The Power of Words: A Pre-Screen Child’s Journey with Martin Stewart’s The Good Books

Estimated read time 4 min read

The former English teacher and lecturer on the comfort of reading non-fiction and his childhood love of Roald Dahl.

The first book I remember reading:

Spot the Dog, that feeling of Spot being famous, a recognised thing to which I was being given access. After that, reading independently came very naturally. Being a pre-screen child meant reading cereal boxes at the table, shampoo bottles in the shower, devouring words and language, all the time. My mother took me to the local library every weekend, where I read every book I could get my hands on, and re-read lots of them. The ones that stick out are the Dahls, and when I reach for a solid, reliable memory of reading on my own for the first time, it’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

A book I recommend to everyone:

Jaws. I love its capacity to over-deliver for people already familiar with the film, and I love reflecting on the brilliance of the screen adaptation, which brutally trims the narrative to tell the same story in the perfect way for a new medium. It’s fast, funny, fifty years old this year, and – in Chief Brody of the Amity P.D. – features fiction’s finest Martin.

The best three books I have read in the last year:

I find the greatest comfort in reading non-fiction, especially the history of naval exploration, and leapt upon Erabus: The Story of a Ship,. Michael Palin’s biography of one of the great vessels of post-Napoleonic Britain. Just the determination and discomfort experienced by the men on its years-long expeditions is endlessly fascinating to me, never mind their grisly, frosty fate. How cosy I felt, wrapped in my covers, reading about 19th century Arctic ice. On the recommendation of Liam McIlvanney, I read Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, which had that rare quality of being unlike anything I’ve ever read. Brutal, propulsive, compelling, it manages to elevate the violence and punishment of pugilism to a kind of extreme elegance. And I’ve just finished Quint, by Robert Lautner. At the risk of seeming like a Jaws superfan, I loved its urgent voice, its layering of such a complex character, and its deft handling of the uncanny valley between Benchley’s character and Robert Shaw’s enduring screen portrayal.

A book I didn’t finish:

I’ll go for a book I didn’t finish, but on a technicality. As a committed re-reader, I’ll often pick up books I’ve read and loved and browse their pages, reading a favourite chapter on a short train journey, then putting the book back on the shelf. Of the many books in this expansive category – which I have read many times in the last year but come nowhere near finishing – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay stands apart. The clockwork precision of its language never disappoints, and I sometimes carry it around when I’m writing, like a little battery of words, keeping me charged up.

An author who has inspired me:

John Steinbeck. My favourite book is Cannery Row, which changed my life in the sense that it changed the way I wrote, which led directly to my first book deal. In the introduction Steinbeck muses that the best way to capture the titular town’s ‘poem, stink and grating noise, quality of light, tone, habit and dream’ might be ‘to open the pages and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.’ It was as though he’d reached out from the book, turned me by the shoulders, and said ‘look – it’s over there.’ My son’s middle name is Steinbeck. He’ll probably never thank me for this.

Double Proof is Martin’s adult fiction debut.

My favourite place to read:

In bed. With two young children in the house – aged six and four – there’s not much opportunity to sit and relax with a paperback. My wife, Julie, and I read to them all the time, and my wee girl is beginning to read independently (she’s reading my own children’s series, Bridget Vanderpuff, which is wonderful!) I love the sense of retreat and relaxation that comes with settling into bed at the end of a long day; the quiet, the absence of timings and appointments. I can read until my eyes blur and the book gets heavy in my hands, then sleep comes, blissful and deep… until one of the kids wakes me up.

Martin Stewart, Double Proof is published by Birlinn and can be bought here. A native of Glasgow, he now lives in Troon with his wife, two children and a very big dog. Double Proof is his adult fiction debut.

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