On the 23rd of May, Waterstones is launching a new campaign to find out what are the books that changed the world and made a difference in people’s lives. You can read all about the official campaign here: http://www.thebookthatmademe.com/
You can also read Jon Woolcott’s excellent introduction to the project on the Waterstones blog here.
It’s an idea that probably appeals to most book-lovers, we like to think of books as having an impact, that they are important. Yet really contemplating the books that have changed your life is, I have discovered, much more challenging than you might think. I am a consummate devourer of books, I gobble them up quickly and greedily reach for the next like a chocoholic on a one-way mission to heart-failure (thankfully Fiction is better for you than Dairy Milk). I have plenty of books that I love, plenty that I like and a fair number that make me so angry that merely contemplating their existence makes my blood boil (yes, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Heart of Darkness, I’m looking at you).
Thinking of the ones that have actually made a difference is more challenging but equally rewarding too. It is as though most books are pebbles skimming water barely leaving a ripple but there are a few that sink down deeper, so that when you look under the surface they have changed the ground that lies underneath.
In order to be strict with myself and really focus on the books that changed me, I have limited this list to the 10 books that have changed my life (with one tiny cheat, I confess here and now). I have also arranged these in chronological order as that seemed the simplest way for me to order my thoughts but this doesn’t reflect their relative importance, they are all, I think, in their own way, as important as each other. Looking back at them has reminded me of how fortunate I have been in having friends, family, teachers and colleagues to point me in the right direction (and at the right book) when I have felt as though I was foundering.
It is easy to get sentimental about literature and I frequently do, but I have a very real sense, looking at these titles, that they have formed something like a compass for me to navigate my own sense of personal history and they provide markers for where and when my life changed. I can read them again and re-inhabit a different version of myself; it is a form of personal time-travel which is uniquely transporting and strangely comforting. They remind me of where I have been and sometimes they can be a good map to show me where I’d like to be going. I’m glad I’m not the same little girl who used to carry an unlit candle up to bed in order to “pretend to be an orphan” but I can still remember what it was like to be her, she’s in there somewhere and if I open one or two of these books, I find her again.
The point of this exercise is, hopefully, to share these books and learn about other people’s lives through books. I would really like to collect together as many different experiences of the books that make, change, form and save lives. My choices are quite personal but I don’t think that should dictate the tone. I’d love to be the sort of person who’d taught themselves to make their own clothes or who has actually got round to the work of getting something published (for whom the book that made them might be far more practical). Everything from Motorcycle Maintenance to Philosophy is welcome. You can contribute your ideas on the Waterstones website but it would be great if anyone reading this wanted to post their ideas on here too. I also plan to create a gallery of images of people with their books or videos (for the more technically savvy) with extracts from their chosen book and/or the reason they’ve chosen it. You can post your choice in a comment here, or email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The book that made me understand the joy of reading
Ned thinks he hates almost everything in his life; he is a very naughty little boy who draws on walls and scowls. Then one day, in the airing cupboard, he finds the Joybaloo, a giant creature full of magic with breath like paper roses and they go on adventures every Friday evening. I wasn’t a particularly naughty little girl and I certainly didn’t draw on the walls but this book really stuck with me about the nature of creating your own joy from your imagination and seeing beautiful things in the ordinary world around you. The book is a bit melancholic in parts and it’s quite a grown-up children’s story but it’s all the better for not dumbing down. For all it is quite magical, it is a book all about how to live in the real world and still keep a sense of wonderment. I think that’s a brilliant formative lesson for anyone and I would thoroughly recommend getting your hands on a copy. Sadly it’s now out of print but it is worth hunting down for the illustrations alone.
- The book(s) that made me a desperate, dreaming romantic:
I know, I know, I’m cheating but I really can’t separate these books as they share such a common influence. I know I’m not the only little girl who felt an affinity with these protagonists. I think both of these books did more to shape and mould my character than many other influences could have. As a girl’s guide to growing up, I think I could have done far worse. Both contain strong female protagonists who are clever, funny, outspoken and filled with burning ambition to explore the world. They’re also both characters who love writing and books – no wonder I felt at home in their company. Anne and Cassandra have strong imaginative streaks and they grow up in unbelievably romantic locations but their lives are challenging, their families complex and their paths to adulthood far from simple. What made most difference to me was finding heroines who could be wildly romantic but retain a strongly practical, wryly sensible core. They have their head in the clouds but their feet on the ground and they are both very funny.
- The book that made me love poetry:
My school was the sort of school that thought that it was character-forming to learn and recite poetry aloud. A long-standing tradition was for 11 year olds to compete to learn Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (for those of you familiar with Anne of Green Gables, this will start to make chronological sense!). I learned and recited it in front of my class, despite being incredibly nervous, despite being teased for doing so. I did it because I fell in love with the mythical, winding magic of the verse, I had always had poetry around me (my grandfather punctuated his speech with snippets of remembered verse) but this was when I really discovered it for myself. My prize was an inscribed edition of The Dragon Book of Verse and it was the start of a long-term love affair with poetry which I have carried through my life. When I have forgotten my own name, I suspect I will still be able to recite the opening lines of this poem, so firmly is it planted in my brain.
- The book that made me want to be like my mum:
This book represents my years as an in-house kleptomaniac, that is to say, I repeatedly made off with my mum’s books. For years she had to come and ferret them out from under my bed or collect them from a pile littered across the floor. I’m sure I’m not alone in raiding my parents’ library when I started to get bored with the Children’s section of the library. This was how I first encountered Classics; getting swept away by Jane Eyre (more on that later). The books I really remember from this period though are universally contemporary stories told by women; Anita Brookner, Joanna Trollope, Mary Wesley and the early works of Susan Hill. Given that she is best-known for her ghost stories, it is perhaps no wonder that the effect of having read Air and Angels is one of being haunted. It is a very strange, dream-like novel set amidst the mist-cloaked spires of Oxford and the world of academia.
It is, at its most simple, about the transformative, redemptive and destructive power of love and the sudden recognition of beauty. It is about a place where two people, one just entering their declining years (although he doesn’t know it) and one whose life is just beginning, intersect. It is a novel that exists almost entirely in potentia, I would struggle to say what actually happens and yet the impact is as shattering as a ringing bell through an acre of silence. Most importantly for me, I think, it made me think of my mother and the repeated descriptions of beauty and un-knowing grace always conjured up her face for me, it still does remind me just how much I wanted to hurry up and grow up just so I might have something of the same. It is a book which reminds me how desperately keen I was to grow up so I could just get there, somewhere, even if I didn’t know exactly where that was. It represents an opening door to the potentials of adulthood and when I re-read it (and I do) then it is a poignant echo of expectation and impatient hope.
- The book that made me get to know my dad better
Growing up, I knew very little about my father’s personal history although I knew plenty about my mother’s. What I did know was that he spent a good deal of time in the Lake District and that he loved and still loves the series of books by Arthur Ransome that begins with Swallows and Amazons. He has the full set in lovely green, hardback and I read them all as I was growing up. Swallows and Amazons is not actually my favourite, I prefer Winter Holiday which has more adventure and involves making an igloo (which basically sounded like the coolest thing I could think of). As a child of ‘90’s Britain where most of my adventures took place supervised in my own garden I can’t say that Ransome’s novels resonated with my own life, they seemed like as thorough a work of imagination as Enid Blyton. As I grew up I started to realise that they did say something very fundamental about what it had been like for my father to grow up, with a different level of freedom from adult intervention. It gave me a context for understanding lots of aspects of his personality: his spirit of adventure, his love for messing about in boats, his refusal to be put off having a picnic even in a howling gale, his love of games and Kendal Mint Cake (despite it being, as everyone knows, almost inedible, one mouthful leaves your teeth crying in a corner). I know now myself exactly how liberating it can be just to take yourself off and climb a hill or go for a long walk and can better imagine a childhood with far fewer constraints. I know much more about my father’s history now but in truth I still think I get to the heart of him more when I re-read this book, it is as though he had left something of himself on the pages, but perhaps it is the other way around.
- The book that made me want to be a bookseller:
I’ve written at length about Kate Atkinson before so I will keep this review brief. This is a collection of short stories which are wonderfully fantastical and yet utterly believable. The plots range from boys who turn into fish, to women who give birth to cats, the world ends, it begins again and again and again. When I was 18, Kate did an event to launch this book at the bookshop I was working in. She made a room full of people laugh and as I watched the rows of people, coming together to share a love of books, I knew I had found the right place for me to be. When I left university and was deciding what to do, this memory came back to me. I didn’t just want to read books, I wanted to share books, I still do.
- The book that made my change the way I looked at books:
You remember how I described the young girl, working her way through the Classics, discovering Jane Eyre, Rochester and all those dark brooding moors? Well my unquestioning faith in the integrity of narrative and plot stayed with me until I went to university and encountered Jean Rhys’ explosive prequel to Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea is Bertha Mason’s narrative as she describes her own life growing up, her meeting with a dashingly passionate Englishman and the dark deterioration of their marriage. Suddenly all my romantic ideals about Rochester were blown out of the water. I understood that narrators could lie or at least dissemble and that all novels were just one side of a story. I have never been able to read Jane Eyre in the same way again but it also made me look at novels in general, narrators in general in an entirely different light. No story, is the last and final word.
- The book that made me understand how to live with grief
Like all of Jostein Gaarder’s books, it would be hard to characterise this as a novel precisely, or at least to do so would be selling it short. It is a mixture of philosophical questioning, religious interrogation and a crucible of ideas wrapped up in Fiction. I have read all of the translated works and I have found all of them to be thought-provoking and often deeply moving but this one stands out for me as being the first book I read that made me really question death and what might come afterwards. This is the story of a little girl, confined to bed, watching the world pass by her window wondering about what is on the horizon – she is dying. As a premise, it is about as cheerful as a funeral parade but this is not a tragic novel (although it is sad), nor is it over-laid with mawkish sentiment (all this despite it having an angel as a main character). As with many of Gaarder’s books, the angel is a device for conversation and that is what most of this story is, a conversation about death and what, if anything, comes afterwards. It made me understand how to phrase questions about death and dying and when I lost someone for the first time, it gave a structure to grieving and a method of describing it.
- The book that made me believe I could get better
As you’ll have been able to tell by now, most of the books that have had an impact on my life have been works of Fiction, probably because I spend most of my life in a bit of a daydream, but also because I have a passion for the sort of Fiction that can give meaning reality. If this list was longer I would include a range of interesting and enlightening non-fiction that has certainly had significance in my life but I can’t honestly say it has changed me. However, there is one non-fiction book which I can honestly say went some way towards saving my life. In my mid-twenties I developed Anorexia and for a while the walls of my world got very close indeed until I felt walled into my own head with no way out. I had a fantastically supportive family and a brilliant team of medical practitioners around me who all ensured that I kept putting food in my mouth bite after painful bite but it wasn’t enough and whilst the superficial need to keep my body functioning improved, I got no closer to solving the real problem, the one in my head.
Emma Woolf, like me, developed Anorexia (which is cursed with being labelled as a teenager’s illness) as an adult and carried it through a significant part of her life even after she had learned to function, live and work without becoming dangerously ill. Reading her descriptions made me want to cry with relief – finally there was someone else out there in the world that understood that you could look perfectly fine, not even be extremely thin and still be carrying this dreaded secret about with you, every waking moment. This is not a book that provided me with answers. It is a very honest, accurate and cogent understanding of an increasingly common and debilitating illness that gets to the heart of a problem which most people think is about physical causes but in reality is a psychological illness with life-threatening physical symptoms. It made me realise that in order to really get better, I had to want to and that it might take years but that perseverance and learning to let go of controlling behaviour was the key to learning to live and enjoy living. I offer up almost daily, silent, thanks to Emma Woolf for being brave enough to tell her story which made me brave enough to face up to mine.
- The book that absolutely made me want to be a writer
This is, quite simply, the book that is everything I ever want to write. I finished it and knew I had found (for me) the perfect novel. It is too strange and complex a plot to try to describe but I suppose it is really a novel about families. It is irreverent, complex, bafflingly topsy-turvy in its plot and bold with its freedom to play with narrative tropes. It is wildly, bawdily funny. It is poignant in a way that goes beyond tears, it makes you want to take life in all its haphazard glory and wring all the experience out of it with both hands. This book made me want to be a writer and because I know I will never be able to write anything so wonderful, it is an ambition that will last me a lifetime.