In this interview, Andy (creator of Places & Books) speaks to Francesca Tyer about his passion for reading and the novels that have shaped his life.
Image provided by Andy
Based near London and an avid reader, Andy is the founder of Places & Books, a blog and interconnected Instagram page all about the wonder of books. Through Bookstagram, he has connected with people all over the world who share his passion for reading.
This passion began at an early age and Andy’s literary tastes have developed to span a wide range of classics and a touch of modern literature. In this interview, he discusses the beginnings of his Instagram page and blog, the reasons behind his passion and the novels that have shaped his life.
“I’ve been reading all my life,” Andy begins. “In terms of places and books, it’s quite a short story. My daughters used to say, “I’m just about to put an Instagram post up. Can you all like it so that it gets off to a good start?” So I had to download Instagram. I started connecting with people on there. I saw that a friend of mine from work – @tundextra – posted about books and nothing else. I thought, as I read, it might be a good way of keeping a record.
“For a bit of fun, I did a few posts, but I didn't make my account public, so nobody knew about it for about three months. Then just over five years ago, I decided to make the account public. I was shocked that it started growing pretty quickly. It took me longer to start writing the sort of captions I write now, and to put my face or even my name against my account. I was just Places and Books, not Andy, for a long time.”
“I can’t actually remember learning to read”
Speaking further about the establishment of his Instagram page, Andy comments on the importance of creating an online identity.
“When I get asked, I always advise that unless you’ve got a reason not to, put your face and your name on your account. It really helps people to engage and connect with you. I really notice when people who regularly comment on my posts have their face as their icon. Those who don’t, I have to go and check if they’re who I think they are. It’s not normal to be able to keep 1000 names in your head, and this is much harder when there isn’t a face next to it.”
Having been an avid reader all his life, Andy tries to recall the first full book he read to himself and comments on the sense of identity reading gave him from an early age.
“I can’t actually remember learning to read,” he comments. “I’m guessing my parents were very involved. I was reading before I got to school. I was just thinking how much that little thing of being slightly ahead of the rest of your class would give you a little four-year-old ego boost. So you’re known as the kid who can read. From there it became part of my identity.”
“Thank goodness for Enid Blyton, her stories and her prolific output. For a while I was obsessed with an Enid Blyton story, an incredible rolling adventure called Book of Brownies. It was about these three pixies and their adventures. I think I often read it more than once a day. We had a local library that was about 400 yards away. After I’d made a beeline for Asterix and Tintin, I would explore more widely. My dad would also read to my brother and I distinctly remember him reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when we were young and Watership Down as well – fantastic.”
Image provided by Andy
Andy speaks about the transition from children’s books to more advanced reading and the challenges this can present.
“There’s definitely a moment when you need to convert to an adult read,” he suggests. “I struggled with that around the age of 13-14. It's an age where, and I remember it from my own kids, if you are an advanced reader, your reading skills are often ahead of your emotional maturity. There comes a bit of a gap whereby you either have to adjust your emotional maturity or read books that are immature or less challenging than you’d want them.
“I had a family friend who said, ‘Why don’t you borrow a thriller?’ I didn’t read thrillers in those days, but it worked. She gave me an Alistair MacLean book called Night Without End, an adventure about a hijacked plane that crash landed in Antartica. It absolutely opened my eyes to bigger, more detailed, more complex books. I read all of MacLean's works and that, combined with English Literature at school, really catapulted me into literary adulthood.”
While Andy now prefers to read classic fiction, he admits that the occasional thriller still creeps onto his reading pile.
“I love a good story,” he begins, “but I often find that thrillers aren’t quite as well written. If you're used to eating really well and then someone offers you something which isn’t quite as well cooked, you think, I’d rather not. I’ve got to that point where I’m used to reading pretty well-written books. With a lot of thrillers, you can see where they're going. You can see you're being manipulated all along and as soon as you can see that, you’ve lost the book. I do like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books though. They never seem obvious or predictable. I like his narrative voice and his writing style is excellent.
“The same goes for young adult books. The majority of them seem to be written entirely with the film rights in mind. They’re not literary-paced books, they are film-paced books which just happen to be on paper. I’m sure they’re written with a very clear thought that they’d become a film, almost like a screenplay.”
"I'll never get through all the books I want to read in my lifetime"
While his taste has become acclimatised to the reliability of literary classics, Andy admits that the Bookstagram world has opened his eyes to an even wider range of brilliant fiction.
“One of the things that Instagram and Bookstagram has made me realise is that good writing is out there. Believe it or not, before I joined the Bookstagram community, I had moments where I thought there were no good books left to read. How wrong I was! There are thousands of them; I'll never get through all the books I want to read in my lifetime. Some people get worried about the number of books they still have to read. What a joy! All those possibilities still in front of you.”
Having consumed many books since childhood, counting the number of volumes read in total is a slightly challenging task.
“It’s difficult, because I reread books, especially things I read as a teenager and that was thirty-five years ago,” Andy explains. “When I was a kid, I’d go down to the library and come back with nine books. I’d read them all by the next week and go and find another nine. These days it's nothing like that. I read about 100 books a year and that’s largely because it’s my main leisure time hobby. I don’t watch television so I have about three hours a day to read. But numbers don’t really matter; it’s about what you get out of reading, not how many books you’ve read.”
“My 100 Favourite Books blog is almost, if you were to phrase it a different way, which books have I’ve reread most. There are exceptions however. To Kill a Mockingbird is in my top ten, but I actually don’t want to reread it, because I have such a positive feeling about it inside me that it could not get any better.”
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Andy speaks about some of his favourite books and explains why these particular volumes made it onto his top list.
“I love to reread Walt Whitman's life-affirming Leaves of Grass almost yearly and The Lord of the Rings every two or three years – it’s full of old friends. Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is a great story of bravery, friendship and adventure. I struggle to explain my third most reread book, John Irving’s Cider House Rules. It's quite a harrowing subject, but the narrative voice is just like slipping on an old pair of shoes. It’s not all old books though. Two of my favourite reads from 2021 went straight into my all-time Top 100: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amon Towles and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.”
“Another top ten novel is Charlotte Bronte's Villette. I don’t seem to tire of reading her. It feels so comfortable, such a pleasure to begin the book and not worry how fast I'm going or when it's going to end. I feel the same about Charles Dickens. I only have two of his I have never read – Barnaby Rudge and Edwin Drood – but once I’ve read them I’d love to reread Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. It’s been thirty years since I read them and to be honest I can't remember that much about them.”
Not only are there favourite books, but preferred genres and favourite authors as well. Andy speaks about his enjoyment of literary fiction in particular and names some of his top authors.
“I particularly enjoy literary fiction – although I’m happy with any genre as long as the writing is high quality. There’s a book that I read a few years ago called Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It was a wake up moment where I realised, This is science fiction, but it’s a great book. It was so well-written and so thought-provoking. In young adult fantasy fiction, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows is exceptional. So I try not to limit myself, because there are great books in every genre.
“In terms of favourite authors, it's really hard to pin them down. At the moment, Steve Toltz, an Australian author, is a favourite, as is Rose Tremain. Then there’s Robert Macfarlane, who writes non-fiction. Historically, Alexandre Dumas is my favourite writer, but Dickens is amazing. And then there is Mary Oliver, the American poet, James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Coleridge… I could go on.”
“Impact is more about yourself changing"
Andy’s favourite books are not necessarily the volumes that have had the greatest impact on his life however, as he explains.
“Impact is more about yourself changing, rather than how much you enjoyed a book. In terms of pure impact though, I can distinctly remember reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It’s about the First World War, as told through German eyes. It’s pacifist in tone and it totally turned my perspective around. At the age I read it, sixteen or seventeen, I didn't really have a great perception of the world. This book made me stop thinking of goodies and baddies and start to realise that we are all absolutely the same.
“Another book which made a huge impact is Decolonising the Mind by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. He wrote about the effect of colonisation and the English language on Kenyan literature and made me realise how words have the power to crush culture. The only other book which really woke me up to the same extent was by an Argentinian writer, Jorge Borges. The guy's brain is insane. You pick up a book like that and your mind is instantly fully engaged.”
With such refined reading taste, Andy comments on the elements that make a novel worthy of admiration in his eyes.
“For me, it's just good writing. Somebody who understands how to lay out a story in a non-obvious way. I won't name names, but I did some exploring of young adult fiction and some of it was great and some of it wasn’t. There was a particular book I read with an implausible character, an assassin who was a teenager and also proficient in every language and in virtually everything. Here she is playing the piano by herself to show her sensitive side… Oh the prince has secretly observed her. Yawn. I don’t want to see through the mechanisms.
“High-quality writing surprises you without having to jump out at you. I’ve read some really good modern books but if you go back and read the writing from the Twenties and Thirties, from Agatha Christie and Somerset Maugham to James Hilton and E. M. Forster, the prose is absolutely gorgeous. Good writing is everything to me. There’s this quote I heard recently, “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy…”
Image provided by Andy
Favouring reading over other leisure time activities, Andy admits to almost always having a book with him, just in case…
“I read anywhere. I could be outdoors in the country, having a walk, in a cafe, in a library on the sofa, the garden, absolutely anywhere. I tend to always have a book with me and when I can’t have a book, I'll find an audiobook. Audiobooks are good for rereads, where the plot and characters are familiar to you, and also poetry, which of course is meant to be read aloud. Some books also need to be read aloud to be appreciated. I struggled to read The Waves by Virginia Woolf but I listened to an audio performance and it all made sense.
“Woolf is in a class of her own. She just seems so bright, but to be able to convert that into books is another thing entirely. I would be terrified to have met her. I wouldn’t mind being in a cupboard watching her speaking to someone bright, but I wouldn’t want to be in the same room. She’s got a sharp and sparkling intellect, but I think I’d go to pieces if I met her. If I could meet an author, I'd hang out with Alexandre Dumas or possibly with Shakespeare in a tavern.”
Reflecting on the books read in his life to date, Andy considers which volume he would most like to step inside, if given the chance.
“People always say Middle Earth or Hogwarts and I think, Why, it's terrifying! As a result, my answer would have to be any of L. M. Montgomery's Prince Edward Island novels, starting with Anne of Green Gables and Jane of Lantern Hill. Whether it's anything like Montgomery describes, with blossom trees out and orchards in bloom, I don't know, but it feels like a happy, comforting and homely place.”
"I'm not sure there's anything quite like Russian literature”
In a similar vein, Andy names the fictional characters he would most like to meet and thoughtfully explains his choices.
“Roald Dahl's Matilda,” he states. “I absolutely love the book and it's almost perfect. Matilda is just delightful and it would be lovely to spend time in her company. For completely different reasons, a book called Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The main character is this extraordinary man, a self-obsessed anti-hero who messes up everything. He’s fixated with the workings of his own stomach. He’s just hilarious, fascinating.
“Those are my two runners up. The character that I would like to meet is Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina, a character who many people think was Tolstoy put into fiction. He’s got all the desire to do good, to learn to be better. He's a great guy struggling with lots of inner demons. Film and television adaptations of Anna Karenina focus on Anna and Vronsky but there’s a parallel story with Konstantin and Kitty which, for me, is even better.”
Andy clarifies however that these characters are not necessarily the ones whom he feels the closest affiliation with.
“Every character that you ever read, if it's well written, you should be inhabiting. At risk of coming across as semi-psychotic I’d say I feel an affinity with Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. He's confused and bright and fails to move on from adolescent angst against the world. He’s a little bit self-destructive but beneath it all he’s a good human. I'm really going to regret associating myself with someone who killed someone with an axe, but let's go with it.
“I was asked once which country’s literature would I save in a fire. I would save Russian literature because it’s unique – just that much more abrasive, challenging and different. You could probably recreate French and English literature to a large extent, with the exception of a few, but I'm not sure there's anything quite like Russian literature.”
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As our interview draws to a close, Andy speaks about his current reads and shares a few words about each.
“I have three on the go at the moment. The first one is Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s my desperate last attempt to read all the books I was given last Christmas before I ask for more this Christmas. I'm not actually enjoying it that much. It’s not a linear plot and the characters aren’t particularly interconnected or engaging, but I’m going to stick with it.
“For a bit of fun, I’m reading Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet which is just brilliant: hilarious writing. The book I've just picked up is the Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing which is something I’ve had in mind to read for a long time. I just can’t stop starting new books. I would love to stick to one at a time but I keep picking up new books and starting them.”
With many thanks to Andy for this interview