Books should be all about pleasure; about revelling in beautifully wrought lines of prose or poetry, simply for the joy of reading. "Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences," wrote Sylvia Plath. But what makes a "good" sentence – and can you remember the last time you savoured a book or poem, simply for the loveliness of the words? As the Edinburgh International Book Festival begins, put that question to some of Scotland's top writers and literary commentators. Here are their choices.


Since I doubt anyone has a true and/or implacable answer to that question I chose the first page I opened in my handwritten book of “wow” and there was Walt Whitman. He has no gender somehow, just roves like a genuinely free spirit mostly because he can and “rules” don’t interest him as much as seeing, and rendering what he sees so we can see it too. A great original with a huge, risk-taking, heart. Ask me tomorrow who I’d choose and it would be someone else entirely. A person with only one favourite poet in their life is missing some remarkably special stuff.

I hope very much this does not sound glib, but the thing that draws me most is his ability to sounds though he’s making it up here and now, on the spot, for you, the reader, so you know what it’s like to have someone else’s eyes and /or heart for a while. Maybe poets can do this, yet the individuality of each persona working the trick is always foremost. With Whitman, his joy and the care he takes in expressing emotion and slow or sudden insights - seemingly as they occur - is deeply affecting. The words just arrive - and they’re all yours.

From Song Of Myself by Walt Whitman

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

Janice Galloway is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection, Jellyfish, is published by Freight


For me, great prose is about precision, simplicity, rhythm; the ability to imply more than the words themselves say. For this reason I nominate the entire oeuvre of Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1906-1996), the little-known Belgian author of two slim novels, Marie and La Femme de Gilles and a book of short stories, A Rose, A Nail, all recently republished in the UK. Like her compatriot Georges Simeon (remarkably they were both from Liège), Bourdouxhe writes with unfussy clarity. There are no look-at-me literary baubles here, but there is great tenderness, and, always, the ability to suggest the yearning and sadness that lurk beneath the surface of everyday life."

From the short story, Blanche by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (translated by Faith Evans):

“Then Blanche dried the plates. In no time at all she had run the tea-towel first over the hollow part, then over the base and finally over the edges. Loyally, she used precisely the same movements for every single plate, no more and no less for the one that was a little chipped and which she slipped into the middle of the pile: no need to expose its unhappiness publicly. Though after all, she thought, whether perfect or cracked, one plate ends up much like another – in little pieces in the waste bin.”

Here in four sentences, describing this most mundane of chores, we understand Blanche. We understand her diligence, her desire to treat each plate – no matter how flawed – equally. There is a hint of madness: she projects emotions onto these inanimate objects. She feels the shame of the cracked plate. And finally, there is the recognition of where we, like the plates, all end up. Genius.

Marie and La Femme de Gilles are published by Daunt Books. A Rose, A Nail is published by Pushkin Press.

Graeme Macrae Burnet's most recent novel, The Accident On The A35, is published by Contraband


Trying to choose one beautiful book or piece of prose over all the others could easily make me dizzy. Rather than wreck my head guessing and second-guessing I’ve opted to grab the first that comes to mind. Are the words beautiful? Of course, and they’re much more than that. This poem is about girls who were employed to apply luminous paint to the dials of watches. They would lick the tip of the brush to focus the point and their teeth would glow and they didn’t know it but the paint was poisonous.

I first heard John Glenday read this in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq. There is coldness in the beauty and the words are more powerful for it. The poem, Undark, follows me like a ghost.

From Undark by John Glenday

"They come back and their hands glow and their lips

and hair and their footprints gleam in the past like alien snow.

And I want to know this: how they came to believe

that something so beautiful could ever have turned out right,

but though they open their mouths to answer me,

all I can hear is light."

William Letford's poetry collection, Dirt, is published by Carcanet


The Priory Of The Orange Tree by Samantha Shanno is an absolute masterclass in worldbuilding. Shannon’s storytelling is lyrical, powerful, and gorgeously vivid, bringing even the smallest details to life. It reminded me why I fell in love with writing all those years ago – because words, when they’re strung together in just the right way, can be magic.

From The Priory Of The Orange Tree by Samantha Shanno

“The sea was vast below them. Tané nestled into Nayimathun’s mane, where the wind could hardly touch her. Countless stars glistened above, crystal-clear without cloud to obscure them. Eyes of dragons never born. When she slept, she dreamed of them, an army falling from the skies to drive away the shadows. She dreamed she was a small seedling, and that all her hopes grew branches, like a tree.”

Akemi Dawn Bowman's novel, Summer Bird Blue, is published by Ink Road


I was a few years into a literature degree when I risked buying my first collection of contemporary poetry – picking Don Paterson’s Landing Light (2003) mainly due to the starkness of the cover. The white font on an otherwise completely black jacket – how could it not appeal. Four lines into the book and I was lost to it. Sacred yet intimate, detailed and personal but with enough space for the reader to find themselves there, too, on the landscape. And the music of it, ach well. Poetry this good is like watching someone weighing gold on a scale – the richness brought and balanced, increased then balanced further. I still floors me.

From Luing, by Don Paterson

"When the day comes, as the day surely must,

when it is asked of you, and you refuse

to take that lover’s wound again, that cup

of emptiness that is our one completion,

I’d say go here, maybe, to our unsung

innermost isle: Kilda’s antithesis,

yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,

its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.

Leaving the motherland by a two-car raft,

the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch

to find yourself, if anything, now deeper

in her arms than ever – sharing her breath ..."

Niall Campbell will be talking about his poetry collection, Noctuary (Bloodaxe Books) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 11


When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it was being out on the hilltops, drinking in pure clean air, and buffeted by a bracing wind. Every sentence rings with meaning. You can’t hurry through this novel, because not only is the writing so beautiful, it is filled with nuance, thought, and tension. From the start, Woolf pitches you into the sensual, interior world of Clarissa Dalloway as she heads out to buy flowers for a party she’s giving that evening. What made such an impression on me is that, as this extract shows, Woolf turns the page into a painting. Yet, for all its poetic loveliness, beneath it – “nonsense, nonsense” – runs Clarissa’s ceaseless reflection and torment over things that have happened in the past. It’s nearly 100 years since Mrs Dalloway was published, but its power never dims. Whenever I read it – and it gets better each time – I find myself refreshed, invigorated, and profoundly moved.

From Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

"She advanced, light, tall, very upright, to be greeted at once by button-faced Miss Pym, whose hands were always bright red, as if they had been stood in cold water with the flowers.

There were flowers: delphiniums, sweet peas, bunches of lilac; and carnations, masses of carnations. There were roses; there were irises. Ah yes – so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness. And then, opening her eyes, how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays, the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its aurum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows; white, violent, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself, softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!

And as she began to go with Miss Pym from jar to jar, choosing, nonsense, nonsense, she said to herself, more and more gently, as if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up when – oh! a pistol shot in the street outside!"

Rosemary Goring will be talking about her book, Scotland: Her Story: The Nation's History By The Women Who Lived It (Birlinn) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 14


I can only say that one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read is Sangschaw (1925), Hugh MacDiarmid’s first collection of lyrics in Scots. It contains 29 poems, most just a few lines long, but half a dozen of them are the poems I love most, and their brevity gives no clue as to the immensity of their scale.

MacDiarmid’s use of Scots to convey complex ideas was stunning and revolutionary a century ago, and to my mind these lyrics have lost none of their strange beauty. They fly, apparently without effort, back and forth between the local and the universal, between human life and the mysteries of the cosmos. When I first read them 40 years ago they went straight into me, lodging themselves almost physically. They were life-changing then. I think they still have that power.

It seems quite wrong to pick one of that handful of perfect poems – all of which demand to be read aloud – above the rest. Yet The Innumerable Christ is simply wondrous. Crucially, first you have to read the quotation from Professor JY Simpson which precedes it: "Other stars may have their Bethlehem, and their Calvary too." Then follow 16 brief lines which take you into the depths of time and the universe, and yet are anchored to earth by the story of Christ, itself a symbol of the endlessness of human suffering. The first verse sets the scene. You must find out the rest for yourselves.

From The Innumerable Christ by Hugh MacDiarmid

"Wha kens on whatna Bethlehem

Earth twinkles like a star the nicht,

An’ whatna shepherds lift their heids

In its unearthly licht?"

James Robertson’s most recent novel, To Be Continued, is published by Penguin. He is performing with musicians Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 10


It would be tempting to choose something I read at a particularly impressionable time of my life, when prose or poetry felt like an echo of the crazy love I was feeling. Or the unfathomable sense of loss. I could choose something by Italo Calvino or Muriel Spark or Tim Winton; a poem by Edwin Morgan or Czeslaw Milosz. A very short story by Lydia Davies. Instead I'm going to choose something I've only just read: a stunning, frankly unforgettable debut novel by a poet named Ocean Vuong. It's called On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.

It's not surprising that novels by poets often include some of the loveliest prose, but Vuong's is especially luminous. Take this sentence for example: "I'm on the train from New York City. In the window my face won't let me go, it hovers above the windswept towns as the Amtrak slashes past lots stacked with shelled cars and farm tractors shot through with rust, backyards and their repeating piles of rotted firewood, the oily mounds gone mushy, pushed through the crisscross of chain-link fences, then hardened in place."

This so perfectly expresses the feeling of looking out of a train window meditatively, one's own reflection the only constant while other things slide by, linked together into one breathless sentence. It's a picture both of contemporary America as well as a reminder that in this novel we're looking at the landscape through the eyes of the narrator.

On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is so many things; a love story from a son to his mother; an exploration of masculinity and race; and a series of limpid thoughts about the world. It's hard to explain quite why this adds up to a novel that is, simply, beautiful – but in the context of this feature perhaps the following passage from the book is most pertinent:

From On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

"In Vietnamese, the word for missing someone and remembering them is the same: nho. Sometimes, when you ask me over the phone, Con nho me khong? I flinch, thinking you meant, Do you remember me?

I miss you more than I remember you.

They will tell you that to be political is to be merely angry, and therefore artless, depthless, "raw," and empty. They will speak of the political with embarrassment, as if speaking of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

They will tell you that great writing "breaks free" from the political, thereby "transcending" the barriers of difference, uniting people toward universal truths. They'll say this is achieved through craft above all. Let's see how it's made, they'll say – as if how something is assembled is alien to the impulse that created it. As if the first chair was hammered into existence without considering the human form."

Everything about this book makes me feel glad to live in an era when the novel still matters, when the human ability to bring together words and sentences can lead to such scintillating, poignant language.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs until August 26


I went to Hull University and the librarian at the Brynmor Jones library was the great English poet Philip Larkin, who apart from his poetry was a jazz fanatic. With his librarian's budget he had purchased every conceivable book on the history of black music. So much of my spare time at university was reading on the sixth floor luxuriating in books about bebop, R&B, civil rights and soul music. Most students felt obliged to read Larkin, and although I wasn't his biggest fan I felt a sense of indebtedness to his collection of music books.

Of all his poems I liked an extract from Aubade about the inevitability of death.

From Aubade by Philip Larkin

In time the curtain-edges will grow light.

Till then I see what’s really always there:

Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,

Making all thought impossible but how

And where and when I shall myself die.

Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify."

Stuart Cosgrove will be talking about his book, Harlem 69: The Future Of Soul (the third part of his Soul Trilogy, published by Polygon) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 16


Shakespeare's poem, The Phoenix And The Turtle is the most lovely piece of writing. I've chosen it for the flowingly eloquent speech and images conveyed.

From The Phoenix And The Turtle by William Shakespeare

"Let the bird of loudest lay

On the sole Arabian tree

Herald sad and trumpet be,

To whose sound chaste wings obey.

But thou shrieking harbinger,

Foul precurrer of the fiend,

Augur of the fever's end,

To this troop come thou not near.

From this session interdict

Every fowl of tyrant wing,

Save the eagle, feather'd king;

Keep the obsequy so strict."

Alasdair Gray's Hell: Dante's Divine Trilogy Part One is published by Canongate


Talk about impossible tasks. What you consider to be the most beautifully written piece of prose or poetry depends on so much: the imagery and resonance of the piece, the use of language, the subject matter, the time it was written, not least where you were in your own life when you read it.

How do you compare things that are beautiful in different ways? The paintings of Vermeer and Rothko are equally sublime; both Joni Mitchell and Billie Holliday can reduce me to tears.

In the end, I’ve gone for a work of prose fiction that has all but become a part of me over the last 30 years: Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, published in 1932. I first read the novel as a teenager on the recommendation of my father, and was immediately struck by how the beauty of the language – not to mention the use of the second-person viewpoint – allowed me to completely inhabit the central character, a young woman from a rural, pre-First World War community the north-east of Scotland named Chris Guthrie.

It was the first time I had read a book partly in Scots, and the timbre and rhythms of the prose, the long, expressive sentences, made a deep and lasting impression on me, especially since the themes it grapples with – notably the seeking and finding of identity when conflicting forces pull at your soul, the search for belonging – are so universal.

From Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you'd waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you'd cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.

“You saw their faces in the firelight, father’s and mother’s and the neighbours … you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words to sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.”

Grassic Gibbon’s ability to evoke yearning – for people, the landscape, language and expression, a way of life – still knocks me out. I can smell that earth, hear the haunting sound of those peewits and, indeed, the melodious sound of my own grandmother’s voice, somehow part of the narration, as I write this. It is beauty of a certain kind: primal and comforting, like soul music. And it is one that I rush back to again and again.