WHAT BOOK would historian and author Bettany Hughes take to a desert island?

…are you reading now?

I’m just starting a new novel about the Trans-Siberian Express, The Cautious Traveller’s Guide to The Wastelands by Sarah Brooks, because I’ll be filming in that region in spring. Adoring it so far. Plus Victoria Hislop’s The Figurine — again, because I’m obsessed, like her, with Greece and Greek history.

I always have six or seven non-fiction books on the go. At the moment it’s a stimulating range — from Alice Roberts’ forthcoming Crypt, about life and death in the Middle Ages, to Idols by Amish Tripathi and Bhavna Roy, and Mark Lehner and Pierre Tallet’s The Red Sea Scrolls.

…would you take to a desert island?

The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, including his sonnets. His poetry makes me laugh and cry each and every day. His amazing capacity to understand others would be a reminder on a desert island that even when alone you can connect to people’s lives with your imagination.

If I had a lifetime on the island I might try to come up with phrases that came somewhere close to his genius, ‘the whirligig of time’ etc.

Bettany would take The Complete Works of Shakespeare, including his sonnets, to a desert island. Through Shakespeare’s capacity to understand others, she would be able to connect to people’s lives through her imagination

…first gave you the reading bug?

My Dad was an (often out-of-work) actor and he was brilliant at reading bedtime stories, plus my mum learnt poetry by heart at school as a kid. It’s what used to happen in war-time, so she’d often recite snatches of these. I thought of words as friends — beautiful, dynamic, alive.

Mum later told me I would sit in the local library from the age of about three, looking at books and ‘reading’ them aloud. I must have been making up what I thought the black marks meant.

Ever since then I’ve been obsessed with reading. I recall sitting on freezing English and Welsh beaches as a kid reading Mary Renault’s hot, historical novels and being transported to the wild, wonderful world of the eastern Mediterranean. It’s why I do what I do.

…left you cold?

No book ever! Just opening the cover of a book warms me up.

Bettany remembers being transported to the wild, wonderful world of the eastern Mediterranean by Mary Renault's books

Bettany remembers being transported to the wild, wonderful world of the eastern Mediterranean by Mary Renault’s books

When I was chair of the Orange Prize and the Booker International Prize, I had to read 160 books each time. Just connecting with the writer, even if the book wasn’t my favourite, was fascinating.

Books in various forms have been with us since records began. They’ve been transported as papyrus scrolls and wax tablets. They’ve been stitched into the skirts of women fleeing rebellions and into the hats of male prisoners.

I went to a talk by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who said the books that arrived in her cell during solitary confinement kept her sane. 

I’ve been lucky enough to witness the world’s first storyboard —carved into stone in a cellar in Turkey. Created over 11,000 years ago, it’s a brilliant reminder that we’ve always understood the world by telling stories about it.

  • The Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World by Bettany Hughes (W&N, £25) is out now.

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