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Monday, November 06, 2006


Books that change your life

Well hey, there are some interesting remarks on the previous post that I'm enjoying reading, so everyone do please keep commenting on it - you don't have to stop commenting on a post just because I've added another one...

And someone made a remark that got me to thinking. They mentioned The Shape of Things To Come by HG Wells as a book that had changed their life (so I should probably read it; HG Wells kicks booty anyway). But what books have changed your lives? And, just as interestingly, how?

Thinking about it, I'm not sure what I'd say changed my life in terms of books. (Well, getting my own book published meant I could quit my job, so technically that's the one that changed it the most, but I don't need to plug it because you've all read it now, right? Buddies? Right?) I can think of books that changed my reading life. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood got to me when I was a teenager and had a huge impact on my imagination and reading habits; Edward Gorey got under my skin unforgettably the first time I saw his stuff - it took me a while to get to like it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it from the first moment. A Clockwork Orange, something similar; because of the controversy of the story, and also the effort required to get a handle on the slang, I remember reading with a tremendous earnestness when I was sixteen or seventeen. But would I have lived differently if I hadn't read them? I really can't say.

So, thinking about it, I've boiled it down to three things. First, Dr Seuss when I was five, particularly Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. If I hadn't loved books, I wouldn't have kept reading, and I wouldn't be a writer: Thidwick was my first love. I can still remember the joy of getting the big old hardback out of the library again and again, the hilarious twists of logic, the bounding rhymes, the triumphant ending. The book is a small masterpiece, and I stand by my early worship of it. It's glorious.

Second, Antonia White's Frost In May, which I keep mentioning when asked about favourites. I first read it when I was twelve. As both of my parents are lapsed Catholics, my dad educated by monks and my mum by nuns as children, I was interested in reading about a convent school. (It turns out that my grandmother actually had three sisters who were sent to the school White's story is based on. Two liked it, and one hated it so badly she ran away.) I have, in later life, what I refer to as 'osteo-Catholicism' - secular head, Catholic bones, meaning some instinctively guilty reflexes and a smells-and-bells aesthetic, and I think a lot of it comes back to this book. From an entirely secular perspective, you could say that Nanda's education by the nuns amounts to spiritual child abuse - but somehow, it's hard to say that from where I stand. I wasn't given much religious education by my parents, but I think I picked up a fair bit by osmosis, and Frost In May formalised it. Since then I've read all White's books repeatedly and identified with the heroine more than with any other character in my adult life. Frost In May still frightens me.

Third, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, picked up second hand in a book market when I was twenty. Nine years later I think some of her statistics sound a little doubtful, and there are times when I think the case a bit over-stated - but I don't think it matters. It's the book of an angry young woman - she was younger than I am now when it was published - and in terms of speaking to female experience, which Wolf excels at, it's indispensable. What she has a gift for is saying with clarity and dignity things that lots of women feel, but generally consider a shameful secret - until she points out that it's not. The Beauty Myth, which is about how insecurity over your looks is, for women, cataclysmic, is a great book to read when you're young and not completely secure. I gather that Wolf has copped a lot of controversy, but I'm not going to stop being grateful. I respect her opinions.

So, that's me. How have books changed things for you?

I read John Wyndham at an impressionable age. Probably the first writer to give me a sense that it was possible to create quite far-fetched imaginary worlds, and present them in such a way as to make the suspension of disbelief effortless. He didn't need to persuade me to go along with his stories: I bought into them immediately, because I wanted to; because they were fun. (Still a big fan, as it goes.)
To cull from the classics: C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy books made a huge difference for me. It actually took me several years to read them the first time, and I could never quite get past the first half of the third book. Then, when I picked it up a few years down the road, I was suddenly amazed at how the stories knit together, and the series also showed me how a great, imaginative adventure could also have such meaning behind it. Of course, those works are overshadowed by the Narnia ones, but still incredible.
I read one this weekend that changed the way I looked at books. The Giver by Lois Lowry.

It made me want to take alook into my writing soul and move the furniture around.
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