To celebrate last year’s World Book Night, we spoke to Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting and all round literary legend about his reading habits, his lifelong love for libraries and which book he’d choose to give away…
World Book Night is about opening up opportunities to reading. How did your reading life begin?
I started off reading books about politics and history and was fascinated by that, then got into science and engineering. Novels only started to get a grip on me when I was getting towards my late teens. I got very into Waugh and Orwell, two very English writers who were the first major influences on me. Waugh comes from a completely different social milieu than the one I write about, but I liked the way he dealt with relationships, and particularly relationships between men. He captures that kind of false bonhomie and competitiveness and schadenfreude that exists, and that was a big building block for me.
I loved Orwell for his understanding of people and human nature and his relentless honesty in terms of looking at life the way it is rather than the way he wants it to be. After that, the revelation for me was getting into writers like James Kelman and William McIlvaney who came from the same background as I came from and were writing about the kind of people I recognised and knew, but were writing serious literature. That was a big thing. When you see people like that coming from the same background as you, that sort of gives you permission to become a writer. It’s not about English public school and Oxbridge types lounging around in a drawing room. It’s about people living on council estates going about the business of getting on with life.
As a writer, how important is your own reading now and how do you choose what to read?
When you become a writer you end up working all the time. I’ve usually either got a novel, a stageplay or a screenplay on the go, and what this means is that you work on a project basis and tend to be selective about your reading around that project. It means that you don’t read as much for pleasure and don’t discover books in the same way, and that’s a major bugbear for me. I really have to make the time to read.
We’ve done some research into male reading habits and found that 63% of men admit they don’t read as much as they think they should. What do you think about reading in general being in decline?
It’s not so much that reading is in decline, but the kind of reading that can take you on a real journey inside yourself, into the different chambers of your own consciousness, that’s what is in decline. Now it’s all about the short-term, blogging and tweets, which doesn’t give us a chance to go off on a journey. A lot of it has to do with a horrible work culture that we have. Reading is almost seen as a self-indulgence, a decadent extravagance when we should be earning money or doing something else. There are so many demands on our time now, and we live in such a psychoactive culture ruled by the tyranny of the screen. We engage with text so much through that and we find it very difficult and weird to just sit down and read, but we absolutely have to do it.
Which book would you give away on World Book Night and why?
I’d give Chicago writer Bill Hillman’s book The Old Neighbourhood, which has just been published here in the US. It’s a book that comes straight from the heart. It’s an archetypal experience of a young guy in Chicago who’s on the precipice of ruining his life but actually pulls it back. Life is all about the choices we make, even though our capacity to choose is often very limited. The kid in the book is only about sixteen and it really illustrates that incredibly thin line between having a decent life of success or one of abject failure and misery spent in prison. The older you get the more you see that in retrospect among the people you’ve grown up with, and the more you see it in kids on the street now. One arbitrary act or decision can change everything.
One thing I really like about Bill Hillman’s book is that he actually deals with a real place in Chicago. There are too many American and European books that write about some place like it’s a generic inner-city. When you walk down the streets in Edgewater in Chicago you get a real feel for The Old Neighbourhood. I tried to do this with Leith in my books, to write about somewhere where you can get a feel for the place and the characters. Even though the area is gentrified you can still see pockets of what’s being written about.