Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket: ‘I return to Toni Morrison’s Beloved every five years’

My earliest reading memory
I have a blur of a memory of sounding out the words to Dr Seuss’s The Pale Green Pants – “Then I was deep within the woods / When, suddenly, I spied them. / I saw a pair of pale green pants / With nobody inside them!”while my mother helped me along. The clearer memory is of seeing my trousers draped over a chair in my bedroom, and wondering, half-scared and half-hoping, if they were going to rise in the air while I slept – my first literary nightmare.

My favourite book growing up
My local librarian recommended Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Headless Cupid, a ghost story in which one’s siblings are the scariest part of the haunting. I read this book to tatters.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I spotted a copy of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil at the library, and thought it was a horror novel about killer plants. Instead it was a sequence of poems about staying up too late with comrades of ill repute, ingesting chemicals and chasing loneliness. It unnerved me and I returned it immediately. I went back and checked it out again. It unnerved me. I did this over and over, and I haven’t really stopped.

The writer who changed my mind
Like many men of my generation, I eschewed masculinity for a long time. Reading Raymond Chandler’s novels, with their tricky but constant sense of ethics, of responsibility and brawny wit, showed me what there was to treasure in certain artificial constructs, and what might be the baby worth clinging on to as the bathwater is dumped outside.

The book that made me want to be a writer
I was very small, and found a copy of Dino Buzzati’s obscure classic The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, a book with adventure, betrayal, a sea monster, an unreliable narrator, fascinating but inaccurate illustrations and a melodramatic heartbreaker of an ending. Whatever it all was, I wanted in.

The book or author I came back to
In college I was introduced to The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon as a classic of Japanese literature, a surefire recipe for me to assume it was boring. Now it is one of my favourites.

The book I reread
I return to Beloved by Toni Morrison every five years or so, and am dumbstruck each time by what new bits there are to savour, how the whole arrangement is even more elegant and passionate than I realised. It’s almost time to reread it again.

The book I discovered later in life
Having tried and failed to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when I was about 13, I had earmarked it as a difficult book. It is no such thing. In my 20s I tried again and appreciated its quicksilver magic.

The book I am currently reading
Attila Bartis’s The End, in Judith Sollosy’s translation from the Hungarian. I subscribe to Archipelago Books, and each package of their translated works is a reminder of the sheer breadth of the literary enterprise.

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My comfort read
When the snarls and tangles of the world are too much, the meticulous brilliance of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry calms me right down. Even looking at the table of contents of Geography III, one of the best books of poetry in English, can quiet the mind.

Daniel Handler’s memoirAnd Then? And Then? What Else? is published by Oneworld. To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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