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Ben Okri: ‘You want to literally disappear into a book’

The Booker Prize-winning author of ‘The Famished Road’ and ‘The Last Gift of the Master Artists’ on reading Dostoevsky in bank doorways while homeless

Author Ben Okri and his book “The Last Gift of the Master Artists.”Mat Bray/ Other Press

For 30 long years, the work of the acclaimed Nigerian-British writer Ben Okri, known for his magical-realism, went, surprisingly, unpublished in the United States. That has changed in recent years with the publication of his poetry collection “A Fire in My Head” and his 2023 novel, “The Last Gift of the Master Artists,” which is set in Africa before the rip tide of slavery struck. Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 for his novel about a spirit child, “The Famished Road.” He lives in West London.

BOOKS: What are you reading?

OKRI: “Immortal Thoughts: Late Style in a Time of Plague” by Christopher Neve. It’s a beautiful book of essays about the late style of major artists. I’m also rereading Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” the great masterpiece of Italian literature. I read it too fast the first time so I’m reading it slowly now. My new philosophy is to read slowly.

BOOKS: Why are you reading slowly?


OKRI: On the whole, I read too fast and that has implications for understanding and entering the world of the writer. Good books are enriched by slow reading. Bad books are made worse. Some writers want to be read fast. They want you to be carried on a stream. I would read my favorite thriller authors, like Raymond Chandler, fast, but not Chekhov.

BOOKS: Do you think most people read too fast?

OKRI: Yes. The art of reading isn’t taught at schools, which it should be. People would appreciate books so much more if it was. In university, we had to read six novels a week and that gave us bad habits. I had to go back years later and reread everything I had read at university. My opinion changed about every single book. Jane Austen, for example, came out better with my grown-up reading. She requires a certain sort of pace.


BOOKS: How often do you read about art?

OKRI: I am greatly interested in art because I also paint. I recently read John Richardson’s magisterial, four-volume biography of Picasso. Another great biography is Calvin Tomkins’s “Duchamp.” He picked up on the mysterious nature of Duchamp’s life, and it is very calmly written, in a way that gets you very close to the artist. With many art books, the writing stands like a guard between you and the subject.

BOOKS: Is there a book you recommend often?

OKRI: If someone asks me for a terrific read, “The Three Musketeers.” I’ve recommended it to a friend on the verge of suicide, another going through a nasty divorce, and one in a depression. They sent me flowers to thank me afterwards. It has to be one of the most entertaining novels ever written.

BOOKS: Did you grow up in a houseful of books?

OKRI: When we moved back to Nigeria from London, my father brought back a tremendous set of world classics. I was the chief cleaner of the books. I was always struck by cobwebs you’d find in the middle of “War and Peace.” My father told me to dust his books, not read them, but while dusting I got curious. This started my profound relationship with reading.

BOOKS: Later, in your twenties, when you were homeless in London briefly, were you able to keep reading?

OKRI: It’s what got me through that. The wonderful thing about London is the secondhand book shops. Back then, some would let you take a book and bring it back when you finished reading it. Most of those shops are gone, sadly.


BOOKS: What did you read then that stands out in your memory?

OKRI: “The Brothers Karamazov,” which is terrific to read when you’re homeless. It makes clear the weirdness of the world. In an odd way, Dostoevsky has a feeling for the homeless of the earth. It must be because of the years he spent in prison.

BOOKS: Where would you read?

OKRI: In bank doorways, where you’d get a blast of hot air as people went in and out. It’s a very cozy place. Hungry, darkness coming, you have to read with intensity because you don’t want to be in the world you are in. You want to literally disappear into a book. Every now and again, someone would ask me to move on, and I’d have to wrench myself out of the world of the book.