I’ve seen a lot of posts recently with people talking about the books that have touched and shaped them and it got me thinking about some of the books I’ve read over the years that have got me to where I am today. These aren’t necessarily my favourites, or the books that’s I’d prefer to have shaped me in some cases, but they’ve all been monumentally important.
The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter
I still have this book, which I think my mum and dad gave to me for my first birthday. The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit was my favourite, where a nasty bullying rabbit gets his tail shot off by a farmer. I liked the karma of it. I imagine that these stories were some of the first I had read to me as a child and I probably owe a lot to those early experiences and how they made me feel about books.
My love of Beatrix Potter has followed me into adulthood, to the extent that I have had several pets named after characters. I currently own a rabbit specifically because she looks like a Beatrix Potter illustration.
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
I vaguely remember being a slightly sad adolescent. In hindsight I think I just hit my teenage hormones a bit too early and I was just a bit of a moody shit. I read The Amulet of Samarkand while camping somewhere in South West England, I think. I remember getting horrendous sunburn and sunstroke and sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Until I read the first book about the djinni Bartimaeus. I remember feeling like my spirits were suddenly, infinitely, lifted. It also introduced me to the idea of using footnotes in a novel, and using sarcasm as humour, something that later paved the way for my favourite authors.
Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks
In primary school I spent a lot of my time avoiding going outside for various reasons and, consequently, worked my way through the whole fiction section of my school library. I turned away from children’s books fairly early and missed out on a whole lot of YA fiction as a result (I’m now catching up) If I remember rightly this was probably the first adult book I ever read after I realised that the children’s section had nothing left to offer me at that point. Even though the exploits of a fourteen year old American drug dealer, bike gangs and Rastafarians went over my head somewhat, I think I appreciated the fact that nothing was sugar coated. It made me feel like a grown up to be reading books that clearly were based on some very gritty things.
I have no idea how I managed to take it out of the library given its content, but that probably says something about the disillusionment of UK library workers in the early noughties.
Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
When I was about thirteen my grandma handed me the first five of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and instructed me to read them immedietly. She’d picked them up at a boot fair for some ridiculous amount of pennies and loved them. Colour of Magic was by no means my favourite Discworld novel, but it spawned a love of Terry Pratchett that exists to this day. I adored Rincewind, and later the other wizards, and the Discworld novels were probably the first ones I laughed out loud to. Terry pratchett shaped a lot of my humour and his stories shaped a lot of my teenage years.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burguess
I used to get a lot of books from The Book People because they did the odd collection of ten books for £9.99 and to teenage me that was magical. One of the first I bought was a collection of Penguin Modern Classics specifically chosen because they had, at various points and in various places, been banned. A Clockwork Orange was the first one I read out of the series. I did a presentation on banned books for my English GCSE and became quite quickly fascinated by the idea of fighting censorship and the types of societies that consider literature to be dangerous. I think, in a way, that fascination coupled with A Clockwork Orange‘s dystopian themes were the seeds that led to me later studying both English and Politics at university.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Also in my collection of banned books was Lolita. It was one of my favourite books for a long time and I especially loved the prose. My edition contained some sort of introduction by Vladimir Nabokov in which he described the differences between writing in English and his native Russian. My fascination with Russia startd there and I went on try (fairly unsuccessfully) to teach myself the language and (more successfully) to learn all about the culture and history of literature in Russia. Importantly, aged 19 I found out about a charity that brings Belarusian children over to the Uk for respite holidays and volunteered. They were the first children I ever worked with. In a way, Vladimir Nabokov and writing about the Russian language were the beginnings of me wanting to work with children and become a teacher.
An Inspector Calls by JB Priestly
I left writing about this one until last, and it’s a very personal connection, so bear with me. I remember very vividly the second time I read An Inspector Calls, during the revision period of my first year of GCSE. The first time we read, and presumably saw the play performed, I don’t remember being particularly moved. Shortly before we revised it ready for our exams, I got a call from my dad to tell me he’d tried to kill himself in my grandma’s back garden. Suddenly the play’s message of the ways in which we treat people can have catastrophic impacts resonated completely. I think I felt the characters pain a bit more strongly afterwards, as the Inspector weaves his tale of how the whole Birling family have contributed to a young girl’s demise.
In a way it forced me to confront a lot of feelings that I probably would have buried otherwise, and I am profoundly grateful for that.
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
A Man Without a Country was the book that first introduced me to the concept of Humanism, something which I still identify with to this day. I felt the whole way through that I was finally having my belief system vocalised in a way that was healthy. None of Richard Dawkins offensive atheism; Kurt Vonnegut provided a calm, respectful way of believing that people can do good things even without the promise of heaven. He spoke reverently of Jesus, fondly of his home and suspiciously of people with too much power. It was a book that spoke quite deeply to me when I had just started university and was starting to figure out what kind of person I wanted to be.
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
If you ever ask me what my favourite book is I’m sure I could lie and list something classic or cool. I’d be lying though, it’s definitely Yes Man. I picked it up on a whim in WH Smith because it had Jim Carrey on the front cover (awful film, it turned out). I didn’t realise at the time that Danny Wallace was the ex flatmate of one of my favourite comedians. But that wasn’t why I loved the book. It’s funny, but I also learnt a lot from it about not turning down things all the time and living my life more. I think it brought me out of my shell a lot at a time where I was avoiding doing a lot of the things I wanted to do.
It’s now my go to gift for friends who are having a hard time with pretty good success.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
My final choice is one I read at university. I’ll be honest and say I hated university. It was not a good time for me in any way and for a long time it sucked the love of reading out of me. I remember The Tenant of Wildfell Hall quite fondly as the first university book that I enjoyed reading. It reminded me of a grown up version of Jane Eyre, which I read at school, and I liked the Victorian feminism. It was also a bonding experience with my grandma as she loves the Bronte sisters and we could compare her favourite, Wuthering Heights, with mine.