There’s a book sitting high up in the untouchable regions of your bookcase. You’ve never read it. A blanket of dust surrounds it. You can’t quite remember if the cover was originally white or cream. It’s now a dirty grey (or is that mould?). Once, at a dinner party, you pretended you’d already read the book, and it appears constantly in lists like ‘100 Books To Read Before You Die’.
Then, one idle afternoon, you read the damn book. You love it. You wonder what trajectory your life would have taken if you’d had this life-altering reading experience earlier.
We’ve all been here, right? Books come to us at different seasons of our lives and sometimes the timing is perfect. Other times, not so much.
We asked the PRIMER team and some of their bookish friends which books they wish they’d read earlier (to save you from making the same mistake).
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
Chosen by Isobel Beech, author of Sunbathing
If I could change when and how I read any book I’d go back in time and read Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment the day it came out in 2005. I didn’t get around to reading it until 2015 – when everyone was raving about the Neapolitan series – and the minute I did it changed my whole world. I’d never before been so enraptured and harrowed and changed by a book, and I can’t help but think that teenage me could’ve done a lot with that.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Chosen by Benjamin Law, writer and broadcaster
Year of Wonders came out over two decades ago now. Reading it for the first this year – as we were processing and recovering from the worst of covid – was a revelation. Brooks makes a plague from 1666 dramatic and page-turning, and the prescience of cranks, conspiracy theorists and scapegoats feels shockingly recognisable, and – in a weird way – consoling.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Chosen by Laura Brading, PRIMER writer and owner of book subscription service WellRead
The day I first read Emily St. John Mandel was a seemingly ordinary day to those around me and no one much noticed that my whole world had expanded. I’d picked up the book somewhat reluctantly after hearing all the book people I respect rave about the author for years. I wasn’t a genre reader, you see. I like my books deeply rooted in hard-boiled reality (what a sadist). Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I’m so glad it did. I was moved, enchanted and genuinely exhilarated by what I read between those pages and the subsequent books I promptly read by St. John Mandel. A good lesson in staying open and curious and taking a risk or two.
Joan Didion – anything you can get your hands on; The Year Of Magical Thinking
Chosen by Felicity Robinson, PRIMER co-founder
It wasn’t until Joan Didion died, almost exactly a year ago, that I realised every woman in the world had read her (or at least that’s how it seemed at the time).
I mean, discovering her while she was living wouldn’t have made all that much difference to me – it wasn’t like we’d have been hanging out in New York talking politics over coffee. She was mainly Republican, anyway. But I would have loved to have discovered her when I was in my 20s, starting out as a journalist. The way she plays with words and structure, the easy elegance to her descriptions of people and places, and her ability to talk about profound ideas without talking ideas at all – her writing is perfection. I like to think she would have improved the way I wrote.
Anyway, I’ve since been reading everything I can, most recently The Year Of Magical Thinking, her account of grieving in the year after her husband’s sudden death. Their lives were more entwined than most, as they worked together and barely spent a night apart, and her confusion feels tangible, even as she writes with complete precision. It’s a beautiful memoir and I loved it. It won the Pulitzer Prize, for god’s sake. How did I miss her?
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara
Chosen by Kelly Fagan, publisher at Allen & Unwin
This small, perfect parcel of a collection made me learn about love and life from the inside out. Every time I dip into it I am reminded of how effervescent art can be, of the beauty that exists in the mundanity of every day, and of the connections that exist all around us, at lunchtime and all the time.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Chosen by Anna Saunders, PRIMER co-founder
Discovering a new favourite author is a little like discovering a $50 note in your coat pocket; a thrilling surprise that’s been right under your nose all along. At least that was how I felt when I finally read Ann Patchett’s novel The Dutch House – a whole two years after it was released. The Dutch House is a sprawling family saga, which might appeal to fans of Jonathan Franzen or Jane Smiley, and which follows two siblings who cannot escape the hold that their childhood home exerts over them. The novel stretches over several decades, enough time for experiences that occur early in the book to come into sharper relief by the end. The best bit? Patchett has a huge back catalogue, so my summer is looking bright.