So there are a couple of blog posts doing the rounds at the moment about books – Josie at Sleep is for the Weak is looking for book recommendations, Noble Savage has done the Bibliotherapy meme, and various bloggers have been completing Linda Jones’ meme “Call Yourself a Writer”.
I started doing the bibliotherapy meme and at the same time was posting a response to Josie, but I got distracted by the thought of all the books that have changed my life.
Now, I don't mean this in a Paul McKenna "THIS BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE" sort of way. I mean they're books that I didn't just enjoy, they're books that profoundly changed the way I felt about something, or which inspired me to make life-changing decisions. So, I think, definitely my life would be different without them.
And I hope some of you might be inspired to read one or two of these books, or perhaps share the books that have really inspired you. So here they are, with the dates I read them, rather than when they were published:
- A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES, 1980: My grandmother used to read this book to me at bedtime, and once I could read myself, I read it most nights for years. It’s a book of poetry for children by RL Stevenson, who spent much of his own childhood bedridden with illness. The stories – about imaginary friends, shadows, riding pillows down the stairs – are perfectly pitched at children. It’s the book that introduced me to poetry and literature, and eventually to a career as a writer. Oh, and the copy my grandmother gave me 30 years ago is the copy I now read with Flea.
- JUDE THE OBSCURE, 1989: Like most fifteen year olds, I imagined myself a uniquely sensitive, suffering soul. This was perhaps the first ‘literary’ book I read for myself outside school, and I could passionately identify with Jude’s desire to escape to University. I also loved that books I’d dismissed as being old and boring could be so powerful – I remember sitting in our local park in the drizzle, and not being able to stop reading when I read the note that Little Father Time leaves: “We died because we were too many”. Amazing stuff.
- A ROOM WITH A VIEW: I can’t imagine being quite so moved by this book now, but at the age of 17, I couldn’t have cared less for Mr Darcy or Heathcliffe – I was obsessed with George Emerson and his philosophical angst. Besides, who wouldn’t want to be snogged in a field full of violets in Florence? This was the book that inspired my passionate crush on Grant Gillespie, a boy in the upper sixth who dressed like he lived on a Merchant-Ivory film set. Grant broke my heart when he left to go to Glasgow University – which may have had something to do with the fact I ended up there, a year later. Sad, but true.
- A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, 1991: I’d been a fan of John Irving since reading The World According to Garp, but this book took everything I loved about Irving and just put it on a whole other level. It’s about a child who kills his best friend’s mother and then sees a vision of his own gravestone. It’s funny, like all Irving’s novels, but also has some great things to say about fate, friendship and faith – and I defy anyone to read the last couple of chapters without crying. Probably my favourite book EVER.
- AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, 1994: I was studying at University when I read this book, and it was the first that really opened my eyes to how ideology can prevent good people from doing the right thing, and inspired me to get involved in political action. It’s the story of how AIDS arrived in America and how all the people who could have stopped it spreading (NGOs, the Reagan administration, the religious right) didn’t. It’s the sort of book that makes you cry tears of sadness on page, and tears of rage the next.
- MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS, 1999: This was the year my brother died suddenly and a long-term relationship finally gave up the ghost. I was living in London, away from family and old friends. I was due to go to Corfu on holiday, and remembered this book was set there – so I dug out a battered paperback that my grandmother had given me, but I’d never read. I was transfixed. It’s probably the happiest book I’ve ever read, and sunshine positively radiates from every page. When life gets very gloomy, this is still the book I turn to.
- HIS DARK MATERIALS TRILOGY, 2000: It’s a fantasy series but for my money, this is so much smarter and more richly imagined than anything you’ll find in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings (oh, shoot me, but it’s what I believe). I love that the books are children’s books that aren’t afraid of talking about big ideas – what’s bigger than killing God? It encourages readers of all ages to think about the nature of belief and faith – and I basically love the idea of souls being externalised as shape-shifting creatures – how cool is that?
- UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, 2004 – John Krakauer is better known as the author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, both of which were made into movies – but for me, this is his best book. It’s an exploration into the roots of religious extremism, focusing particularly on Mormonism and the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Often books on this topic can be dry, but Krakauer has a knack of turning investigative writing into gripping prose – this is compelling stuff and many years after reading the book, the stories about how many of the world’s religions actually started and just how bonkers some of their central beliefs are – are still just as vivid as the day I read them. Definitely one of the books that shaped my views on religion and faith.
- 102 MINUTES, 2005: In case you didn’t know, 102 minutes is the time that elapsed between the first plane hitting the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and the collapse of the second tower. This is an absolutely heart-breaking account of those minutes, told entirely from the perspective of people inside the buildings. It’s meticulously put together and it’s a powerful reminder that one of the biggest political stories of our generation has this, very human story at its heart. At the time I read this book, I was coping with the end of a relationship, and this helped bring things into very clear perspective.
- FREAKONOMICS, 2008: Yeah, I know, it’s a book about statistics. But it’s also about how some of our commonly held assumptions about life just don’t stand up to careful analysis. Most of all, this book really changed the way I felt about parenting. Truly, the list in Freakonomics of things that make a difference to your child’s life versus things that make absolutely feck all difference is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever read.