Top 10 bookworms in fiction | Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading has always been everything to me, keeping me afloat when the sea of life gets choppy. Working in a bookshop added another dimension; not only was I was soothed in a near magical way by the physical presence of the books, but talking to strangers about them could always lift my mood. What joy, then, to explore all that in a bibliographic memoir. I imagined my dream customer, addressed them directly, and proffered anecdotes and themed booklists. Dear Reader was born.

My ulterior motive was that the novel I was writing was rather too full of characters who did little other than read. ‘“That’s no good,” I said to myself. “Fiction needs action!” I decided to restrain myself when it came to my novel, Everyone Is Still Alive.

But it didn’t work out that way. I tried, but I proved incapable of creating a cast who didn’t read at all. So, I surrendered to the inevitable. I would be the author of a novel in my own beloved sub-genre of books that are not only fiction, but about fiction; that are full of bookworms who strive to make sense of themselves and their world by reading and writing about it. Here, roughly in the order I encountered them, are 10 of my most cherished.

1. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
Orphan Anne Shirley felt as real to me as any of the flesh and blood little girls I knew, and I longed to be able to climb into the pages and join her story club. We have a lot in common. Anne is a ferocious bookworm who gets into trouble for reading Ben Hur in class because she just can’t stop until she knows how the chariot race will turn out. Such is the lure of reading, that she has to get her guardian, Matthew, to lock up tempting books in the jam closet until she has finished her homework.

Bill Nighy and Romola Garai in Tim Fywell’s 2003 film adaptation of I Capture the Castle
Bill Nighy and Romola Garai in Tim Fywell’s 2003 film adaptation of I Capture the Castle Photograph: Allstar/BBC

2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Cassandra Mortmain writes her diary while sitting in the kitchen sink, capturing her eccentric family. Her father, still famous for his experimental novel Jacob’s Ladder, is now stuck and does nothing but read as many detective novels as he can find. Cassandra’s beautiful sister, Rose, frets because she has no clothes and no opportunities. When they hear that rich Americans are about to move in next door, it reminds them of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mrs Bennet says that Netherfield Hall is let at last. Perhaps now something exciting will happen …

3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve been reading and rereading this novel since my teens. My favourite scene these days is near the beginning when Anna is returning from meeting Vronsky for the first time and scarcely wants to admit the attraction. On the train home she reads an English novel and it is her impatience and frustration that signal to us that she is about to transgress: “It was unpleasant to read, that is to say, to follow the reflections of other people’s lives. She was too eager to live herself.”

4. The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
In the first of the Cazalet chronicles, Howard layers up satisfying details about what everyone is reading. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Irwin, Howard Spring and Angela Thirkell all get a mention and the characters are in and out of bookshops. When the brothers and their wives meet at the family home in the country, everyone chooses a book that reveals much about their character.

5. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers
Reading is an escape to me. Is it to you?” While investigating a death that occurs during the Armistice Day parade, Lord Peter Wimsey learns a lot about his suspect from her bookcase – Woolf, Mansfield, DH Lawrence – and rightly concludes that she is unhappy rather than guilty of a crime. Wimsey says that when he was in a nursing home with shell shock all he could do was play patience and read detective stories: “All the others had the War in them – or love … or some damn’ thing I didn’t want to think about.”

6. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
In a villa north of Florence in 1945, Hana chooses books from the huge library to read to her badly burned patient, who was rescued by the Bedouin when his plane crashed in the desert. He is damaged beyond recognition and has no memory. The only possession that survived the fire is his copy of The Histories by Herodotus, into which he has glued pages from other books and written observations in his small, gnarled handwriting. They live quietly and slowly, and then everything changes with the arrival of a friend of Hana’s father who has a theory about the identity of her patient.

7. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena, a writer in her 60s, learns of the disappearance of her old friend Lila and resolves to write down everything she remembers of their friendship growing up together in a poor and violent neighbourhood of Naples. The girls bought a copy of Little Women and read it together until it was tattered and sweat-stained and fell apart. When they were still children, Lila wrote a novel called The Blue Fairy but it is Elena who becomes a published writer. All through their lives, literature, education and the question of who has the right to tell a story weaves through their fraught and competitive friendship.

Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki. Photograph: Ross Land/Getty Images

8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
An author called Ruth who lives on Desolation Sound in British Columbia finds a lunchbox washed up on the shore. Inside are some old letters and a diary written by a 16-year-old girl called Nao Yasutani. As Ruth reads more of Nao’s story – she has moved back from the US to Tokyo and is struggling with her depressed father, her absent mother, and truly awful bullying – she tries to find out where Nao is, and whether she has survived the many challenges that threaten to overwhelm her.

9. Milkman by Anna Burns
Our 18-year-old narrator is walking along reading Ivanhoe the first time that the milkman tries to get her to go in his car. Come rain or shine, gunplay, bombs or riots, she always reads as she walks home through this unnamed 1970s city that brims with sectarian tension. Walking while reading is seen as deviant by her gossiping community, who go on to suspect that she is having an affair with the milkman. But she is scared and confused by his pursuit of her and would rather be left alone to read, always 19th-century literature because she doesn’t like the 20th. A sublime novel which is also funny.

10. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me in the end?” Born on a plantation and brought to London by her master, Frannie knows that no one like her has ever written a book in the whole history of the world. Now, charged with the murder of her mistress, and inspired by Moll Flanders, she pens an account of everything that has happened for her lawyer. Simultaneously playful and deadly serious, this is both a highly engrossing gothic adventure and a meditation on race, ownership and the power of story.

  • Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books is out now in paperback from Picador. Everyone Is Still Alive is published by Phoenix Books. To order them, go to

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