Madeline Miller: ‘Reading Ayn Rand was like being dipped in slime’
My earliest reading memory
I was six years old, and sitting in class, as the teacher ground through each sentence of our class primer. I was so frustrated by how slow it was that I started reading ahead to myself, silently. I remember being stunned when I turned the last page. It felt like magic. I had started the day not reading at all, and ended it reading a whole book.
My favourite book growing up
The James Herriot books. I was originally drawn to them because I loved animals. I read them starting at age 10, over and over, despite – or maybe because of – the fact that I lived in a very different world from Herriot’s (modern-day New York City, with zero access to farm animals). I loved his warmth and self-deprecation. He made me want to be just like him: a veterinarian writer. Then I realised it was actually just the writing part I wanted.
The book that changed me as a teenager
I had so many positive formative reading experiences as a teenager. But one that stands out was actually a negative experience: reading The Fountainhead. At 15, I often chose books based on how thick they were – the thicker the better. And Ayn Rand’s doorstoppers were everywhere, so I picked one, and started reading. For maybe the first 50 pages, I was hooked by the story. But I began to feel a sort of visceral disgust – as if I were being submerged into a tub of slime. I realised that I hated the book – not the writing, but the ideas behind it. Before this I’d always read with an open heart. I saw authors as thoughtful and benevolent authorities. If it was written in a book, I thought, it must be true. The Fountainhead was my awakening about how crucial it is to read critically.
The writer who changed my mind
The Christians As the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Wilken. I read it when I was 20, for a college course, and it completely changed the way I thought about the early days of Christianity, turning inside out much of what I’d been taught as a child. It was a thrilling revelation, and I ended up becoming passionately interested in the intersection of the Roman world and Christianity.
Also, TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I read it first at 16. Before that, poems were largely irrelevant to me, either comic limericks or formal sonnets. But Prufrock changed all that: it was angsty love at first sight. I dove head-first into poetry and never looked back.
The book that made me want to be a writer
As I entered my teen years, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Both were a revelation in terms of how language could be used, how stories could be told – and what kinds of stories were worth telling. I remember hoping to one day write a novel that could have even a tenth of the power of those books.
The book or author I came back to
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it for school when I was 15. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t equipped to understand it in the least. I just reread it this past year, and was overwhelmed by how gripping it is, and what a work of subversive genius.
The book I reread
Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel. The first time I read the hilarious story of Mr Earbrass’s creative travails, I was 13, and I loved how funny and strange the book was. Once I started writing more seriously, I appreciated its satirical insightfulness into the writing journey. I have come back to Mr Earbrass often over the years: for a creative roadmap, for reassurance and, most of all, for laughs.
The book I could never read again
So many of the fantasy novels that I inhaled as a child. The women were scarcely even two-dimensional, it was always the same old Chosen One plot, and in retrospect, many of them also featured racist tropes. It was a pleasure to discover Octavia Butler as an older reader, I wish I had known about her then. Ditto The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, and The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K LeGuin.
The book I discovered later in life
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. By some accident, I never got assigned Dickens in school, and never picked him up on my own. Decades later, I began seeing that authors I loved had enjoyed reading him – in particular Min Jin Lee and Sarah Waters. So I decided it was time to catch up. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am eyeing Bleak House next.
The book I am currently reading
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. It’s terrific. I’m savouring every story in it, reading them once, then again.
My comfort read
Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s wonderfully epic, the characters feel like old friends, and I love the heart-pounding ending. In a totally different way, I also love rereading Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. It’s an incredibly powerful novel, with the lyrical intensity of a poem. It reminds me of what books can do at their best.