Jesse Mulligan’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)
Jesse Mulligan’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksNovember 29, 2023

‘I take fiction as medicine’: Jesse Mulligan’s reading diet revealed

Jesse Mulligan’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)
Jesse Mulligan’s life in books (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: RNZ Afternoons host and The Project NZ co-host Jesse Mulligan.

The book I wish I’d written

Whatever Love Means by David Baddiel. Baddiel is one of Britain’s most celebrated comedians though I didn’t know him when I first picked up this book, randomly, from a publisher’s pile and started reading the funniest, most moving modern novel I’d ever come across. I was amazed by his ability to put actual jokes into his writing, jokes I can still remember word-for-word 25 years later (“Vic was the sort of person whose sense of social responsibility was exhausted by pulling over to let an ambulance go past”). Then I found out that he used to be a stand-up (as I was at the time), who had just pivoted, apparently effortlessly, to become a great novelist. Disgusting. 

Everyone should read

What’s Our Problem by Tim Urban. It came out earlier this year, in electronic form because he wasn’t willing to wait for a printing press to share the urgent ideas spilling out of his giant brain. For this book, he sat down and thought about the greatest human problems of our time (tribalism, technological acceleration, imminent societal collapse) then worked out how to explain them using stick figures and thought bubbles. I don’t think anybody could read this book and not walk away with a completely refreshed view of where we are at and how we got here. The world is going badly, but somehow Tim’s explanation of why makes it all feel so much better. Shout out also to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was a great, hot take on this stuff almost 10 years earlier.

From left to right: the book Jesse Mulligan wishes he’d written; the book he thinks everybody should read; and the book he wants to be buried with.

The book I want to be buried with

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Perhaps they could place it on the coffin lid to help keep it closed. It’s a sprawling novel of great ambition, difficulty and rewards, which I spent 4% of my life (to date) reading. I don’t think I’ll ever meet a book of quite that significance again.

The first book I remember reading by myself

The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones. She was a sort of sci-fi/fantasy middle-grade author of the 1980s who wrote books of great imagination this one’s occluded plot was revealed slowly and mysteriously; I found it so tricky I was convinced it was a book for adults that I’d just happened to stumble upon. I was about nine but I was totally locked in, emotionally and cerebrally. 

The same author wrote Witch Week, a series of books set in a school for wizards and witches (not sure why she ever thought that premise would catch on). It brought me great joy to see my daughter Daisy reading a DWJ book recently clearly it hasn’t all dated too badly.

Dystopia or utopia?

As an idealist, I’d love a utopian book, though I’m not sure one exists. I often think to myself “you know, this book would be perfect if this protagonist wasn’t constantly facing challenging circumstances she was forced to overcome in character-defining ways” but I suspect if I ever read a novel where the main guy was wandering through the book saying “wow, things are going unbelievably well!” it would be ultimately unsatisfying (though please do get in touch if you know of a book like this).

Fiction or nonfiction?

I gravitate towards nonfiction but I take fiction as medicine knowing that it will give me things I don’t know that I need. I don’t often get interested in fantasy books I even battled with The Absolute Book and American Gods, both of which everybody told me I would love but give me someone in a world like mine thinking about things that I’ve thought about too, and I’m happy. I’m part way through Sarah Winman’s Still Life which is a great reminder of the pleasures of spending time with characters well-written (though it’s set in mid-century Florence, which almost counts as fantasy). She also has great comic timing often, for example, putting brutal punchlines into the mouth of a family parrot.

It’s a crime against language to

Joke badly. Like a forensic scientist reading crime investigation novels, I’ve spent my life writing and dissecting humour so I have extremely high standards for books that are trying to do jokes. My friend who did Emily Perkins’ IIML class says she told him all books should be funny, and I love that idea, though perhaps it’s important to accept what sort of funny you can achieve. One in 100 authors can write original and beautiful gags the rest should find more gentle opportunities for humour, like unexpectedly ironic plot twists. 

(BTW you know who could use some higher standards for humour? People who supply quotes for the cover: “Uproarious! I had tears of laughter streaming down my face as I read this” is typical. Bro, did we read the same book?)

The book I never admit I’ve read

Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy by one of my RNZ interviewees Batya Ungar-Sargon. She contests that we are all closer (politically and culturally) than we think, but that the media’s thirst for conflict identifies, amplifies and exaggerates our differences, making us more likely to hate our neighbour. As a liberal Marxist, her starting point is always “how does this affect the working class?” and she makes some interesting arguments that, in America at least, journalism has shifted from a working class trade to one dominated by an upper-glass group who grew up socialising and networking with the people they are meant to be holding to account. Her arguments are provocative, nuanced and well reasoned, but unfortunately she has used the word “woke” in her title so it’s not the sort of book you can easily drop into polite conversation.

From left to right: the first book Jesse Mulligan remembers reading by himself; the book he never admits he’s read; and his most underrated book.

The most underrated book

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton: one of the few books to take on the defining motivator of the modern world an embarrassing and burning desire to out-do people who are similar to you. Nobody compares themselves to the Queen, he wrote, or to a homeless person no, you pick the person in your peer group or industry who is just above you then, if you manage to attain their level of status, instead of feeling satisfied you just start being envious of somebody new. First published in 2004, the book would, I’m sure, benefit from a revision in the age of social media (although from memory the author got cancelled on said media for acting like a twat).

Best encounter with an author

Clive James is a writer of great importance to and influence on me because he has jokes, yes, but also because he aims so high. He cares about words and language so much that he will sometimes, in an essay, for a lark, choose two words most of us think are synonyms and purposely use them both in different ways (“he was diffident, but he wasn’t reticent”). Anyway you can imagine how excited I was at a writers’ festival to hand over my book for signing, and all the things I had to say to him having finally got the chance.

“What’s your name?”


“Elvis Presley had a twin brother called Jesse. He died during childbirth.”




“Thanks for buying the book.”

Keep going!