…books, obviously. (As well as regional accents, our favourite and least favourite words, and grammar and spelling Nazism…)
I was watching a TV programme the other night called “My Life in Books” – presented by Anne Robinson (possibly the most wooden presenter in history, not helped by the fact that she can barely move her face), it features two famous people who’ve chosen the books that have had the most impact on them. As a reading geek, I love the concept, but it struck me as I watched it that it would be better suited to radio – but I suspect something similar already exists.
Naturally, I started compiling my own list. I thought it would be easy, being a life-long book worm (my mother used to have to tell me off for reading at the breakfast table, and used to catch me reading under the covers by torchlight long after I was meant to be asleep. Even now, I can while away hours in Waterstones). It wasn’t as easy as I expected. I went for six – no idea why, just seemed like a good number at the time; five wasn’t enough and ten would have been a stretch, I think. I had some pretty stringent conditions, too – the books I’ve chosen have genuinely had an impact on me and/or my reading life. They’re the books that have made me exclaim breathlessly “ThisisAMAZING”, or the books that have made me urge the next friend I saw after reading them, “OhmyGodyouHAVEtoreadthis!” Or simply, as in the case of (3), the books that have made me think, nod, and go “Oh, yeah, I get it now…”
1) The Diary of Anne Frank
Yes, a predictable choice for a girl who will freely admit to having the mental age of a 17 year old, and I do think the power of the diary was lost on me a little, as I read it when I was ten or eleven, which is probably a bit young. I’ve re-read it since, and been both inspired and saddened by it. In fact, as I write this I’m also scanning the Wikipedia page for the book, and it’s making me want to dig it out and read it again.
2) City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
I’ve included the link because you may not have heard of the book. A paperback version is also available, but this was the edition I read, and boy, I’d never read anything like it before. Beautiful, original, truly captivating… with a neat little twist at the end. I read it when I was twelve or thirteen, and if I’m ever asked about my favourite books now, it is one that I will name without fail. It was so unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and so had all the more effect on me because of that. Which is unusual for me – I’m not the best at getting out of my comfort zone, in any area of life – but I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you know of a 12 year old, boy or girl, who’s a reluctant reader, give them this. I mean, there’s always Harry, I suppose… but give them this first! (On no account give them Twilight. Please.)
3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Again, it’s probably no surprise that Dickens has made it on to this list – but I didn’t read this until a couple of years ago, when it was on my reading list for a module on 19th century literature. I don’t recall finding it easy to read, and I do remember drawing out a rather complicated diagram to remind myself who was connected to who, and how, but I remember being pleasantly surprised. Until I read Great Expectations, I’d thought of Dickens as a rather dry, somewhat impenetrable writer whose books were a slog to get through (literature afficionados are spluttering and groaning to themselves as I type, I can feel it) – but Pip is such a lively character, and his story arc unfolds so cleverly, that I found myself converted.
4) Guitar Girl by Sarra Manning
Don’t be put off by the slightly clumsy title – yes, it is very much a teen drama, and the boys probably will run a mile from it, but it does what it does very well. It’s witty, funny, touching and sad by degrees, loaded with references to pop culture and all the angst of being a slightly awkward teenage girl. Who just happens to have started a band that’s got famous… I was fifteen or sixteen when I read it, and it was such a relief to find a heroine who didn’t always know what to say, who believed that songs can change your life, and who let a boy get right under her skin.
5) Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette divided film critics – it was an arty, indie take on the life of the queen, but did bring home the fact that when she was first sent from her home in Austria to marry the Dauphin of France, she was little more than a child. Coppola used Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette while making the film, as it is a very detailed biography. In 2008 I wrote an A-level History assignment about the Diamond Necklace Affair (not mentioned in the film, and indeed the subject of its own, lesser-known film). Marie Antoinette had been the victim of almost relentless criticism, both during her life and subsequently, and Fraser looks at all the evidence and really comes out on her side. Fraser’s is certainly not the only biography to paint a more sympathetic portrayal of the woman who never actually uttered the words “Let them eat cake”, but the detail and the writing are truly remarkable.
6) Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire
I’m almost ashamed of this – and indeed, if my mother ever overcomes her technological incompetence and read this, I’m going to have to retract this choice and deny all knowledge of it – but it fulfils my criteria for “books that have had an impact on ‘me”. It’s so raw, and shocking, and explicit, that you read it dry-mouthed, gripping the pages with white knuckles. In fact, I remember reading the first chapter or two at the station, then on the train, and thinking “I shouldn’t be reading this in public”, while casting fearful glances over my shoulder. It begins as the story of an affair between teacher and pupil, but soon grows into something far darker and more twisted than that. It will widen your eyes and break your heart.
…while I’ve been writing this, I’ve thought of two more, and I can’t fathom why I didn’t think of them sooner. The first is Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte, in case you didn’t know). The only thing that the two central characters have going for them is their love for each other. It’s a dark and wild barely-even-a-love-story, set against a dark and wild backdrop, but it’s haunting and passionate. Read it.
Also, Eating Myself by Candida Crewe. As someone who, as a child, was a chubby little thing, and as a sixteen year old, took things a little too far and was underweight for a little while, food rarely comes without guilt, or some sort of emotional process. And I think that’s the case for a lot of women, and growing numbers of men. We cannot escape the fact that there is pressure to look “perfect”, and no amount of boys telling me in protesting tones “But curves are hot! We don’t want to grab hold of twigs!” is going to change the mindset that, if possible, I’d rather be on the slimmer side. Eating Myself is an honest account of everywoman’s internal monologue where food is concerned. Read it and you’ll find yourself laughing and almost crying in recognition. Ever said “OK, I’ll have some chocolate now but tomorrow I’ll just have soup and salad”? Then you’ll know what she’s on about.