Books

Charlene White: How judging the British Book Awards rekindled my passion for reading

When Charlene White was asked to judge the best nonfiction books of 2023, it made her realise how much she missed reading

Assorted book covers

Image: The Big Issue

My first reaction when the British Book Awards asked me to be a judge was, “They want me to read how many books?! Oh gosh no, I definitely do not have the time.” So it was a hard no for about 10 minutes, then I took some time to actually think about it properly. Growing up, I devoured books. And did so too in my 20s and 30s. I would always have a book in my bag during the morning and evening commute, ready to grab as soon as my train left the station. My mind would momentarily be taken somewhere different other than the cramped smelly conditions of the 7.51am to Charing Cross. 

But then I had my children, and somehow my love for reading took a back seat to just about everything else you’re juggling. And commutes were suddenly dominated by replying to emails and trying not to drop any organisational balls when it came to the children and, well, general life. And I realised I missed reading. I still buy a huge amount of incredible books which I cram onto bookshelves around the house, but I never seem to find the time to devote enough time to get through them all. So I realised that by agreeing to become a judge, it would spark my love affair with the written word once again. Plus, and this was probably what sealed the deal, the organisers said that most of the books were available to listen to as audiobooks. As soon as they sent that email, I replied instantly. Yep, I’d do it.

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And my British Book Awards category? Non-Fiction Narrative Book of The Year. Now there’s a group of books that you can really get your teeth into. What was joyous for me was that bar one (Edward Enninful’s A Visible Man), I’d never read any of the books before. And yes, even Matthew Perry’s autobiography. I must have been living under a rock when that one came out, I genuinely didn’t know that he’d written one! And I think it’s important to note that some of them – one in particular – I know for sure I would never have picked up and read of my own volition. I hand on heart know that I wouldn’t voluntarily read Super Infinite by Katherine Rundell – mostly because the last time I read history books was at university. And I sort of felt like you only read history books about 17th century poets when you had an essay to write, not for fun. I’m pleased to report I was totally wrong about that one. I spent a week listening to it on my walk to work and loved it keeping me company.

Perry, Enninful and Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries made doing housework a joy actually. They kept me company as I pottered round the house cleaning and decluttering. I genuinely looked forward to pulling on the rubber gloves and getting down to work, as it gave me good reason to pop in the headphones and get lost in the stories of others. Sophie McCartney’s Tired & Tested was basically a reflection of my current life navigating motherhood. McCartney kept me company as I went for long walks without my children, it was a constant reminder of why I needed long walks without my children. Peace and quiet, and peeing alone, are hugely underrated.

The only book I sat and read was Manni and Reuben Coe’s brother. do. you. love. me. A beautiful piece of work that I ended up being thankful for in term of having a physical book between my fingers and being able to bend the corner of the page ready to devour the next night. (And yes, I know that’s sacrilege in some quarters, But I have a track record of losing bookmarks).

This is the point at which I pat myself on the back. Because I achieved all this in just three weeks. While doing our day jobs, we had just three weeks to read all six, work out our favourites and then jump on a Zoom with the other judges to discuss. 

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“Were you a shadow of your former self after all that?” I hear you ask. And the answer would be yes. Not dissimilar to cramming for an exam at uni. The upshot though was not sitting in the library desperately trying to write 5,000 words… instead I got to sit on screen with a bunch of other shadows-of-former-selves and talk books. And they were all genuinely lovely. I had a panic that I’d seem a bit too unintelligent in a room/screen full of writers and experts. But turns out there was no need to panic, it was fun.

So what did I learn? 1) That without audiobooks this would never have happened. 2) I like a wider variety of books than I gave myself credit for. And 3) My love for reading post-kids has most definitely been reignited. Thanks BBA.

Charlene White is a presenter and a judge for the British Book Awards 2023. The winners are announced on May 15

British Book Awards Non-fiction: Narrative Book of the Year, supported by The Big Issue

This is the shortlist for 2023

A Visible Man by Edward Enninful 

brother. do. you. love. me by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe

Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry 

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell 

Madly, Deeply: The Alan Rickman Diaries by Alan Rickman 

Tired & Tested: The Wild Ride into Parenthood by Sophie McCartney 

You can buy these titles from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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