Damian Barr: TOP TEN BOOKS


If ever there was a champion of books, Damian Barr is it. The Scottish writer came to prominence with his scabrously funny (and deeply poignant) memoir, Maggie & Me, about growing up gay in working class Glasgow during Margaret Thatcher’s polarizing premiership, but it’s the way he’s used his platform to promote contemporary writing that is truly inspiring. In 2008 he launched Damian Barr’s Literary Salon, an informal gathering of like minded friends that has since grown into a wildly popular series at London’s famed Savoy Hotel. Since then Barr has published the critically-acclaimed novel, You Will Be Safe Here, composed of twin narratives, one set during the Boer War, the other in the present, inspired by a brutal murder at a South Africa camp for adolescent boys, and cemented his tastemaker credentials with a UK TV show, The Big Scottish Book Club, now in its second season.

Below are Damian Barr’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set.


Tales of the City

Armistead Maupin
I was 14 and busy hating my big gay self when I won a school trip from an especially unsunny corner of Scotland to Brighton. In a bookshop there I found Tales and on that visit I decided Brighton would become my San Francisco. I found home in the pages of Maupin’s novels of San Francisco life. And I found the possibility of friendships, of love, of life. Home is at the heart of our most enduring and powerful tales: it's where Odysseus sails back to and it's why Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road. I found it at 28 Barbary Lane: a fictional address in a fantasy house that feels real, peopled by characters so beloved they're family – better than family.
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The Color Purple

Alice Walker
This book will break your heart. I don’t mean, you’ll weep gently into a pillow - you will scream with rage and shake your fists at the heavens at the injustice of it all. Set in 1930s Georgia and written as a series of letters from Celie to her sister Nettie, who has been banished to an unnamed country Africa to become a missionary, this searing novel shows how cruel life could be for African-American women there and then. Written in Celie’s voice and her idiom it was pioneering and I still can’t quite believe I was taught it at school. What’s striking (or depressing) is how contemporary the violence, and resistance, feels. Black lives mattered then and now.
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This is Not About Me

Janice Galloway
I couldn’t choose between her two two memoirs so I’m taking this along with It’s All Made Up. Combined, they tell the story of one very small west of Scotland town through three generations of unforgettable women: her sister Cora is one of the most glamorous and threatening women I’ve encountered on a page. Like Janice, we flinch from her but can’t help but be attracted to her big beehive hair and carefully made-up face. Janice finds refuge in books and music and, eventually, boys—as did I. As with The Color Purple, here is a woman telling her own story in her own voice. For me, reading the west of Scotland idiom, gave me permission to write in my own voice in Maggie & Me. She herself calls them ‘anti-memoirs’ to draw attention to the unreliability of memory and the pure subjectivity of it all.
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Stet: An Editor’s Life

Diana Athill
Diana Athill arrived in smoggy pre-War London from genteel Norfolk swapping the country house of her childhood for a flat in then-unfashionable Primrose Hill. Her memoirs are perfection. She brings to life the London of then and the incredible writers whose words would not shine without her polish. Her stories of her years editing Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer and other greats bring lost literary London to life. Diana died last year aged 101 and remained beady-eyed on and off the page. She remains indomitable - just pick up her memoirs and you can hear her voice ring true.
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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Muriel Spark
2018 was Spark’s centenary year and her most famous creation is still very much in her prime. Meet the ‘Brodie Set,’ six girls singled out by their teacher, to receive a worldly, and finally deadly, education at Marcia Blaine School in 1930s Edinburgh. As brilliant as it is brief, I find something new every time I re-read it. Feminism, fascism, the classic doubleness of a city that embraces the Old and New Towns. The crème de la crème!
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Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf
It’s June 1923 and Mrs Dalloway is dashing around town making preparations for a party. "Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense … before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed." Virginia Woolf conjures the capital through privileged eyes. While reading listen to Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works by Max Richter whose swooping music features that boom and a rare recording of Woolf’s voice.
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The Group

Mary McCarthy
Published in 1963 but set in the 1930s, The Group follows eight young women arriving in NYC fresh from Vassar College. It scandalized with scenes of sex, contraception and (gasp) breast-feeding. Norman Mailer dismissed it as "a trivial lady writer's novel". Candace Bushnell says it inspired Sex and the City.
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On Writing

Stephen King
I love books by writers about writing—super-meta. Part memoir, part manual, this classic traces the trajectory of his writing life form making up stories with his brother and selling them at school through family breakup to his own alcoholism and finally Carrie. He shows how to (ab)use your life in your fiction and is basically a key to unlocking his writing and your own abilities.
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Toni Morrison
There is life before Beloved and life after. As a writer, I found it so completely perfect I fell in awe before it. As a reader, I return to it annually. The rhythms made me alert again to the possibilities of language and ow they might describe or change a character or a person. "Working dough. Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s work of beating back the past."
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On Forgiveness

Richard Holloway
The Former Bishop of Edinburgh writes about the transformative power of forgiveness—how it can free us, if we let it. How it can interrupt cycles of violence personally and politically. It is humane and learned without ever being dry or holier-than-thou. Read everything by him and become a better person in the reading but if you pick up just one make it this slender but powerful text.
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