghost of all these things, and observing them as a ghost. There’s a great fluidity, it’s a very watery sort of book.

Maybe we could go on to your second choice, again set in Lisbon, because there is a very strong connection between them. That’s Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi, which is set in Lisbon in 1938.

This is a fascinating book. Antonio Tabucchi was Italian. He spent a lot of time in Lisbon and clearly loves Portugal and the Portuguese language. ‘Pereira maintains’ is an odd phrase. We quite quickly pick up that this is a police report. Pereira maintains ‘he met him one summer’s day…’ So we’re being told second hand something that Pereira has said. It’s a difficult way of writing because you’re at a distance from it. And you have to maintain the voice. And we see Pereira, this character, through a different pair of eyes.

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The character of Pereira, as viewed through this anonymous police investigator is not particularly spectacular. He’s an elderly man in his sixties; he’s overweight; he’s a widower; he loved his wife very dearly: he talks to a photograph of her which, in a sentimental kind of way, is his love life; and he’s a journalist. He runs a culture page on a new magazine called Lisboa and is quite proud of this position. Not very much goes into the culture page: obituaries, announcements of this or that, translations of nineteenth-century French short stories, which he does himself but doesn’t sign. It doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it gives him a living, and he lives in a very steady way.

He has a housekeeper who makes his breakfast. He strolls to work. He always eats in the same café—always an omelette aux fines herbes and a little glass of lemonade. So this is a steady, comfortable, quiet, very unprepossessing life. But we’re in Portugal, under Salazar, and there’s a civil war going on in Spain next door, and the looming European war is now becoming more and more obvious on the horizon.

Into this comfortable life of Dr Pereira comes a young man called Monteiro Rossi, who is an Italian student who turns out to be a political activist—this was extremely dangerous in the Portugal at that time. Monteiro Rossi has a beautiful girlfriend called Marta. Pereira, of course, disapproves of them, but nevertheless can’t help being fascinated by them, and, in fact, falls in love with them a little bit because they’re both attractive characters. They’re young, they’ve got all the energy and the spirit and the verve that he looks back on with regret and misses. In a sense they become his children because he is childless. Little by little, he is drawn by his affection for these two into what looks like some sort of revolutionary movement or uprising. It doesn’t end well. I shouldn’t give out any spoilers for the story, because it’s a wonderfully well-told story. The danger gathers bit by bit very slowly, the screw tightens very, very slowly, but all the time, it’s getting worse and worse for everyone.

It ends with a note of hope, because Pereira manages to escape, but ‘Pereira maintains…’, so who’s writing this report? When was it written? Was he captured? What’s going to happen to him? This is the wonderful thing about this book. It’s got great themes, loyalty, trust, aspiration towards truth, the verity of things in a very short book, just 194 pages long. You can read it in a day. I think it’s the most wonderful novel of the last 20 years. I can’t think of anything I admire more.

I hadn’t read it before you recommended it. I agree it’s fantastic. It’s a bit like a piece of music with the refrain of ‘Pereira maintains…’ throughout. You’d think you’d get bored of it. But the repeated phrase jolts you because, as you’re reading the book, you can forget that distancing quite easily. Because the book is so short it doesn’t become too much, oddly. I don’t know how he pulls that off, because it should be too much. Once should be enough.

It’s a miracle of storytelling. I haven’t read anything else by Tabucchi, but every time I’ve read this—and I’ve read it several times—I feel I must go out and read all of Tabucchi and make sure he’s published and translated properly.

But certainly, this is a very important book. Politically it teaches us something about the value of loyalty, of hope, of trust, of things like that, even in a time that’s threatening, in a time of great danger. It’s done so gently, and so sweetly in a way. You really feel love for this chubby old man with his set routines, his omelettes and his lemonade. I just love it. I think it’s the most marvellous novel.

I think you mentioned its mood. It’s something similar to saudade, this feeling of nostalgia. He sees in these young people something of himself when he used to be a news journalist, and he used to be more idealistic. He has made a kind of compromise with life, not on the side of Salazar by any means, but just not prepared to make any noise and not to make a fuss.

He wants to keep politics at arm’s length. But he finds he can’t do that, because he’s drawn further and further in. It’s very interesting to see the other characters in the book, Doctor Cardoso from the thalassotherapeutic clinic, and the waiter who knows all the news before Pereira himself does. You get a picture of this old conservative set-in-its-ways society, which is on the verge of violent change. It’s done marvellously well. And, yes, there is a sort of nostalgia. This is summed up brilliantly by his conversations with his wife’s photograph. They were deeply in love, they had no children. She died and now all he has is a photograph, which he takes everywhere with him. When he leaves he takes the photograph, and he puts it in the case face up so that she can see around. You know, it’s silly, but people are silly and behave like that. It’s a wonderful portrait of a man.

There’s also the psychological theory that Dr Cardoso introduces at a certain point…

Yes, the ‘many different souls’ but with one superego. This is Freudian talk of the time, apart from anything else, but you have to make sure which of your souls is in charge. And, of course, that leads back to Pessoa’s heteronyms. Pessoa is referred to in the book several times, because he is such a towering figure in Portuguese literature and culture generally.

This theory is described as a ‘confederacy of selves’. One is in charge most of the time but, in extreme circumstances, one of the other selves could take over.  There’s also a sense in which in the course of the book Pereira develops greater awareness of what he is actually doing. At the beginning he’s a bit foggy about what he’s doing, and then it comes into focus.

Yes. His position as editor of the culture page, becomes more and more difficult to hold, because his editor is pressing him continually to big up Germany and do down France. Pereira is rather fond of France: he speaks French, he translates these French stories. But again, you can feel that his position as editor of the culture pages is a pretty precarious one, really. They’re not interested in culture. Not at all. The job is a kind of sinecure. One feels very deeply for Pereira and what’s going to happen to him, what we fear will happen.

But there is a sense in which the choice of translating the French stories becomes a political comment of a subtle kind. He feels that he is making a political statement, even though hardly anybody will recognise it as that.

That’s right. And his final act, before he hits the horizon, as it were, is beautifully done. He does something very daring, and he will be punished for it. He’s set his cards on the table. He’s performed his acte gratuit, taken his step into the darkness. He’s committed himself finally. It’s an act of great courage and we see that and we applaud him.

Thank you so much for putting me onto that book. I love it too. Maybe we could move on to The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.

Tove Jansson is known to most people as the inventor of the Moomins, the delightfully hippopotamus-like characters who live in the Gulf of Finland on a little island and have various adventures. I first came across them when I was about nine and I fell in love with them immediately. I read all the books, and I’ve applauded their republishing in recent years in very nice editions by Sort of Books. The Summer Book is a different kind of thing. It’s a book for adults, although I don’t like making these distinctions between books on the basis of whom they are assumed to be aimed at.

Why not?

Because I don’t like my own books to be listed under this heading or that. The great advantage of publishing His Dark Materials as a children’s book was that it wasn’t called a fantasy, it was a children’s book. If it had been called a fantasy, an adult book, it would have gone straight on to the fantasy shelves, nobody else would have seen it. But because it was a children’s book, children read it. They’d say, ‘Dad, Mum, I want you to read this so we can talk about it.’ So, gradually, it became known among adults as a result of being published as a children’s book, rather than by being published as fantasy.

The labelling of books has been a cause of great friction between authors and publishers and retailers and various other people. At some time in the past 20 or so years, there was a moment when the publishers decided it would be a good idea to publish age ranges on books—‘this is for 9-13 year olds’ or something similar. We the writers almost unanimously rose up in wrath at this because it seemed—seemed to me anyway—like turning away readers at the door. You don’t know whether a seven year old might enjoy that enormously. Alternatively, you don’t know whether somebody who is coming across it at the age of 14 would also enjoy it enormously, but be put off because it says it’s for 9-13 year olds. It seemed like a terrible act, almost suicidal really. You don’t want to turn away readers. Welcome them all is my view.

But there are books that seem to be expecting a particular type of reader. And I think The Summer Book expects an adult reader. It could be read with enjoyment by a young child, but the point of view throughout most of the book, although we’re focused on Sophie, the little child, is a wise eye that’s looking at her. A lot of the time that seems to belong to her grandmother. Sophie and her grandmother and her father live on this little island from time to time in the summer. They’ve got everything they need there. They’ve got the house and the boat, and Papa has his work—he seems to be a writer. Sophie and her grandmother spend a lot of time pottering about and playing and building little Venetian lagoons for the ants to go into and that sort of thing. It’s very funny and very charming. And you think that’s all it is—a sweet little book about a child and her grandmother.

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But, actually, it’s much more than that, because we can see that the grandmother is not very well. At one point, quite suddenly, she throws up. That’s all, it’s not gone into. It’s not mentioned any more, but there’s something about her that’s not right. So we can start worrying about grandma and her health. Sophie does too, but in a very childlike, practical way. ‘Are you going to die grandma?’ that sort of thing. Very matter of fact. And the grandmother answers these questions, but not as an example of a wise granny. She is wise, but she’s also tetchy. She smokes too much. She’s inclined to go to sleep when people are talking to her.

It’s a real little family unit that’s described to us here. Jansson does it with such limited means. She’s like a composer who writes exclusively for a string quartet and never adds a clarinet or an oboe, or a brass section. It’s small. But think what Beethoven did with a string quartet.

The two main characters are also very imaginative. They’re very creative and love playing games of make believe.

Yes, they encourage each other, and that is enjoyable to watch as well. Sophie’s very interested in little creatures like ants and bugs, and the grandmother is perfectly happy to join in and play. Not with a sense of condescending to the child, not, ‘I’ll keep her busy while she’s doing it’, but as if she’s enjoying it as well. Maybe this is something that old people are particularly good at if they’re good at interacting with children: they join in. This grandmother is—I’ve never met Tove Jansson—but I imagine she’s rather like the Jansson herself. It’s funny too. I keep laughing as I read it. They spend a lot of time playing and Sophie gets impatient in the way children do and suddenly screams, ‘I hate you!’ in the way children do.

It’s very realistic about that, about a certain kind of grandparent who likes breaking the rules that a parent has given.

Yes, the figure we don’t see much of is Papa, but clearly, they both depend on him because he goes to the mainland and brings fresh water when there’s a drought and brings back the petrol and the kerosene and the mail. He does his job.

I saw the child as the young Tove. But, in fact, allegedly, it’s based on her niece, and on Tove Jansson’s mother. But I’m sure there’s a lot of that imaginative child with time on her hands on a Finnish island that is Tove as well.

I’m sure. I would love to have met her. But the only time I went to Finland she was very old. She lived on corned beef and whiskey, which strikes me as a very healthy diet.

The Summer Book is a book that would appeal to people who enjoy the Moomins. Not everybody likes the Moomins—some readers don’t quite get it and think they’re just silly. The Moomins, and particularly Moomin himself and Moomin Papa, are very easily led into play. One day they find a floating theatre, and instantly, that becomes the focus of all their dreams and excitement. They’re also touched by a sort of Nordic melancholy. We mentioned melancholy in Portuguese terms. But in Moominvalley in November, for example, which is one of the Moomin books, there is a sense of the ending of things and everything vanishing away and of things dying. Not dramatically, not vividly or not as something to be lamented and wailed over. It’s not about grief and sorrow, but about this being what happens: things vanish and they disappear. Time goes past.

There’s a sense of the seasons in all those books—Moomins even hibernate. In The Summer Books storms play an important part. 

These little islands in the Gulf of Finland are quite extraordinary. On one occasion I was in a different part of Finland, at some literary festival. After it was over, they took us out in a boat to one of these little islands and we had a big dinner and then a sauna. We all had to go into the sauna. When we came out again, at about one o’clock in the morning, I’ve never heard such an intense silence. There was nothing. There was the stillness of the summer night, there were pines all around, and a little wave occasionally lapped on the rocks, but the absolute silence was ringing because it was so quiet. They’re like nowhere else these islands because you can have this sense of enormous solitude and yet they’re full of all sorts of things going on. Ants, fishes and birds. Seen through the eyes of a genius—and I think Tove Jansson was a genius—there’s a whole world there.

I particularly like the use of photos in this edition of this book. I haven’t been to one of those islands, but I found the images very evocative. There’s a lovely photo of an older woman with a young child that captures what is at the heart of the book.

That’s right. I think that probably is Sophie, her niece. Tove lived a lot for a long time with her companion, Tuulikki Pietilä. She had a very interesting life. She was the daughter of a sculptor, who was quite well known. She was a young woman during the Second World War—she drew various cartoons of Mussolini and Hitler and people like that. She was really a portrait painter and painter of landscapes. But she started writing too and invented the Moomins. They took off in the 1940s and 1950s. I first came across them in what must have been about 1956 when I was about nine or ten in Battersea Public Library. I didn’t know what these things were. Were they hippopotamuses? Were they talking? But you soon become submerged in this world. I fell in love with them, I really did. But there was also a daily cartoon in the Evening News, which I think was either done by Tove, or by her brother Lars. That was going for quite some time. But there’s nothing like them. It’s a lovely place to be and they’re such engaging characters.

I grew up on the Moomins as well. I couldn’t help thinking that the father in The Summer Book was like Moominpappa going off to write his memoirs. He’s this shadowy figure. You don’t really get the male figure developed much. He’s just sort of around.

Yes.

Shall we go on to your fourth choice, which is quite different.

I chose not one book, but a whole series of stories. These are the Jeeves and Wooster stories by P. G. Wodehouse. I first came across these when I was about 16, and my stepfather’s parents sent me one of the Jeeves books for Christmas. I’d never heard of him or them, and I didn’t know what they were about. I read it because it was a book, and books were fun. I thought it was terrific. Really wonderfully funny. I’ve gone on thinking that for the subsequent 60 years or so.

Wodehouse wrote hundreds of other things, particularly the Blandings books about Lord Emsworth and his pig, which are almost as good. But what I love about the half-witted Bertie Wooster and his sage and resourceful servant Jeeves is that they have been favourite characters of English readers ever since they first came out well before 1920.

Several things interest me about them. First, there are the characters: the silly master and the clever servant, an old old cliché of comedy writing. We see that in Roman comedy, we see it in Voltaire. There’s nothing special about that. It’s not particularly brilliant to invent a clever servant. The mastery, the genius, the surprising thing is the character of Bertie Wooster, the narrator of these stories, who is dim witted. He is ‘mentally negligible’ as Jeeves is overheard to refer to him on more than one occasion, and yet he has the most sparkling, brilliant, funny, lively, effervescent prose style in the whole of English letters. How does Wodehouse do this and yet persuade us that it’s true? Bertie is telling the story. What an ass he is, but what a brilliant writer. Extraordinary.

The imagery is just astonishing. “She felt as if she was gathering daisies on the line, and caught the down train in the small of her back.” “He spun round with a sort of guilty bound, like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk” That sort of thing. The brilliance, the effervescence of this style is something you can’t fake. This is why parodies or imitations fall so flat. Nobody’s got the genius that he had for seeing things in such ludicrous formulations and putting them together.

“Bertie Wooster has the most sparkling, brilliant, funny, lively, effervescent prose style in the whole of English letters”

So that’s one thing, the brilliance of the character of Bertie Wooster. Another thing about Bertie Wooster is that he is the only character that I know of in any form or any story who is entirely good, and yet never boring. We’re always pleased to be in Bertie’s company, because he’s so fun and entertaining. But, unlike most other people whose company we cherish, he hasn’t got a vice. There’s nothing vicious about Bertie at all. The only moral flaw, if it is one even, would be a certain vanity. He likes wearing his Alpine hat, which was all the rage, wherever it was he was on holiday. Jeeves cures him of that by telling him that the police are looking for a burglar known as Alpine Joe, so Bertie has to put his Alpine hat away. Then there are the old Etonian spats, he can’t resist in the windows of the Burlington Arcade, or whatever it might happen to be. But, apart from that, he is the most generous of men, most outstandingly courteous and honourable, even when he finds himself engaged to such frightful women as he inevitably does. He says, ‘Well, I better go through with it, because that’s the honourable thing to do.’ And if Jeeves didn’t save him, he would.

Do you have a favourite story?

It’s very hard to pick out a favourite because the quality is so consistent. One of the things, apart from what I’ve already mentioned, that makes them so good and so time-proof is the clockwork precision of the plots. We see Bertie getting himself into predicament after predicament with no idea of how he’s going to extract himself. We can’t think of a way. Then along comes Jeeves who’s worked it all out and, like a puppetmaster, pulls a string and the whole thing comes out wonderfully well. These are not small virtues in a writer. These are great virtues. Of all these virtues the most interesting one to me is the character of Bertie Wooster the half-witted genius. The non-boring good man who writes like an angel and is still a silly ass. How does he do that? How does Wodehouse do that? It’s just impossible to conceive.

The other books that we’ve discussed so far deal with big themes: life, death, courage, and love, but this seems more like superbly crafted entertainment. Would you make a case for this being more than that?

No, I wouldn’t. And nor would Wodehouse. He said of himself something to the effect that ‘Some writers go right down into the centre of life and so on, but I skate along on the surface. This is just musical comedy, really.’ And he was quite right, it is that. But there comes a time when that’s exactly what we need. He’s doing one half of what Sam Johnson said, ‘The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.’ Wodehouse is doing the enjoyment part and doing it incomparably well.

What about your last book choice?

My last choice is a book I stole. This is a copy of the Chambers 20th Century Dictionary. It was on the shelf in the classroom I once taught in, and nobody had ever used it. Nobody ever picked it up, and nobody ever would. So I nicked it. Why I like it? To start with, it’s the right size. It fits in my hand. It’s a thick book, it’s got 1,300 pages, even more. But it’s book-sized. If you look at the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it used to be this size, but it’s much bigger now.

Which edition have you got? Because the latest Chambers one is actually quite a lot bigger than that one.

This is the new edition with supplement, 1959. That is when this was first published. But it fits. I don’t have to use two hands to lift it from the shelf. I keep it right by me, I always have. It’s been much repaired as you can see from this edition. And I’ll go on repairing it. I like it for all sorts of reasons. These days I can, if I want, go to the Oxford English Dictionary on my laptop and have all the resources of the OED, which I’ve also got on the shelf, but again, it’s too heavy to lift. But this one is a good size—yet it’s got every word I’ve looked up except one I looked up the other day, which wasn’t in here. Never mind. It’s also got etymologies, which I think are important because I like to know where the words that I use have come from. It’s interesting. It’s got everything you need in the way of pronunciation guides. There are a lot of Scottish words in here too because it’s a Scottish publication and it’s traditionally been the Scottish dictionary, I think. For instance, ‘Land of the Leal: the home of the blessed after death—Paradise not Scotland’. It’s scattered with little jokes like this. ‘Éclair: a cake long in shape, but short in duration.’

I wonder if they’ve been preserved in the modern version of this?

Well, some of them have. Yes. And they’ve got new jokes as well. I was looking for something else in my new Chambers dictionary when I came across the word ‘mullet’, defined as ‘a hairstyle, short at the front and sides, long at the back and ridiculous all round.’

I’m glad somebody’s still having fun as a lexicographer.

I don’t think the other dictionaries have done this. Chambers has got a little self-conscious about it now, and started saying, ‘Oh, look, aren’t we funny, we’ve got all these jokes in.’  But I think they were still a little po-faced when this edition came out, so they didn’t advertise them. They just left them around so people would come across them.

There’s a very good one under ‘pet’. ‘Pet: a cherished tame animal’ and as a verb ‘to indulge in amorous caressing’. And then finally at the at the end there’s ‘petting party: a gathering for the purpose of caressing as an organised sport.’ You wouldn’t find that in the Oxford dictionary. And you wouldn’t find it in Collins’s, but it’s there in Chambers’s.

What’s the point of a dictionary now? As you say, you can check words online. At school, we had to have a dictionary, smaller than that. But I don’t think either of my children, who are grown up now, actually possessed a dictionary. I’m absolutely sure they don’t have their own dictionaries now.

I used to make quite a thing of the dictionary when I was a teacher, because I was so interested in words and their etymology. In particular, I used to encourage the kids to look things up. When they asked me, ‘What does such and such mean?’ I’d said, ‘Well, let’s look it up’, and then I’d take the dictionary and show them how to do it. The book, the codex, with the pages bound along one edge that is still, I think, the best way of organising anything really. It’s much better than the scroll, which it replaced. Because, if you wanted to go from ‘Land of the Leal’ to ‘petting party’, you’d have to unroll about 15 of them. It’s just so handy.

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Why do I use the OED online? Because it’s so much more convenient to do that and because it’s also got the historical thesaurus. Have you seen the Oxford historical thesaurus? Fantastic. It must be one of the last great books produced as a printed object. It’s a historical thesaurus. If you wanted to know what word they would have used for ‘petting’ for example, historically, it’s got it there. If I were writing historical fiction, I would have that beside me all the time. But why do we need a dictionary? Well, we just do. There are some well-known writers who don’t use the dictionary nearly enough.

As a writer you want to be precise about how you use words. But what is the advantage of a physical dictionary?

With a physical dictionary you can always find things you didn’t know. This is the value of browsing. I found a word the other day I had never seen before ‘facinorous’. I’m just going to look it up to see if it is here. Here we are, ‘atrociously wicked’. You wouldn’t come across that if you looked online. You only come across it if it’s there on the page when you’re looking for something else. That’s great. This dictionary is a great thing to have. It’s just so fascinating. You could spend half an hour on the way to look up a word. I’d never seen the word ‘facinorous’ before. But now I’ve got it, I’ll use it somewhere. But I won’t make up a sentence specifically to use it.

We’re going to be looking out for that one. Philip Pullman, thank you for your book recommendations.

Anyway, that’s why I love the Chambers Dictionary. Thank you.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is a British author. On Five Books, his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has come in for special attention, but he is the best known for His Dark Materials trilogy, an epic written for young adults. It is also highly recommended on our site. In 2018, Pullman published the first book in another trilogy, a prequel (and sequel) to His Dark Materials, called The Book of Dust. So far two books in that trilogy have been published, La Belle Sauvage, which takes place when Lyra, the heroine, is a baby, and The Secret Commonwealth, which is set during Lyra's student days at Oxford.

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Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is a British author. On Five Books, his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ has come in for special attention, but he is the best known for His Dark Materials trilogy, an epic written for young adults. It is also highly recommended on our site. In 2018, Pullman published the first book in another trilogy, a prequel (and sequel) to His Dark Materials, called The Book of Dust. So far two books in that trilogy have been published, La Belle Sauvage, which takes place when Lyra, the heroine, is a baby, and The Secret Commonwealth, which is set during Lyra's student days at Oxford.