I’ve been following a gratitude practice created by the lovely Sarah Raad at Simple Happy Life everyday for over two weeks now. Every morning I receive a prompt from Sarah to write down ten things I’m grateful for on a subject. For me – an inconsistent journaler and occasional skeptic – it has been an experiment in positive mindset that I’m now semi-addicted to.
Yesterday’s subject was books. And I scribbled down more than my quota of ten, filling the margins when I ran out of space. I looked back over my list this morning and realised that many of the books I had chosen represented pivotal points in my life. And I could use the list to tell my life in books.
So what follows isn’t a standard review or a comprehensive list of every book I value or have ever enjoyed. It’s more a kind of highlight reel of my reading life and the feelings and moments these special books inspire.
Here are seven of those most important reads, in rough chronological order of when they first found me:
Fantastic Mr Fox, Roald Dahl
This is the first book I can remember reading for enjoyment. I can recollect painfully plodding through Peter and Jane books when I was very little but my early reading is all a bit vague until this book came home from school with me when I was around 7 or 8. I loved everything about it and still do. The story of the heroic foxes defeating the horrid humans, Dahl’s language, the pace of the action.
And in a circular way – because life’s like that – it has become a favourite with my kids too. We have read the paperback together countless times at bedtime. They love listening to the audiobook read by Dahl himself and we adore the surreal film adaptation starring George Clooney as the very fantastic Mr F . And one of the final scenes of the movie – where Mr Fox and the wolf exchange a silent, respectful greeting – is replayed every morning by my son and husband who solemnly say goodbye with a single raised fist.
Forever, Judy Blume
Oh this book! It lived in the library of my all-girls school, a fiercely guarded secret only revealed to us when we reached Lower 3 (Year 6). I can’t remember whose sister recommended it but, one by one, we borrowed, devoured and returned it, tipping each other off that it was back on the shelf. We knew it would one day be condemned as ‘inappropriate’ reading material and removed from our grasp. We’d whisper about it during 4 o’clock club, waiting for the school bus.
Alongside listening to Prince lyrics, and whatever my friend’s older sister would tell us for 50p in the playing field, Forever was our literary introduction to sex and the inevitable consequences of teenage lust. We were all far from following its lead, but still curious – just entering puberty and wistfully covering our filofaxes with boys’ names. Then came the day that our formidable class teacher got wind of its contents and removed it from the library. Those of us who’d read it were glad we had had the chance.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I studied To Kill a Mockingbird for English Lit GCSE. It feels like I spent those years in a state of permanent anger about injustice in the world. We learned about apartheid in South Africa and the Civil Rights Movement in the US in RE. History lessons were consumed with the horrors of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. School debates were about nuclear power and the state of the environment. Hormones were raging. My parents were Tories. I was tirelessly angry. Into this bubbling cauldron of emotion came Harper Lee with her beautiful, devastating tale of prejudice seen through the eyes of a child. I loved it.
This book was to have another impact on my life, however. My best friend was at a different school and wasn’t studying Harper Lee for her exams – they were doing Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale instead. She mentioned a couple of times that she thought it was weird we were studying Lee because it wasn’t on their syllabus. I assumed our English teacher knew what she was doing and dismissed my friend’s comments, but they lingered somewhere in the back of my mind. And ultimately saved me in the English exam. When faced with the real life paper that, surprise surprise, didn’t have a single question on Harper Lee, but plenty to answer about Atwood, her words came back into my head and I knew instantly that we’d been taught the wrong book. I remained calm and just got on with answering the half paper we’d been taught. And it all worked out for us in the end – the exam board decided to double our marks to solve the problem. But our English teacher had a nervous breakdown, and didn’t return to school. I never have been able to read The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
I studied Italian at university and Dante’s Divine Comedy trilogy for four years on and off. The first time I studied Dante, it was with an extremely charismatic, sextagenarian university lecturer who spoke in poetry and seemed to know everything about everything important in life. Dante, he purred, was all about LOVE (which he insisted on pronouncing ‘lohv’). I was utterly seduced by this man’s eloquence. Dante filled my thoughts and my conversation and I regarded the lecturer as a demi-god (my adoration was purely platonic. I saved my unrequited lust for the dashing political historian down the corridor). I held him up on a pedestal as the kind of intellectual I aspired to be.
But second-time round, when I went back to uni to do a masters and found myself opposite the great expert again, the spontaneous poetry of his commentary turned out to be just a series of well-rehearsed lines. The lecturer repeated, almost verbatim, the lucid observations he’d wooed me with as an undergrad. My demi-god sounded more like an old thespian, regurgitating the hackneyed lines from a play I’d heard too many times before. It broke my heart. If Dante taught me about existence, this guy taught me about the illusion of expertise and how easily the spell can be broken.
Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevski
Crime and Punishment has the most heart-stoppingly terrifying scene in any book I have ever read. It’s pure guilt and violence and suspense and horror, all set in 19th-century St Petersburg. I was reading this when I’d just got together with my husband. And somehow the excitement and pace of that book is mingled with the first throes of that beginning. This book reminds me of his Dalston flat. Of hot summer days with all the windows open and the sound of police sirens punctuating our late-night drinking. Of only caring about right then, that moment, and to hell with work. I remember passing the book straight onto him and watching his reactions with glee and love as he got to the juicy bits.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
I read Lucky Jim when I was nearing the end of my PhD and worrying about what to do next. We’d already moved to Cornwall at that point and I knew I wanted to start a family. I found Amis’s book hilariously accurate about life on the bottom rung of the narrow academic ladder. The anti-hero Jim tries his best to win the salaried lectureship he thinks he wants – by sucking up to those in power and pretending to be what he isn’t – but really his heart’s not in it. Having struggled through many postgraduate cheese and wine evenings and bluffed my way through the odd medieval-music concert myself, all the while imposter syndrome screaming at me to get the hell out of there, this book rang lots of bells.
I guess it helped me to laugh at myself and look at the career I thought I wanted from the outside. Even now it reminds me that, if I ever feel a bit Jim-ish, I’m probably not being true to myself. I have read it countless times and always pick it up if I’m feeling low. It makes me die with laughter so I can’t really read it in bed because annoys my husband too much. He, by the way, doesn’t find it the slightest bit funny, so maybe it’s too niche. But, perhaps if you’re doing something you don’t really want to be doing, if you feel like you’re on the wrong path but are scared of turning round and taking a different exit, this book could make the situation feel less terrifying and more comic.
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
How could I not include this book? It’s the reason this blog has its name – named after the passage in Plath’s novel, where heroine Esther Greenwood imagines sitting under the green fig tree of indecision, while her various options for life as a female wither and die because she can’t choose any single one. There’s a horrible moment of clarity about the reality of motherhood – that choosing maternity will inevitably cut off many of those life options you thought you’d always have:
“I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.”
When I read it, The Bell Jar shocked me into action, because I had been dithering under that tree for a long while. It forced me to just go for it and have the children I’d been worrying about having. And now that they’re at school and their childhoods are speeding by, I can see (where Plath’s Esther could not), that it’s possible to have more than just a “single pure life” (I know my sanity depends on it) and that each new season brings another crop of fruit, another round of possibilities.
That’s an abbreviated version of my life in books – in itself a story and a fiction. As with all stories, we pick what we want to remember and we choose the meaning and the importance we attach to the parts of our lives we decide to retell.
Now it’s your turn. If you were telling your life in books, which would you choose and what would their stories be?