One Question Quiz
Tom Sainsbury (Image: Tina Tiller)
Tom Sainsbury (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJanuary 31, 2024

‘Dystopia all the way baby’: Tom Sainsbury’s life in books

Tom Sainsbury (Image: Tina Tiller)
Tom Sainsbury (Image: Tina Tiller)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: comedian Tom Sainsbury.

The book I wish I’d written

Watership Down by Richard Adams. It just had such a seismic effect on me when I read it as a child. Nearly everything about the story is still there in my memory. I think it’s a glorious epic and has made a huge cultural impact. I also love animals. Rabbits especially.

Everyone should read

Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Or The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. No! Anne Frank’s Diary. They are three first-person historical texts written about the authors’ lives in the 17th Century, 18th Century and obviously 1940s. They each had a profound effect on me. And give the reader such an insight into the past. Sorry, I can’t narrow it down to one.

The book I want to be buried with

Probably just my diaries. Is that a weird answer? So that people have some context of who I am when they have to tear up the graveyard to make a motorway. And they can read them and think “man this dude sweated the small stuff way too much.”

The first book I remember reading by myself

I remember a strange shift happening when I was eight or nine. I was reading H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (too mature for me at the time, I know) but I suddenly realised that the words were creating stories in my head. They were engaging my imagination and the whole Victorian world was expanding in my brain. Before that I would read words on a page and I understood them but that leap into imagination hadn’t happened before.

Utopia or Dystopia

Dystopia all the way baby. At one point I had read more dystopian novels than any other. Some real favourites were Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah. I was fascinated by the end of society as a pre-teen and teen and that fascination has never stopped.

Fiction or Nonficton

Fiction. I read a lot of nonfiction but fiction is where all the big ideas lie. When I think of all the books that have moved me, they’re novels. They deal with emotions and psychological insights that nonfiction can’t. In saying that, nonfiction can be a lovely palette cleanser. I’m thinking the next biography I’ll read is Barbra Streisand’s 1000-pager.

From left to right: The book Tom Sainsbury wishes he’d written; the book he thinks everyone should read; and the book that haunts him.

The book that haunts me

Stephen King’s The Long Walk. It’s so good and so haunting. Basically a group of teen boys go for a competition walk. If they stop for more than a few minutes they get shot and killed. Last one remaining gets all the money. It’s so haunting. And I still regularly think about it.

If I could only read three books for the rest of my life they would be…

The Woman in the Dunes by Kōbō Abe. I get something more out of this surrealistic Japanese folk horror every time I read it. The Bible. I ain’t Christian but it’s such a fundamental one, right? And maybe Pride and Prejudice because it’s the ultimate feel-good, comfort read.

From left to right: One of the three books Tom Sainsbury would choose to read forever; his favourite NZ book; and a novel from his best NZ writer.

Greatest New Zealand book

The Curative by Charlotte Randall. It’s so damn good. It’s about a man remembering his life from shackles in a London Mental Asylum in the 19th century. It’s gripping, harrowing but also a very quick read.

Greatest New Zealand writer

I love Janny (Janet Frame). Owls Do Cry, An Angel At My Table and The Carpathians are so good. And while all the boys were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as children, I was watching a VHS copy of Jane Campion’s An Angel At My Table on repeat. I was so weird. I think Janet is great.

What are you reading right now?

After discussing all of these amazing books I’m a little embarrassed to say I’m reading Britney Spears’ autobiography! Loving it, of course. She just breezes through everything, though. I want more details but I guess she’s gotta keep it brief so people don’t get bored. I do feel it’s really from her though, and she’s as bonkers as you’d imagine. 10/10! And after this I’m getting into another Stephen King book.

Tom Sainsbury his hosting Tom Sainsbury’s Reading Club at Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts on 24 February, in Wellington. New Zealanders: A Field Guide by Tom Sainsbury (HarperCollins NZ, $37) is available to order from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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