SHELF LIFE: Caleb Carr

What’s currently on your bookshelf?

Way too many books. Given that I have two literary professions, psychological mystery writer and military/terrorism historian, I need a lot of research materials, which I prefer to buy whenever possible.

What books are on your bedside table?

A Perfect Heresy, by Stephen O’Shea; Smoking in Bed, by Bruce Robinson; Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey (an old favourite).

Which books have you been unable to finish and why?

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone; while we’re handing out prizes for "borrowing" others’ ideas, let’s give Ms Rowling the kleptomania award. I’m happy if it gets young kids to read and I hate to agree with Harold Bloom about anything, but as to this being classic children’s fiction that’s for adults, too... deeply troubled adults, maybe.

What was your favourite book in your childhood and why?

Howard Pyle’s The Adventures of Robin Hood; because that’s just the kind of boy I was.

Which books have made you cry and which have made you laugh out loud?

David Copperfield made me cry; Hunter S Thompson’s Generation of Swine made me laugh out loud, because so few people have skewered modern America so accurately yet amusingly.

If you were to buy a book for someone as a present, what would it be?

There is simply no generic answer to that question: books are too idiosyncratic and personal a gift, perhaps more than anything else; a person might even wear a sweater that’s not quite "them," but they’ll never read a book that isn’t.

If you were to write an autobiography what would it be called?

Did This Thing Come With Instructions? It was what my brothers and I used to say after we’d torn into some mechanical gift, got it half-assembled, and realised we were lost - an apt metaphor for my life.

If a picture can paint a thousand words, what can a book do?

A bad book can use up half a million words and say nothing; a good book can use the same amount and make you feel you haven’t even been reading.

Which author would you never have on your bookshelf?

Gore Vidal; I don’t like people who rewrite real lives for their own perverse purposes. Besides, none of my bookshelves are strong enough to hold him.

Bookmark or page corner fold?

Are you mad? Bookmark! Only a savage folds page corners!