Novelist Ian Sansom releases new book based on a life in letters

NITRB head to The British Library to find out more about Ian Sansom's latest creative endeavour.

Ian Sansom is a hard man to grab for a quote. 

He’s too popular; the room is crammed with well-wishers, all desperate to congratulate him on his new book,Reading Room: A Year of Literary Curiosities. The book is published by The British Library, so it’s fitting that that’s where we are, in the small bookshop off the main atrium. There are books, drinks, people and, somewhere among them, Sansom himself. 

Ian Sansom is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster and university tutor. He’s written over a dozen books, writes for The Guardian, Times and Spectator and regularly presents programmes on BBC Radio 4. His latest creative endeavour, Reading Room, is a scrapbook of Sansom’s reading career, with a literary extract for every day of the year. It’s a beautiful object, designed by The British Library’s Jonny Davidson, who Sansom personally thanks in his speech.

‘Without Jonny, it really would just be a mess of notes,’ he says. ‘He’s turned it into something extraordinary.’ 

He’s addressing a friendly crowd, made up of old students, old colleagues, old friends. Everyone is creative – over the course of the evening, I talk to screenwriters, actors, novelists, poets, short-story writers. They all have one thing in common: Ian. 

‘I sent him a manuscript,’ says Chris, an ex-student. ‘I didn’t expect him to read the whole thing but he did. Then he sent me pages and pages of notes. What a guy.’ 

Abigail Day, the woman behind the idea for the book, works for The British Library’s publishing house. She too knows Sansom from her days at The University of Warwick, where Sansom was her personal tutor. 

‘I remember the first meeting we ever had,’ she said. ‘I told him I was interested in publishing and he gave me all this advice, wrote down all these contacts. Then he told me I should probably talk to my personal tutor. I had to tell him that was him! He’d just been doing it all without obligation, to help me out. I think that sums him up really.’ 

Later, in his speech, Sansom cites two people responsible for the creation of the book. Day is one of them – she’s the person that connected Sansom to the project. ‘She was a brilliant student,’ he says. ‘And we kept in touch.’ 

The other person responsible, he says, is a man named Russell Sherman. 

Sherman was Sansom’s A-level history teacher when he was at school, a comprehensive in Essex. There were only three students in the class so, instead of teaching the curriculum, Sherman drove them into London, parked in Bloomsbury, took them to the British Museum. 

‘He was really into progressive rock,’ Sansom says. ‘So we used to listen to Led Zeppelin on the way.’ 

He’s not sure how Sherman managed it but he somehow got hold of three passes for the Reader’s Room at the museum. From the moment he stepped inside, Sansom says, he felt at home. 

That’s what a good teacher can do. They make you feel like you belong. 

Finally, the crowd around Sansom subsides and I reach him. The first thing he does is say he remembers me from his class, asks what I’m doing now. And so, even though it’s his book, his party, we spend a few minutes talking about me. Then I ask him about the book, 

‘It’s thirty plus years of reading at whim,’ he says. 

And why is reading so important?

‘I have never, ever had a single original idea. Everything I have done has come from multiple, multiple, multiple sources. It’s like everything I’ve eaten, I’ve swallowed and digested and has made its way out. This has been the resource that has allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted to do.’ 

Within its pages, you’ll find Jane Austen praising good apple pies (27th July) and Walt Whitman praising himself (3rd June). You’ll hear F. Scott Fitzgerald describing Gatsby as like ‘one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away,’ (3rd February) and D.H. Lawrence describing England as ‘only a spot of grease on the soup just now,’ (3rd December). Sansom has opened the doors to his mind, invites us in, to walk through a bibliography of his thoughts. 

You’ll feel right at home.

Nothing in the Rulebook editor, Ellen Lavelle, is a graduate of the University of Warwick’s prestigious Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a crime novel, a historical fiction novel and the script for a period drama. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter. She is currently commissioning features for Nothing in the Rulebook and can be reached via the email address.

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