Nicola Sturgeon: I would spend my days hiding under the table reading

Nicola Sturgeon is in her Holyrood office, a Joan Eardley painting on the wall behind her and Paul Auster's daunting slab of a novel 4 3 2 1 on her desk. Plucked from my own book shelves, it is part-prop, part-symbol of my inadequacy. Its pristine condition betrays that I have hardly opened it. For more than a year it has taunted me with its enormous bulk. A couple of times, I have lifted it down with good intent, then replaced it, unable to commit to its 866 pages.

Nicola Sturgeo, First Minister of Scotland. Picture: John Devlin.

Sturgeon may have a country to run, but she has read it; not only has she read it, but she can critique it, explaining the premise to me in detail and adding that, while she liked parts of it, she wouldn’t particularly recommend it.

Sturgeon is that rare thing: a politician who devours fiction. Novels, she says, provide both a shelter from political storms and a means of gaining a deeper understanding of the human condition.

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The First Minister is evangelical about her pastime. Many Saturday nights, she will tweet a picture of her latest literary dalliance, and once or twice a year, her recommendations from her summer/winter reading. Then, for a fleeting moment, Twitter becomes that little bit less toxic, as bibliophiles from across the political divide drop their sniping to chip in with their own opinions.

Sturgeon has eclectic tastes. Her Christmas recommendations featured six crime novels, but also a dozen others including George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. The thread had 618 RTs and 2.8k likes, suggesting many people appreciate a First Minister with a hinterland.

She is also rapidly becoming a regular at festivals. During the Edinburgh Book Festival, she interviewed Ali Smith. And on Friday she will be in conversation with author Damian Barr at a an event at the Wigtown Book Festival.

As a kind of taster, Sturgeon has carved out half an hour to talk to me about the important role reading plays in her life.

First and foremost, she says, books help her to relax. I am lucky enough to witness this first-hand. When I arrive, she is tense and aloof as you might expect of a leader going through the toughest period of her four-year tenure. But as she starts talking about reading, she smiles, all the formality melts away, and you can almost see her shrugging off the troubles of the day.

Sturgeon tells me she discovered the joys of reading early; most of her childhood memories revolve around books and particularly Saturday morning trips to Irvine Library.

“There is something quite calming about being surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, so I liked the whole experience of being in a library. It probably is what really introduced me to the power of losing yourself in reading,” she says.

“I remember at my fifth birthday party, hiding under the table with a book, while everyone played games around me. I remember my mum sort of saying: ‘Would you come out? We have people here’. But, you know, if it was up to me, I would spend still most of my days hiding under the table reading. I really haven’t changed.”

Right now, no-one could blame Sturgeon for wanting to hide under a table. In the weeks since the sex allegations against her friend and mentor Alex Salmond became public she has been under huge personal and political pressure; in addition she is under fire over some of her education policies, in particular standardised testing for P1s. So is reading helping her through these difficult days? “I have no idea what you mean,” she chuckles.

Joking aside, she says she reads consistently, a few pages every night before sleep claims her and most Saturday nights. “But I probably value reading more at times of stress because it takes your mind away from what you might be worrying about. I also find reading – even if you are reading about something not remotely connected to the issues you are dealing with – gives you a different perspective on things.”

Her favourite book – if she had to choose one – is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, with its strong female protagonist Chris Guthrie. “Sunset Song opened my eyes to parts of the country I didn’t know and it has a very strong female lead character, although it’s set around about the time of WWI,” she says.

“I think that probably had an impact on my thinking around gender and feminism, although other writers such as Edna O’Brien and Alice Walker which I read in my mid- to late-teens also played a part.”

Interestingly, all three of the non-fiction books she recommended at Christmas 2017 – Mary Beard’s Women and Power, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened and Coretta Scott King’s My Life, My Love, My Legacy – have feminist undercurrents. “I don’t read a lot of non-fiction,” Sturgeon says. “I have enough non-fiction to keep me occupied, but when I do, it’s likely to be stuff I can take something from. The Hillary Clinton book, for example: whatever you think of her politics, her sheer resilience as a woman I find really inspiring. And that book, although chunks of it were the sort of clichéd stuff that [her books] have been full of in the past, a lot of it was quite raw and authentic.”

Perhaps Sturgeon is more drawn to fiction because it has the power to stimulate the imagination. The playwright Jo Clifford once said: “Empathy is a muscle and theatre is the gym.” But empathy is a quality much lacking in politics today. Could novel-reading provide a similar workout? And, if so, has it made the First Minister a better, more-compassionate leader? “It’s not for me to comment on my abilities as a politician,” she says. “But there’s no doubt it develops an empathy and understanding of people, circumstances, parts of the world periods in history,” she says. “It changes and broadens [your] perspective.”

Barr – author of Maggie and Me, a memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain – plans to introduce the Wigtown event by talking about other leaders’ reading preferences. When asked about his favourite book, Donald J Trump put The Art of the Deal by Donald J Trump second only to the Bible; Theresa May said Pride and Prejudice (“as opposed to Pride in Prejudice”, Barr chuckles). Jeremy Corbyn claims to have read Ulysses four times, though his favourite novelist is the Nigerian Chinua Achebe.

Surely the world would be a better place if all politicians were required to consume more fiction? “Undoubtedly,” answers Sturgeon. “With the best will in the world nobody experiences everything and you are dealing all the time with issues that you don’t have first-hand experience of. I’m not saying reading books are a substitute for that, but they definitely allow you to understand people and situations that otherwise you might not understand.”

Such is Sturgeon’s desire to pass on the pleasure of books, she started the First Minister’s Reading Challenge which has been running in primary schools since 2016 and was recently extended to secondary schools. The day before we speak, she has been visiting Renfrew High to see the work done by pupils who have produced a graphic novel.

“It’s all about trying not to come at it as: ‘You must read because it helps you do well at school,’ although it does, but instead trying to encourage kids to have a love of reading for its own sake.”

The book festival appearances are about supporting authors who may struggle to make a living. “I think that one of the most special, wonderful things that anyone can ever do is to write a novel that gets published and then provides enjoyment for other people.

“That is also why I tweet about them. If I have got huge enjoyment reading a book, then a tiny wee thing I can do is to recommend that book and hopefully someone else will pick it up and read it.”

Under-read and often corralled into genres such as crime or memoirs, female writers are often in particular need of promotion. Sturgeon says she naturally gravitates towards books written by women. “I don’t set targets,” she says, “but I think I probably do subconsciously keep a track of the breadth both in terms of gender and kind of international reach of the books I am reading.”

“I think women writers are read less and reviewed a lot more harshly than men are, so I like trying to do my little bit to redress that balance.”

With as-yet unread books piled high at home, and literary festivals flourishing across the country, Sturgeon guffaws at Will Self’s proclamation that the novel is dead. “I think Will Self supported independence so he is clearly right on lots of things, but on this he is just wrong,” she says. “I think the novel will outlive all of us and generations to come.”

Barr is the patron of Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden in Wales. He tells me William Gladstone read a book a day covering all sorts of genres and had “lively” opinions on most of them.

Then, at the age of 85, the former Liberal prime minister took his 32,000-strong book collection a quarter of a mile in a wheelbarrow to the then library building.

A vocal No voter last time round (though he is reviewing his position post-Brexit) Barr says he is nevertheless proud to hail from a country where the First Minister tweets photographs of books on the Man Booker Prize long-list.

“It’s unusual in the current age to find the leader of a country who is really public about and vocal about their love for books and not just generic way, but in a really specific way,” he says. “We need politicians doing more deep thinking and more deep reading, rather than just reading 140 characters in a Tweet.”

The power of books to bring people together was brought home to Barr when he attended the Scribes at the Rock Festival on the Falls Road last month. “There was I standing right in front of Gerry Adams reading from [Maggie and Me] which opens with the Brighton bombing and afterwards he came up and shook my hand. He read the book and tweeted me to say how much he loved it, which was amazing.

“I think if books can do that in Northern Ireland, they can do it anywhere.”

Back in the First Minister’s office, my allotted half-hour is drawing to a close, but Sturgeon seems in no hurry. She is still talking animatedly about Ali Smith’s Autumn: “It captures the confusion and division and feeling in that immediate post-Brexit period in a better way than anything else fiction or non-fiction I have read since.” And about Muriel Spark whose novels she has been re-reading in her centenary year – “I had forgotten just how sublime they are.”

As I switch my tape recorder off, she strides across the room to her bookshelves and pulls out a handful of slim volumes. “Have you heard of Charco Press?” she asks. “It’s a new publishing house in Edinburgh which specialises in translated fiction from Latin America”. It occurs to me, then, that for a politician who is sometimes accused of trying to push Scots literature and language on to the curriculum, her tastes are anything but parochial.

We part having swapped recommendations. She convinces me to read The Mars Room - a Man Booker prize long-listed novel by Rachel Kushner about a woman serving life in a US jail for murdering a stalker. I hope I convince her to read Goblin by Ever Dundas. “I could go on talking about books as long as you let me,” she says as I gather up my things. And I really do believe her.

A Life in Books – a conversation between Nicola Sturgeon and Damian Barr – will take place at the Wigtown Book Festival at 3:30pm on Friday.