My Life In Books: Bryony Gordon

Bryony Gordon is an award-winning mental health campaigner, journalist and the bestselling author of No Such Thing as Normal and five other books. As she publishes Glorious Rock Bottom – her brilliant memoir on addiction – in paperback, she shares her reading habits, favourite authors and most recent book recommendations…
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What are you reading right now, Bryony?

Dreamland by a woman called Rosa Rankin-Gee. I discovered it on Goodreads – the one social media app I'm obsessed with. It’s set in the near future and it's got a bit of a dystopian element to it. I do love a bit of an end-of-the-world disaster in a novel, so it definitely stood out for me.

What’s your experience of Goodreads?

I think it’s a wholly positive thing. I'm very much a browser, so enjoy checking out new suggestions. I try not to look at my own rankings or anything like that, though. I mean, of course I do from time to time, and it’s lovely when people post reviews and talk about how they’ve found one of my books helpful. But you can’t please everybody and occasionally people will post a review along the lines of “If I could have given this no stars, I would have done”, so it’s definitely not something writers should be looking at every day. I tend to use Goodreads more as a resource for my own reading as opposed to my writing. It’s wholly healthy.

What book from childhood stays with you?
I have something I need to fess up to… As a child, I didn't actually read that much. I’ve always felt quite ashamed of that and wish I could be that person who could just go “Anne of Green Gables”. That said, I remember loving Lord of the Flies when I was about 11 or 12 – another one about the world ending! And The Witches by Roald Dahl, which terrified me. I’ve rediscovered a lot of books with my daughter: we’re reading End Blyton’s The Famous Five series at the moment, which is lovely, and we listen to a lot of audiobooks on Yoto, an audio player for kids.

Which books made you want to write?

Every book I read makes me want to write – and every book I read also terrifies me and makes me think I can’t write! All the Judy Blume books set me off on this path when I was younger and I feel like Caitlin Moran is a modern-day Judy Blume. I remember reading How To Be A Woman before I’d ever written a book and thinking it was pretty close to perfect. I think reading is such an important thing if you are a writer, and I am sure my writing gets better the more I read.

When and where do you read?

I read every single day. In the evenings, I get into bed and read for hours. That’s a really sacred thing for me. I can go a bit mad sometimes: I'll get inspired at 7:30pm and just read in my pyjamas for three hours. I feel so cheated if I haven't managed to get in any reading time. I’d love to have a reading corner, but I’m afraid I don’t live in a house that big. Maybe one day.

I think reading is such an important thing if you are a writer, and I am sure my writing gets better the more I read.

Where do you buy books?

I’m currently daydreaming about visiting Hay and going to Richard Booth’s Bookshop. My god, it is heaven in there. It’s an emporium set over several floors of books, including second-hand ones, and there’s also a café and sofas – you’re encouraged to sit in and get comfortable. You could spend an entire day there. Closer to home, my nearest local bookshop is Clapham Books, which is small but always filled with very good books. And I also love my local Waterstones at Clapham Junction – they’re lovely in there. 

Print or Kindle? 

Print. I swear, one of these days, I’m going to be killed by a falling avalanche of books.

Do you belong to a book club? 

No. Although I do spend a lot of time talking about books with friends, and we always swap recommendations, so I suppose in that sense we have an unofficial book club. I’m not very good at doing what other people tell me to do, though, so I can imagine I’d try and run the show and be like, “Everyone has to read the books that I want to read.” So it’s probably best we don’t.

How do you choose what to read?

I follow a lot of people on Instagram whose opinions on books I really respect, like writer Alexandra Heminsley. I tend to look at what they’re reading and see what takes my fancy. I also follow people on Goodreads to check what they’ve read recently. I like to read a bit of everything and sometimes I just go to completely off kilter and go way back into the past and pick up a classic. I also love browsing bookshops for hours.

What's been your favourite read of 2021 so far?

There are almost too many to mention. I recently read Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, which is all about teaching. I don't really read loads of non-fiction, but I do read quite a lot of self-help and recovery stuff which I don't ever log on Goodreads, because it’s almost like a shameful secret. I think Gabor Maté’s In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts is a fantastic read, and one that really gets into the brains of addicts. It’s absolutely fascinating and not just for those who have had a problem with alcohol or drugs. It delves into how our brain operations are very much the product of what happens to us, and how our brains become wired to certain things when we’re little. Then there’s a book called Nothing Good Can Come of This by a great American writer called Kristie Coulter. I’ve also devoured Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and Some Body To Love by Alexandra Heminsley.

What’s your favourite autobiography?

I’m not really into memoirs – I’ve not even read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, for example. But last year I read a great book about someone’s mother going missing when they were little, called On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming. It’s a biography, but tells the story in a really different way. I also loved All The Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks, which is about her helping Aids patients in America in the 80s. It's a beautiful work and really powerful. I also loved Hunter Biden’s new book, Beautiful Things. It was so good I had to have him on my podcast, Mad World, to talk about his experience of addiction.

What book would you give as a gift?

The same book I’ve given to everyone: The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s about trees – don’t all rush out to buy it at once! – but it’s fantastic. I read it and found it life changing.

I love reading and escaping into different worlds that remind me there are all sorts of characters out there. Reading is a form of therapy for me.

Have you got a favourite film or TV adaptation of a book?

Not especially, although one book I read this year where I couldn’t get on with the TV adaptation was The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. I loved the book and actually read it after I watched the show on Netflix. I found all the chess stuff much more measured and interesting written down, even though I know nothing about chess.

What was the last book that made you cry?

Shuggie Bain, the new Booker Prize winner by Douglas Stuart. Also Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud. It’s about family and focuses on a single mother in Trinidad whose son goes off to America. It’s just wonderful.

And which book do you turn to when you need a good laugh?

The one book that will always makes me howl with laughter is Nigel Molesworth. It’s a kids’ book, but is very much for grown-ups too. It’s by Geoffrey Willans, the guy who wrote the St Trinian’s books, and is about a little boy at boarding school. It is so funny and silly, and I love the illustrations by Ronald Searle.

Have you got a favourite literary character? 

It’s hard to choose, but I’d say Rachel from Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes. I read it decades ago when it first came out. Someone gave it to me and said: “Maybe you should read this, Bryony?” I was like “No, that's not me.” Then I picked it up when I got sober and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s me.” It was a difficult read, but I love it. Marian Keyes is just legendary.

Have you got any favourite books of all time? 

The Overstory. I know I’ve already mentioned it, but it is one of the greatest books. I also really love American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and Oryx and Crake – or anything, for that matter – by Margaret Atwood.

Are there any books that have helped you through difficult times?

I know it’s a cliché, but I found Untamed by Glennon Doyle really helpful and there's a book called Codependent No More by Melody Beattie that’s also fantastic. It sounds ridiculous, but all books have helped me through difficult times. I love reading and escaping into different worlds that remind me there are all sorts of characters out there. Reading is a form of therapy for me. 

Which book have you read the most times?

The Stand by Stephen King. I love Stephen King. I haven’t watched the recent HBO adaptation, as I couldn’t work out if it was going to be good or not compared to the book. 

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say to be honest! Glorious Rock Bottom has just come out in paperback and No Such Thing As Normal is going to come out in paperback in the new year. I’m currently working on my first novel. The process of writing fiction versus non-fiction is so different but I’m enjoying it massively. It's quite liberating – I’m done writing about myself, no one wants to read about me anymore and I feel like there’s nothing more I want to say right now. It’s exciting.

 

Inspired? Read Bryony’s top picks below…

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