The book I am currently reading
Learning What Love Means by Mathieu Lindon, a coming-of-age book set in Paris, including an account of Lindon’s friendship with Michel Foucault and Hervé Guibert. Also, Men and Apparitions by Lynne Tillman, a beautiful meditation on photography. And Martin Gayford’s Modernists & Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters.

The book that changed my life
First, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a religious upbringing, and then Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, with all gay characters, and then Baldwin’s essays, raw and personal and wise.

The book I wish I’d written
I often wish I were TS Eliot. I don’t think he suffered as much as people imagine he did. He lived to be old, was lucky in love late in life and he got to write Four Quartets. Not only do I wish I had written Four Quartets, but also I long to record them in Eliot’s voice, so grave and thoughtful and melancholy.

The book that had the greatest influence on me
I read Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady when I was 19. I loved the sentences and the idea of someone from a provincial place being taken on a grand tour. But I wasn’t prepared for the darkness of the book, the sense of duplicity and treachery. That mix of style and moral judgment changed not only the way I thought about writing, but the way I thought about things.

The book I think is most underrated
Eugene McCabe’s novel Death and Nightingales is underrated (but not by those who have actually read it). The style is exact, sharp and deliberate, the sense of place perfectly delineated, the characters carefully made, and the plot surprising and fully worked out.

The book that changed my mind
Stanislaus Joyce, brother of James Joyce, wrote two books about his early life in which he goes after his father big time. When you read these books, you change your mind about the nature of James Joyce’s genius and see how smart he was not to bother accusing his father of neglect and other crimes, except in passing, and how much of Joyce’s work is act of forgiveness towards his father.

The last book that made me cry
The death of the boy Hanno in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and the death of the child Echo in Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

The last book that made me laugh
In Don Quixote, there is a letter from Sancho Panza to his wife about how good things are going to get and how important they are going to be.

The book I couldn’t finish
The Old Testament: too long; too boring; too many characters; no real plot; not fully credible; a bad influence on the young.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
I keep meaning to read Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers, which runs to fifteen hundred pages. And yes I am ashamed that I haven’t read it.

My earliest reading memory
I couldn’t read until I was nine. The first book I recall reading is Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington.

My reading guilty pleasure
Books about Mary Queen of Scots or Mary Tudor.

The book I give as a gift
Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, and/or Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons, and/or Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I should say the book I am writing now, but that is not true. Instead, there is a story I wrote called “A Long Winter”, published in a collection of stories Mothers and Sons. Once that story was finished, I knew it would be downhill all the way.

  • Colm Tóibín’s House of Names is published by Viking. He is appearing at the Hay festival next weekend.