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Emma Thompson: Books of My Life

The multi-hyphenate talent shares her favorite novels

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Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Name Emma Thompson

Titles Actress, Screenwriter, Author

Number of Children’s Books Written Four

Most Recent The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit

What It Is A droll new chapter in the Beatrix Potter story

The book I read in secret as a kid Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs. I felt sick for days afterwards.

The book I enjoyed most in school The Phantom Tollbooth. An extraordinary linguistic feat, a timeless bit of genius.

The classic I’ve never read The Brothers Karamazov. Disgraceful ellipsis, really. I’ve no excuse.

The books that cemented me as a writer I hope I don’t ever get cemented as a writer. That sounds a bit severe. But Leon Garfield engendered my enduring love of ghost stories, Joan Aiken of quirky female heroism, and Beverley Nichols of the mystery and magic in nature (The Tree That Sat Down and The Stream That Stood Still). John Masefield’s books defy description. Just read them.

The books I’ve read over and over All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, books of such — what? Moral importance? Emotional heft? Simplicity and passion and visionary brilliance? Oh, and 1984 too! And Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man.

The book I’ve pretended to have read Too many to list, but The Gulag Archipelago springs to mind. It was a very big noise when I was a teenager, and my friend Gillian once used it to hit an overly amorous stranger on a French train. I thought it would be cool to read it, so I tried, gave up after chapter 1, and BS’d my way from then on.

The last book that made me laugh, and the last one that made me cry How to Be Idle, by Tom Hodgkinson! I think, of all the books I’ve read in the last decade, this one made me the happiest. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on alcohol and rioting.

I took Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on a holiday once and slightly regretted it because I couldn’t stop crying. My boyfriend, now husband, had to pry it from my grasp and tell me a lot of bad jokes whilst force-feeding me margaritas.

My favorite movie adaptation I do love David Lean’s Great Expectations. It echoes the atmosphere of the Dickens beautifully.

The recent books I wish I’d written The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, by Andrew Stott, and all five of the Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn. The first is an exquisite biography full of theatrical detail, and the second is just full of the most flawless, biting, witty prose I’ve come across in years.

What it’s like to buy my own books at the store ”They’re presents!” I shriek, if I see anyone looking.

What I’m reading now This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein (devastating); The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth (startlingly modern); Occupy, by Noam Chomsky (timely — as always with Chomsky); and Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner (second time — very good examination of intellectual rebellion during the rise of National Socialism).