Reading Recommendations: An Interview On Twitter

Earlier this month, I was invited to do a Q&A with Revue, the newsletter owned by Twitter.

What’s the thing you’ve bookmarked, you know you need to read, and are excited to read?

About a year ago, I started using an RSS reader @Feedly in order to be sure not to miss issues of publications I enjoy, including newsletters. Better still, the app makes it easy for me to highlight and annotate them. Plus, if I find somebody on Twitter who regularly shares things I like, I can add their tweets-with-attachments to my RSS too. Of those, what most reliably excites me are interviews with great writers, released each week from the archive of @parisreview.


What’s the thing you read when you want to remember how to write?

Poetry, usually, because that’s where words are put together in the most startling fashion, from one clause to the next.

If I find something I love – in poetry or anywhere else – I might write it by hand into my commonplace book, which now contains a fantastic assortment of rhetorical figures, by type. Every so often, I might take one of those lines – whether from last week’s newspaper, a comic novel by PG Wodehouse or a blazing line of poetry – and rewrite it to reflect my own concerns. The trick is to “make it my own” while keeping as close as possible to the original.

Also, as my writing increasingly includes illustration, I’m devoted to the books of @scottmccloud, which thrillingly explain the “grammar” of pictures.

Some examples of 'Analogy' in my commonplace book.


You’re at the newsstand and have decided you’re leaving with four magazines. What are you picking up? (from any era, be as oddly specific as possible).

I’d love to find a copy of @Harpers magazine, from about 2001, which contained a very, very long story about the writer taking part in a national poker championship. I don’t particularly like poker, but that story had me gripped. I’d buy a copy of the Financial Times magazine from the years when I was staff writer, just to have the pleasure of seeing it, like an old friend.

Cover of FT magazine "The Business" showing John-Paul Flintoff and other performers in a pantomime.

I’d go back to the 1700s and buy one of the earliest editions of the original Spectator, which would probably look now like a rather amateurish zine. In the same line, I’d like an original copy of pretty well any samizdat Soviet publication (I just hope the newsstand has one, hidden beneath the counter somewhere). In both these cases, I’ll enjoy the reminder that brilliant and urgent writing doesn’t always come neatly packaged.


What’s the thing you read when you need to feel something?

Poetry again. But it has to be the right poetry for the right mood: no good reading Sylvia Plath if I feel like cheerful laughter, and a book of limericks won’t bring me a lot of consolation in times of trouble. The anthologies by @BloodaxeBooks are sensational: Staying Alive, Being Human, Staying Human.

Being Alive (poetry anthology), edited by Neil Astley.

But possibly the best, most moving nine pages I know are the (entire) text of Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett.


What newsletters have you continued to happily subscribe to?

The most consistently excellent newsletter I read is written by @Ted Gioia. It’s about music, mostly – but actually I don’t care what he writes about. He writes well about anything. But there’s another who has given me more practical inspiration, in terms of how to use the newsletter format. I “discovered” @craigmod last year. The great revelation was his use of “pop-up” newsletters, time-limited and (therefore) more precious because everybody knows from the start that they won’t last long. I tried this myself, with a month-long series, last summer: writing every weekday, I ended up producing 15,000 words, with a very positive response from readers. It was tiring though. I did it again, sharing one illustration every day for seven days – then pop! It finished. I called it Alt Text Challenge: readers competed to supply the best alt text for each day’s image. I may come back to it for season two – like series on Netflix – but I may not. Here’s an example:


Is there a thread you love that you come back to (or finds its way back to you)? (if so, why)?

I wish I could say yes, but in truth I can’t quite imagine how that works. Now I want you to tell me of one.


What’s your favorite This Is A Great Day On Twitter day (one of those days when you couldn’t stop reading the timeline)?

It was the day in March when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from captivity in Iran, after six years. I’d been to see, and sketched, her husband when he was several weeks into his hunger strike. I worried so much about him, even after she persuaded him to stop the strike. And of course I worried about Nazanin herself. When I heard that she was to be released, I was just utterly happy. And every so often some new development was delivered to the world via Twitter – she’s got her passport back, she’s going to the airport, there’s a selfie of her on the plane…

My own microscopic contribution was this drawing of how I imagined Nazanin in the taxi to Tehran airport.


What’s the first book you remember reading and loving?

King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table, by Roger Lancelyn Green. I was about seven, and it seemed like a very long book to me, with minimal illustrations, but I read it through to the end and was absolutely distraught by the sad finish. I cried and cried.


What’s the best thing you’ve read this month?

I had Covid, and holed up in my top-floor office, gulping down illustrated work. Somehow, I’ve never previously come across @MairaKalman. I read, or should I say gazed at – as slowly as I could manage, because I didn’t want it to finish – The Principles of Uncertainty. Now I will have to read and gaze at all her others.


Who’s the Twitter follow that hasn’t let you down, since the beginning?

The Hashtag.