The Good Books, Mike Billett: ‘As a child I loved reading books about animals’

Whisky connoisseur, Mike Billett on reading at The National Library of Scotland, growing up on Winnie The Pooh and why Moby-Dick is a book that has ‘everything’.


The first book I remember reading:

As a child I loved reading books about animals, and surely the first was Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne. A chilled-out bear who roamed the forest getting up to mischief with his mates and always on the look-out for organic honey. Gerald Durrell’s books were much fought over by us kids and then the fun seemed to come to a juddering halt with George Orwell’s Animal Farm…

A book I recommend to everyone:

Moby-Dick. Published in 1851, Herman Melville’s book has everything, and some more. Grounded on the author’s first-hand experience of whaling and cetacean natural history, on the surface it is an adventure on the high seas. Not far below the surface lies cultural and ethical diversity, and most importantly, human obsession and fallibility. It culminates in a titanic battle in which the Great White Whale overcomes its hunter Ahab and destroys the whale ship Pequod. A hollow victory, but a reckoning from the time it was written.

The best books I have read in the last year:

Set in the Faroes in the late 17th century, The Good Hope by William Heinesen is a work of historical fiction about the forces of good and evil. I started reading it after a recent trip to the islands and couldn’t stop. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter tells her own inspiring story of overwintering with a fur-trapping husband in Svalbard in 1934. A story of survival and ultimately joy, so good I had to read it twice. I don’t pick up many wine books, but Foot Trodden: Portugal and the Wines Time Forgot (Simon Woolf and Ryan Opaz) is an ode to terroir, artisans and a country that is close to my heart.

A book I didn’t finish:

I never managed to finish Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, more an academic discourse than a book. It reads like a misty-eyed, romantic collection of lists and thoughts about words that are being lost from the lexicon of landscape. By its very nature the subject matter is unending, and in this book Macfarlane’s literary style is at times over-elaborate and a distraction from what is fascinating subject matter. And this from the author of Mountains of the Mind, an absolute joy to read.

An author that has inspired me:

Rob Cowan’s Common Ground opened a door to me as an aspiring writer of creative non-fiction. Set in a place where encroaching urban sprawl collides with the natural world, it unwraps this transient landscape through the senses of the beholder, be it fox, roebuck, or social outcast. The author thinks and writes outside the box, flips the reader between past and present on an odyssey through the seasons and the struggle to adapt and survive. Never dull, often left-field, Cowan’s writing is original, imaginative and inspirational. And the chapter on swifts is simply beautiful.

My favourite place to read:

The National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh is my favourite place to read and think. It is a place of literary treasure and a gift not only to Scotland’s writers, but to all lucky enough to pass through the doors and get beyond the smell of coffee.


As well as being a whisky connoisseur, Mike Billett is among the world’s leading peatland scientists. His latest novel, Peat and Whisky: The Unbreakable Bond is out now and can be bought here.


Read more of The Good Books here.

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