1) Total number of books owned?
Oh God, I don't know. Well over a thousand, anyway. There are so many books in our house that they are piled on top of the piano. And there are still about 30 boxes of books belonging to me in my parents' attic, that have been stored there ever since I moved into my current house.
2) The last book I bought?
I got an Amazon parcel during the week containing Gayla Trail's You Grow Girl - it's the Stitch n Bitch of gardening, basically. The parcel also contained two books by Elizabeth Peters, my new guilty pleasure. She's an Egyptologist who writes very entertaining and funny mystery novels set among the archaeological excavations in 19th century Egypt, and they make for absolutely compulsive reading - you can't read just one, you've got to read them all. Over the last few weeks I've read the first four - luckily, she's been writing since the '70s so there are a lot of books left to read...
3) The last book I read?
As well as The Lion in the Valley by the aforementioned Ms Peters, I've been reading Uncle Fred in the Spring Time by P. G. Wodehouse, which like all vintage Wodehouse is both beautifully written and absolutely and utterly hilarious - it's the one where someone is told to steal that glorious pig Empress of Blandings, and refuses because he was once bitten by a pig. Uncle Fred, aka the Earl of Ickenham, tells him, "but you can't be bitten by the Empress. She's as gentle as a lamb". To which the would-be thief simply replies "I was once bitten by a lamb", leaving Uncle Fred to wonder if there are animals who this unfortunate man hasn't been bitten by. I love the Uncle Fred books.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe By C.S. Lewis
The first "proper" book I ever read, aged five. It was Easter 1981, we were in my aunts' holiday cottage in Skerries, the cartoon of the book was on telly, and as the book was there I started reading it. I remember my dad coming in and remarking on the fact that I was reading it, and I also remember that the only words I didn't immediately understand were dryad and naead. I loved it so much that when I was finished I just started reading it again, and again, and would probably be still reading it to this day if my parents hadn't taken it away from me for a while and given me The Silver Chair. It was my introduction to serious reading, and it captured my imagination utterly. The wardrobe! The sheer seductive evil of the White Queen and her turkish delight! Mr Tumnus and the heartstopping moment when we realise that he's been working for the other side ("it's something I'm doing right now...")! The end of winter! And it was my first allegory, something I thought was terribly clever when I noticed it. I should add that if it had been a Jewish or a Hindu or an Islamic allegory I would have thought it was just as clever - I don't buy the argument that it's just religious propaganda, and one of the reasons I have a kneejerk dislike of Philip Pullman is the way he's dismissed all of Lewis's work, a dismissal which he often bases on the admittedly unpleasant Last Battle. That's a book which I always thought was creepy and horrible, but that doesn'tstop me loving The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or acknowledging how hugely important Lewis is to children's fantasy writing. I can't think of any fantasy writers (including Pullman) who have come up with an idea even vaguely as magical and inspirational as finding another world in a wardrobe, an idea so potent that there can't be a single child who read that book and didn't seriously try it at least once.
I've just seen the trailer for the forthcoming film, which looks much better than I thought it would, apart from one thing - the wardrobe itself is very magical looking, covered in ancient carvings, which really, really misses the point - the wardrobe in the book is meant to look utterly ordinary, which is what's so great about the idea. It could be any old wardrobe. It could be the one in your room right now. That's why I love this book so much.
An Element of Lavishness: The Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner
I discovered William Maxwell when my friend Sara gave me The Chateau, which I adored and which is one of the few books I recommend to everyone without reservations. Sara also introduced me to this book, a collection of Maxwell's letters to and from a writer of whom I'd never heard until I read the book, Sylvia Townsend Warner. They met when Maxwell was an editor at the New Yorker and Townsend Warner was a contributor; they became friends by post, and remained close friends for over forty years. I fell in love with both of them while reading it. Both writers are wise and funny and humane. They also write like angels - this is perfect, perfect writing, elegant and witty and pure. I think it might be my favourite book ever.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.
I read it when I was 16, when it was just about in print (I think there was a hard-to-find edition in a minor children's imprint). I found it by chance in the school library, and I fell in love with it on the first page. I was at an age where my life seemed hopelessly boring, where my friends and I prayed for one thing: for something to happen. And there weren't any fictional heroines in the same boat. No teenage literary heroines were bored - in fact, their lives were all too exciting. But here was a heroine who was basically my age, and she was even more bored than I was. In fact, she had more reason to be bored because she lived in a manky old castle in the middle of Sussex. And then, almost by magic, something happened to her. That book gave me hope that things could get interesting, even when you least expected them to. And it gave me one of the first heroines with whom I could really identify, because she actually wrote about the odd things that I thought - I was pleasantly surprised when Cassandra writes about being afraid to imagine things that she wants to happen, because of course if you imagine them then they won't happen after all. I'd always felt exactly the same way (no visualisation exercises for me!), but it seemed so strange to see it written down, because I thought I was the only person who though that. It was the first time I ever really encountered my own thoughts in fiction - I'd encountered plenty of opinions with which I agreed, I'd encountered plenty of things with which I could identify, but this was the first time I'd ever met a heroine who actually seemed to think like me. "I am seventeen, look younger, feel older". That was me in all my pretentious teenage-ness.
The Compleet Molesworth by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle.
The funniest book ever written. Seriously. It formed not only my sense of humour, but that of my entire family. It also probably had more of an effect on the way I actually speak than any other book.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
Most of my favourite books are kind of sparkling; I like witty books from the '20s, '30s and '40s very much. In some ways, The Diary of a Provincial Lady fits into that template, but it's a lot more down to earth and, more importantly, feminist than most of its contemporaries. I love the Provincial Lady. I love her exasperation and the way she always thinks of the right thing to say just a little bit too late. And most of all, I love her because she's very, very funny. I first read The Diary of a Pronvincial Lady when I was 13, and it is one of the books that I am always "in the mood for" - if I wasn't afraid of getting sick of it, I'd read it every few months. As it is, I limit myself to reading it every year and a half or so, to make sure it always stays fresh.
5) Tag five people and have them fill this out on their journals.
All the chickliterati! But especially cangetmad