What linguistics students talk about…

…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.

Two more…

…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.

One thought on “What linguistics students talk about…

  1. OK books. I've spent many an hour reading in my life but no book has every really changed my life. I guess it could be argued I'm not reading the right kind of books. And yes that is completely true, I read mostly non-fiction. I hasten too add not one of your choices is non-fiction, which makes me a little said, but ultimately non-fiction isn't really going to change your life much unless you count learning.

    Another thing, I read slow. By that I mean snail slow. It takes me about a month to read an average sized 350 page book, and that is if I buckle down and read it every night.

    Anyway here is my really short list of books that I might recommend you read. I say that because my taste is not exactly good at the best of times and having not read many books I'm no critic. I said to myself I was going to try and make it all fiction but I couldn't help myself.

    A Short History Of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson

    A rough guide to science. By that I mean it gets everything wrong, because as every teach of science has said at the start of the next year of education Forget everything that you learn last year. It's all completely wrong. . Now I agree with the sentiment but a good dumbing down of the principles of science is good for the soul. For most people the thought of learning the ins and outs of string theory would give them multiple strokes. So if you actually want to get an idea of why string theory is useful and don't care if your smart as hell friends tell you that it is complete rubbish then this is the book for you. String theory is just one example of course but for me it was a grand introduction to the wider world of science. I will always remember how the book never seemed to talk down at you for not really knowing anything. Some professors could really learn something from that approach but I have much doubt that they are worried about that part of their job.

    Dissolution – C.J. Sansom

    Now something more reasonable. A crime novel set in the Cromwell era; this book follows the path of a hunchback lawyer who is sent by Cromwell to investigate the murder of one of his commissioners. As the title suggests this is during the 16th century in England when monasteries where being destroyed by King Henry VIII. But enough about the setting, this is just a gritty crime novel. Though dark, mysterious and full of intrigue it's actually quite an easy, flowing read. Now I can't say this book was life changing to me in anyway, it was really a useful distraction in a darker time of my life. But that is all I will say on that front.

    The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

    Being a nerd this is kind of a given. But the Lord of the Rings trilogy really didn't stick with me. Probably because at the time I had the patience and reading skill of a 10 year old – even though I was about 14 – but this grand tale of treasure, treachery and eventually unity somehow kept its pace going to keep my tiny mind content. The story itself is by no means unique if you boil it down to its principles, but the devil and the true essence is in the details. I really love this book for opening me up to fantasy after all the children's stories. Even if it makes me feel like a big kid.

    And finally

    His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

    I couldn't really pick my favourite so I thought I'd dump the whole trilogy in instead. Pre The Hobbit, these books kept my company during the long school nights – I think again, enough said. Oh and by the way, the film is not good. Then again it's a film about a book, if you ever liked a film version of a book better having read it you didn't read it right.

    As you can see most of my choices are not really life changing, the just helped me out through knowledge or comfort. I'm always looking for a good book so I will probably pick up a few of your selections and see how they go. To be honest I don't hold out much hope if it takes me a couple of months to get through them.


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