There’s a tag going round on Facebook that challenges you to list 10 books that have proved formative for you as a person and the reasons why. The idea of making a Facebook status about the literature that has shaped me seems absolutely too awful for words, but from a purely personal (and procrastinatory) level I still wanted to try and single out 10 books that I can point to for being particularly life-changing or enhancing. So I’m doing it anyway. As someone who spent most of their childhood buried in a book it was no easy feat to choose just 10, but here we go; I’d be jolly interested to hear the same from you too, and I’m going to nominate Jazzy for a start. So here they all are, in order of discovery.
My Family And Other Animals, Gerald Durrell
Simply because it’s the first book I remember truly loving, and my first independent foray into classic literature. I listed this as my favourite book ever for a very long time, and it was the enormous pleasure it gave me that led me to pick up so many more.
Collected Ghost Stories, M. R. James
I spent one sleepless and terrified New Year’s Eve after reading my godfather’s copy of this upstairs in their huge dark (and haunted) house – but I’m bloody glad I did. For a long time after this the short story was my ultimate in literary forms, and I devoured everything from Saki to Camus to Roald Dahl. Forget Stephen King, I think M.R. James is the greatest horror writer ever to have terrified his audiences, and this timeless collection led me on to all my dad’s old horror anthologies and subsequently the love of horror cinema that I’ll always count as a number 1. hobby.
Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
I love Daphne Du Maurier. I love all of her books, all of her short stories, and I love Rebecca most of all. It’s one of the few books I have read over and over again, the first book that led me to seek out everything else its author had ever written; it pretty much introduced me to Hitchcock and his adaptation that I adore, and it taught me never to read the preface of a novel if you don’t want the ending spoiled. (Fuck you, Susan Hill.)
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
I read a battered copy of this from my school library aged 12, and it took me a long time. Like, an absurdly long time for someone who consumed books at the rate of two a day (these were the heady times before I had internet in my room and actually achieved things.) It’s widely established that Richard Dawkins is just the worst, but I think he writes beautifully; this is the only non-textbook about science I think I have ever read cover to cover, and not only is the material groundbreaking and world-opening etc, but it led me to The God Delusion and all the subsequent revelations on religion and my own faith blah blah blah. But I refuse to include that in this list as it has become an icon for everything that is wrong with modern atheism, and who has time for that.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Just one of those books that you’re devastated it has ended because you wanted it to go on forever. I think A.S.Byatt is my favourite writer objectively, just in the almost academically excellent way she uses language and description and imagery to transport you away for a day. Possession and The Children’s Book are two of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading ever, and I do think both subtly changed my view on the world and how to describe it in words – however fleetingly. God how wanky does that sound.
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
I remember getting to the end of this 1000 page epic seemed like an achievement in itself at the time – I’m honestly not sure I’d have the attention span nowadays – but this remains one of the most magical and absorbing books I’ve ever read. It painted a vibrant picture of a country I knew nothing about, and paved my way to reading other century-spanning works like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Allende’s House of Many Spirits, both of which I’d class in my Top 25. It also got me onto reading Booker winners, which have provided many of my favourite reads of the last decade.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
The longest book I have ever read, and probably the one that has stuck with me the absolute most. It’s hard to describe why this one makes the list, but it introduced me to so many things from philosophy to feminism to the idea of the mid-life crisis. I love Doris Lessing’s writings and her personal politics, and often buy this one as a birthday gift; high praise indeed.
Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan
Objectively I’m not sure that this book isn’t just a bit of young adult trash, but it was the first full novel that I read in English and then in its original language, and it opened my eyes to the wonders and necessities of being able to absorb things as they were originally written. I probably would not have organised my academic choices so zealously according to languages if reading this book hadn’t convinced me how horizon-broadening knowledge and communication outside of your mother tongue can be – so thanks Sagan, and thanks to Camus too.
A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor
When people ask me what my number one favourite book and author is, I will usually give Patrick Leigh Fermor and his trilogy of memoirs documenting his journey on foot across Europe pre-WWI. I read A Time of Gifts and From The Woods To The Water when retracing Paddy’s journey myself while inter-railing with my best friend just after we finished school; I’m not sure I’ve ever connected so deeply with a piece of writing, partly because I would be reading his descriptions of cities and buildings on a train on moment and then standing in the exact spot he describes them from the next. It ignited a love of travel that remains one of my top priorities in life, and has influenced my own writing more than I can say. (Also worth a read is Nick Hunt’s Walking The Woods To The Water, the same journey nearly a century later.)
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood
I include this because Margaret Atwood has been a recent discovery, and that mixture of dystopia and optimism and injustice and feminism that runs like a thread through all her work has really struck a chord. She popped up at a point where I really wasn’t reading very much due to university, but ploughing through her entire bibliography within weeks really reignited that literary passion – she remains the only writer besides Richard Dawkins that I have actually been to see speak, which is saying something. (Admittedly it was The Handmaid’s Tale that got me onto Atwood, but I’ve always thought it one of her worse ones.)
This was a bloody hard list to write, and I have to give honourary mentions to The Chronicles of Narnia, J.G. Farrell’s Troubles trilogy, and everything by Virginia Woolf. It reminds me what a huge part of my life literature has played – and continues to play; it’s nice to be able to point to certain books as life-enhancing, just as you can point to certain people and say the same.
I’m pleased there’s a 50:50 male:female ratio going on.
Obviously I’d prefer a 100% female representation but hey, I don’t discriminate.