The actor and author on how Orwell changed his life, the comforts of Clive James and mastering the voices of Mr Men
The book I am currently reading
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls. Lockdown has made me an even more idle reader than usual but I was able to settle down with this. I hugely admire Nicholls and this is a witty and tender evocation of young love.
The book that changed my life
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I read it when I was 13, which I think was far too young to get so much bad news. It made me understand the importance of language and of noticing attempts to control it.
The book I wish I’d written
My next novel. It really would be marvellous to have got that out of the way.
The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Sorry to be awkward but it’s a poem, or rather a lesson about a poem. Various drafts of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” survive and our English teacher Heather Slater took us through the way he had improved it, gradually substituting one word or phrase for another. It was awe-inspiring to see something so great take shape.
The book I think is most overrated
The popular influence of John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus is regrettable given that it’s such a gaseous bumful of reactionary nonsense.
The book that changed my mind
Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind put an end to my assumption that political views have anything to do with logic or rationality.
The last book that made me cry
The conclusion to Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass.
The last book that made me laugh
Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking is a short memoir based on her 2006 one-woman stage show.
The book I couldn’t finish
Finally, we’re getting on to my area. Too many to mention but notable failures include Joyce’s Ulysses and most of Dickens.
The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
The book I give as a gift
Waterland by Graham Swift. It’s utterly beautiful and its ideas about history and revolution made a big impact on me when I was a teenager. I think I’ve given it to at least two girlfriends as well as David Mitchell
The book I’d most like to be remembered for
Any remembering done by non-friends and family will surely be for what I got up to as an actor: for Jez in Peep Show or possibly the nameless host of the Numberwang game show on That Mitchell and Webb Outlook.
My earliest reading memory
The Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves. My great auntie Trudy would read them to me and do all the voices. I would try to copy them but she was the expert.
My comfort read
Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs. A sentence written by him is a comfort zone in itself because it’s so well constructed. I would be just as happy reading his TV reviews of shows I never watched.
• Come Again by Robert Webb is published by Canongate (RRP £16.99).