So. It’s been a while. In fact, I’d sort of made the decision to abandon this blog – at least temporarily, anyway. I have a real job now, in an office, and it involves spreadsheets and phone calls, and means that there is no better time than 5.30 on a Friday evening. And I’m actually trying to write something… bigger. Which sounds counter-intuitive; who gets a full-time job and decides that their now-limited free time must be spent tackling a sizeable writing project? Oh, that’s right, me. Why? Well, because if not now, when I’m supposedly young and fresh and energetic and full of half-thought-out ideas, then when? But more on that another time. I’m going to be testing it out, possibly on a different blog, so if you’re interested, watch this space.
Anyway. This post is all the fault of my friend Catherine. She tagged me in one of those “make of a list of things then nominate others to do the same” Facebook statuses, and while usually I ignore them, it’s such a lovely one that I couldn’t not make that list.
In no particular order, here are ten books that, in the course of my reading life, have seemed terribly important and world-view-changing at some point or another.
1) Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. Yes, I’m sure I’ve wanged on about this one before, but I caught the film on TV again relatively recently, and it struck me again how bloody relevant the story is. On the surface of it, you might think that the lives of four girls and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts, at the end of the American Civil War would be of little consequence to the average modern reader, but let’s take Jo March, the second daughter. A tomboy, a guy’s girl, when girls weren’t allowed to be. An aspiring writer, who wanted to do Something Good and Important, at a time when women had very little power. An angry young woman who, upon being left at home after one sister married and another went to Europe, had a massive rant about not fitting in and wanting to run away, and who then took herself to New York and got cracking with a writing career.
And the best part of it is, Louisa Alcott didn’t even want to write the book. Her publisher suggested she write something about her own life, and she wasn’t keen. And then she only went and created one of the greatest families in literature. Thanks, Louisa.
2) The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of patient histories. It’s fascinating – I had to ration my reading of it, as each case is brief, so you can sail through the book in a day, maybe two if you’re busy. It’s astonishing how people will repeat the worst behaviour of their parents and relatives and remain unaware that they’re doing it, until they are shown. It’s a book that makes the reader more aware of themselves – something only truly good books can do.
3) Eating Myself, Candida Crew. Again, I’ve mentioned this one before, but it’s great for anyone who’s ever felt a bit weird about food. Crew explores what she calls “normal-abnormal” attitudes to food, putting forward the theory that the vast majority of [white, Western] women are just on a scale of abnormality when it comes to food and dieting. Some are more normal about it than others, but we all have our “things”.
4) Ulysses, James Joyce. No, I haven’t read the whole thing – I’m not entirely mad, and I’ve had stuff I needed to get done, to be honest – but I read bits of it for a uni module, and if James Joyce taught me one thing (other than “maybe don’t write a 700-page book”) it’s that you can make up words that fit what you’re trying to say. No-one’s going to stop you. In fact, they’ll probably ply you with awards and praise.
5) Running Like A Girl, Alexandra Heminsley. I’m not much of a runner – even less so since I rediscovered swimming – but Heminsley’s book about how she turned herself into a marathon-runner is genuinely inspiring, and touching, and funny. Worth it for the bit where she completes the San Francisco marathon (I cried, on a bench in town, on my lunch break) and for the line “I decided to be able to”. That’s how you get things done.
6) Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Another lofty choice, another hangover from my English degree. Thing is, it’s wonderful. I thought it was going to be all grey and grim and muddy, like a long weekend in Yorkshire, but it made me think about society and class and whether social mobility is actually possible.
7) How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran. There was no way I wasn’t going to include this. There are better books about feminism, sure, but none that are as funny, or as brutally honest. Moran has helped make it OK to talk about things we previously kept to ourselves. Better still, she made it OK to joke about them. She turned Mother Feminism – originally a stern, scary headmistress-type, full of righteous anger – into the cool girl in the pub who wants to get drunk with you, tell filthy stories and become your best mate.
8) Unsticky, Sarra Manning. I should probably apologise for having something that looks a lot like chick-lit on this list, but I’m not going to. I read Manning’s teen fiction when I was at school, and she started writing “grown-up” books as I reached my late teens, so I sort of think we grew up together. Her heroines are always slightly awkward and moody, with good hearts, and her love interests are always intriguing with astonishing bone structure (I think my obsession with cheekbones comes from reading too much Manning). And she’s one of the few writers who can write a hot sex scene – which is important.
9) The Equality Illusion, Kat Banyard. For anyone who’s ever wondered why we still need feminism, or has ever uttered the words “I don’t know what feminists are complaining about” – read this book.
10) I’m agonising over the last slot on this list – I really am. There are so many books that have had an impact on me, and the vast majority of them aren’t big and important works of literature. A lot of the books I’ve returned to, and re-read over and over and over, are just small, simple stories. The “Jill” pony books of the 1960s – a girl and her horses and her friends, living in the country and riding all the time, the worst thing that ever befell anyone was a horse going lame on show day. Anything and everything by John Niven – if I’m ever half the writer Niven is, I’ll die happy. I’ve never come across a writer who’s so skilled at making the reader empathise with such vile characters. (I’m also willing to bet that Ruby Ferguson’s “Jill pony books” and “John Niven” have never been mentioned in the same paragraph, and probably never will be again.) Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette – because I have a bit of a fascination with the maligned queen, and regularly daydream about Versailles and all its mind-melting grandeur. Chavs by Owen Jones – because it’s political and meticulously researched and right, and because Owen Jones is brilliant.
I can’t pick one; there are too many. Each book is another little world, that either takes you away from your life for a while, or makes you feel your life more keenly – makes you understand your own “self” a little better. The best books manage to do both.