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‘Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I must have read it for the first time when I was about nine and I became haunted by it and devoted to it. It’s at once sombre and hilarious, rip roaring and tragically scary. The Duke and the King were my favorite con men and Huck was a heroic casualty. Best of all, though, was the gorgeous carnival of Twain’s language.’
Which books do you tend to re-read?
‘“War and Peace” because all of life is in its pages: private and public, the universe of the heart and the universe of war, personal history and the world’s history. Also because Tolstoy does astonishing things with the minutiae of life. No one has got the totality of what it feels like to live in human skin so exactly. And the book is startlingly groundbreaking in so many ways. I’ve read it eight times, each time with renewed exhilaration and passionate engagement. Roll on the ninth.’
Is there any book that you wish you’d written?
‘Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”. It’s so revolutionary and the blackest of all literary comedies – I’ve seen someone on the Bakerloo Line crying with laughter as they read a well-used paperback. Others I would have killed to have written are Italo Svevo’s phenomenal “Zeno’s Conscience” (the greatest book about failing to give up smoking) and Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”.’
What makes a good history book?
‘Those which make you live in their time, not the present. Those which respect the mess of history. Those which avoid an overly polished tone. Those which eschew distance for proximity, pulling the reader right into a lost world. I think of Richard Cobb’s great “The Police and the People” and Garrett Mattingly’s “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada”.’
Do you draw inspiration from fiction?
‘And how. The novelist’s obligation to remake the sensuous texture of a vanished world is also the historian’s. The strongest fiction writers often do deep research to make the thought and utterances of lost time credible.’
‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE-1492CE’ is published by The Bodley Head, priced £25. TV series ‘The Story of the Jews’ is on BBC2, Sundays at 9pm.