Sam Byers: “JM Coetzee Made Me Vegetarian” | Books


My first memory of reading
Like many people with overactive imaginations, I was sick as a child. I remember long weeks at home, in bed or with a duvet on the sofa, reading everything that came to hand. My childhood hero was Tintin – so many images from those books are indelibly etched in my mind. I’ve also re-read and re-read Roald Dahl’s The Witches – despite, or perhaps because of, the nightmares he gave me.

The writer who changed my mind
Everything we encounter changes our mind to some degree. We are works in progress, and the process is additive and cumulative. Just in the past few years: Karen Armstrong challenged my misconceptions about faith, Robin Wall Kimmerer changed my perception of plants forever, and JM Coetzee made me a vegetarian.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I can imagine the eyes this answer will cause, but it’s important not to alter our inspirations. The now much maligned Beat generation showed me a vision of literature totally different from anything I had encountered: unstructured and improvised, free and full of abandon. I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac at 18 and left for Asia, where I spat out a torrent of spontaneous, unpunctuated, unreadable thoughts. My songwriting has changed profoundly since then, but my joy in doing it, which the Beats instilled, has never wavered.

The author I came back to
I remember reading an essay by Richard Ford a few years ago in which he said that Anton Chekhov is not a writer young people can easily understand. I was sure at the time that I could understand whatever I wanted, but this year I went back to Chekhov and saw exactly what Ford meant. I never hated Chekhov as such, but I see now that the full extent of his genius was not always accessible to me.

The book I discovered later in life
I am 42 years old, so I hope the discoveries of future life are yet to come. It was a long, slow journey to poetry. The first half of my life was dominated by the romantic form. Now the balance is changing. A few years ago, I read Louise Glück’s poem The Wild Iris and I felt my whole self slipping. Last year I read John Ashbery’s Flow Chart and my sense of time and its passage never recovered. This year, I read Paul Celan, and it’s as if I had to take up the language and rethink it.

The book I am currently reading
I progress, very slowly, through two equally daunting and thrilling books: the hypnotic, almost unbearably vivid masterpiece, Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, and two decades of rigorous, fascinating and wonderfully inspiring lectures by Pierre Boulez at the Collège de France, collected under the title Leçons de musique.

My comfort read
I distrust the idea that those with a comfortable life should look to art to provide more. I have a cat, a couch, a cupboard full of chocolate. What comfort do I need? Given that he spent his life in a cave, the Tibetan yogi Milarepa is hardly a great comfort evangelist. But as a model of life and creativity, he is unrivaled – a cheerful, lucid joker, brimming with songs, both delighted and healthily insensitive to everything.

Come Join Our Sickness by Sam Byers is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.


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