Jeremy Paxman hasn’t read every book ever. But you sometimes get the impression that he has asked a question about every book ever. In his 26 years at the helm of University Challenge (the finest and perhaps least fashionable television programme going), he has long portrayed an air of owlish omniscience.
Where does the cue card end and Jeremy begin? That schoolmaster baritone isn’t saying. And yes, some people get frustrated with the occasional scoff. But these are future Masters of the Universe we’re talking about (or, at the very least, explorers of its theoretical boundaries and ultimate entropy). A little scoffing is the least of their problems.
Paxman is at his comfiest with a stack of literary questions in front of him. At these moments you sense he is a grey-haired greyhound straining at the start, willing the answers out of his contestants. He was a student of english in his Cambridge days (though he failed, it should be said, to make the cut for his St Catharine’s College University Challenge team), and a published author of several literary works later on. But, perhaps more than that, he’s a fan. Here he reveals his library favourites.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
War And Peace is always said to be the book no educated person can not have read. But, for me, it’s Crime And Punishment, which I first devoured at 17.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Being unduly and pointlessly proud of my Yorkshire roots, I cannot let go an opportunity to plug Wuthering Heights. I doubt it would make the impression on me now that it did when I was teenager, but — and this is the true justification for reading — it will live in my mind forever.
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
I studied English at Cambridge — which included a compulsory paper on the novel — yet I somehow emerged having never read Dickens. I have since come to love him. Hard Times is his shortest novel, so a brilliant way in for anyone else who feels guilty at having missed out. Try Little Dorrit or Bleak House next.
Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
This is a bit of a cheat, because it’s actually 12 novels. A passionate, hilarious look at mid-twentieth-century Britain.
The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy is also a cheat, for obvious reasons. I have a special place in my heart for Apthorpe and his ‘thunderbox’, which for some reason reminds me of Boris and his successive failures with Covid.
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
Like all journalists, I adore this book, and I often wonder why the only novel to rival it, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of The Morning was published over 50 years ago. Something comic has vanished from life in the media.
Jeremy Paxman presents University Challenge. His new interview podcast, The Lock-In, appears weekly.
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