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How Dorothy L. Sayers’ combination of food and murder makes me feel better about the world

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Books by my bed | 5 minute read
Sophie Ratcliffe on the messy autobiography that's spelled out in the pile of books by her bedside

I don’t think I’d be much good at having a room of my own, even if I happened to have one. The quiet attic study, the garden shed – both sound good in theory, but most of my writing is done at the kitchen table, in amongst bowls of cereal and slime factories; or on the sofa wedged up against two children watching Junior Bake Off; or sometimes sitting in bed. My stuff is muddled up with the rest of the family’s, too. Music, clothes, paperwork are strewn around the house, turning up in unexpected places. The books on my bedside table, then, feel uncharacteristically contained – not because they are neatly stacked or coherent, but because, at least, almost all of them belong to me. (Richard Scarry and The Unicorn Cookbook (not, I hasten to add, a book about cooking unicorns) have wandered in from our children’s bedroom next door.)

Having just finished writing a memoir of kinds about grief and desire, it’s perhaps no surprise to find similar works by the side of my bed. While I was in the midst of writing, I avoided reading anything that felt similar, for fear of accidentally borrowing an idea. Since I’ve finished, I’ve loved being able to discover what’s out there. I adored Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, particularly her brilliant chapter on John Updike and the urge to live a double life – so I’m about to start her earlier book, In Praise of Messy Lives. Eileen Myles’s Afterglow: A Dog Memoir is a captivating tribute to Myles’s pitbull, Rosie. Myles said that writing it ‘was an opportunity to look really dumb’ – and I think that shamelessness is a good mantra for writing. I’m only a few chapters into Claire Dederer’s Love and Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl but already pretty taken with it. Hats off to anyone who writes a chapter called ‘How to have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years’.

Sharing details about one’s bedroom antics may take intimacy to a new level – but even talking about your bedside reading is an intimate act. Like many people, I’d guess, I keep books near me which help chase away sadness. The detective novels on this pile, picked up second-hand, serve this purpose, as do the cookbooks. There’s something comforting about reading recipes. All the more so when they are in a book as beautiful as Citrus, sent to me by one of my best friends. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison was a particular treat. Sayers combines food and murder in a particularly satisfying way, and she’s guaranteed to make me feel better about the world. Gillian Butler and Tony Hope’s Manage Your Mind is a mental health workbook, containing some really useful guidance, particularly about the importance of valuing oneself. It’s probably been there by my bed for about a decade. Helpful in its own right, it also acts as a kind of marital in-joke. If either one of us seems particularly miserable, distracted, or distant, they’ll come to bed to find Hope and Butler on their pillow, a semi-serious reminder that it might be time to take stock, or take a break. Books, of course, can have all sorts of power even when they are not being read.

I’ve been reviewing for the last twenty years, so there’s usually a proof or two beside my bed. I’m in the middle of writing about Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, and I’m interviewing Patrick Gale at the Oxford Literary Festival next month – so his Take Nothing With You, a wonderful coming-of-age novel about cello music and homosexuality, is there to remind me to re-read it.

I’m hugely interested in ideas of focus and attention, perhaps because I’m not very good at being single-minded. So while this might seem like a pretty eclectic pile, perhaps it’s evidence of my consistent interest in many directions. I get distracted easily (I must be the only person in the world to have put down both Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.) Quite what distracted me I can’t remember, but it’s a safe guess that for me, as for many, the lure of Twitter, email, Instagram, looms large. Rather than lamenting this fact, I’m interested in thinking more about it. Hence a number of books here about technological change. I’m part way through reading Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and What It Means For All of Us, and was enchanted by Virginia Heffernan’s description of the internet as a form that ‘includes moments of magic and an inevitable experience of profound loss’. A book that’s gripped me from start to finish is Yves Citton’s The Ecology of Attention. It’s pretty dense stuff, but I feel that his conclusion, on the importance of recognising the need for solitary unguided thinking (online or off) – and for collective imagination – is one of the most exciting things I’ve read in a couple of years.

The biggest book on my pile is Cynthia Ozick’s essay collection, Letters of Intent. I’ve loved Ozick’s writing ever since I reviewed her novel The Puttermesser Papers nearly twenty years ago. When I found this book on the new releases shelf in a bookshop, I was stunned and delighted to find that the preface was written by my friend, the literary agent and editor David Miller. David died, suddenly, three years ago – so to find his words, unexpectedly, reminded me not just of him, but of how precious all our books can be. Books can be friends too – printed voices from afar, and from beyond the grave. At the bottom of my pile is a Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping, slightly tea-stained, going curly at the edges. I think that old magazine says a bit about how little housekeeping I ever do. The books by one’s bedside may not tell the whole story, but sit there like sedimentary layers of life – a messy autobiography of kinds.

The Lost Properties of Love: An Exhibition of Myself, by Sophie Ratcliffe, is published by HarperCollins, £16.99