Saturday, 11 May 2013

Day 11: The books that changed my life

Oh my, if ever there was a Blog Every Day in May topic made for me, it's this one: Book Love.  Since I learnt to read at the age of three (first book tackled on my own: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, which I got bored of waiting for my mum to read to me at bedtime), I have been an avid reader. 
Books have been my solace in times of trouble, my companions when I was lonely, my entertainment when I needed cheering up.  I studied English Literature at university, I own upwards of a thousand books, I teach English, I go on a near-annual pilgrimage to the ultimate book town, Hay-On-Wye.  In short, I like books.  Therefore my only problem with this post was deciding what, exactly, to write about.  Having already blogged about my recommended reads a few times, I thought that this time I'd instead highlight those books which had a greater impact on me than just, "wow, that book was great".

The book which taught me that being an imaginative, bookish, slightly weird kid was ok
My mum had been trying to convince me to tackle her lovely hardback pile of Anne novels for years, but I resisted (I hate being told what to read) until the BBC began showing the wonderful 1980s adaptations starring Megan Followes.  That was it: straight after the first episode aired, I grabbed the books and headed to my room, working my way through the entire series in the space of about a week. 

Anne of Green Gables is the first and still the best in the series, and together with Jo March in Little Women, Anne-with-an-e is the patron saint for all bookish girls who live as much in their heads as they do in the real world.  Although I was altogether better at avoiding scrapes than Anne was, her flights of fancy, her quest for "kindred spirits", her powerful determination to prove herself as good as - if not better - than the boys at school... these were all qualities that I could see in myself.

The books which got me through those painful early-teenage years
Paula Danziger's novels brilliantly capture how it feels to be awkward and unhappy for no particular reason.  To fancy boys but not understand them (or even like them very much).  To feel frustrated with your family even while you love them.  In short, they capture exactly how it feels to be thirteen.  I devoured the whole set, often on long car journeys while my brothers squabbled next to be in the back seat, and still return to them when I want a satisfying and quick read.  At the time, my favourite was the girl-coping-with-divorce-and-new-step-family story The Divorce Express, but now it's all about There's A Bat In Bunk Five, in which main character Marcy discovers self-confidence, herself, and love at summer camp.

The book that all disaffected teens adore... and I was no exception
What can I say about The Catcher In The Rye that hasn't already been said?  Returning to it as an adult reader, I tend to find narrator Holden Caulfield an irritant, but as a sixteen year old I thought he was the ultimate rebel without a cause.

The book that showed me an alternative way to live
Poppy Z Brite's two novels set in New Orleans and Missing Mile, North Carolina, Drawing Blood and Lost Souls, fired something within me: a desire to be 'other'.  Her depictions of people living on the edges of society - artists, computer hackers, strippers, musicians, bar tenders - are so seductive that I immediately set about seeking out the corners of my community where mainstream culture refused to go.  Part of what made me fall instantly in love with Alcatraz (the nightclub I wrote about a few days ago for #BEDM First Job) was that it reminded me powerfully of the bar in Missing Mile, The Sacred Yew.  Her description of a nightclub that was home to "poets and painters, firebrands and fuckups, innocents and wantons" had left me yearning to find a similar place of my own, and in Alcatraz I found the best approximation that I could.

The book which made me realise I would never be a writer, because someone else had already written 'my' story... and more perfectly than I ever could
Reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld for the first time was the most incredibly uncomfortable experience.  It felt rather as if she had crawled inside my mind and then set down on paper everything she found there.  Although the novel deals with protagonist Lee Fiora's time at boarding school, it was a pretty perfect approximation of my experiences in Halls of Residence at university.  The fact that Lee is a hugely flawed character only made the reading of Prep more uncomfortable, as I was forced to face up to the ways in which my own behaviour had contributed to my unhappiness.  I knew after reading it that I could pretty much give up my dream of being a novelist, because Prep is exactly what I wanted to write; better than I could ever hope to write it.

The book which changed my attitude to work, money and consumerism
I read How To Be Free two summers ago, just after returning from America.  The trip had already got me thinking about the way I lived and my work-life balance (or lack thereof), and Tom Hodgkinson's book - which is part comic writing, part political polemic, part philosophy, part manual for changing your life - was just what I needed to bring my thoughts into sharper focus.  It kickstarted my Not Buying It experiment in autumn 2011, and indirectly led to my £100 Challenge in autumn 2012.  As a result of reading this book, I cut my hours at work and managed to pay off a large chunk of credit card debt*.  It genuinely changed my life.

* Ahem, we'll ignore the fact that all this to-ing and fro-ing to the continent to see The Boy has kind of racked that debt back up again.  The point is, I managed to get rid of it for a while!


  1. I remember that TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, I had them all on video back in the day! I remember being six years old and distraught that I wasn't allowed to dye my hair red... I had to settle for dressing up as the Lady of Shalott instead!

    1. Oh my gosh, the Lady of Shalott; I love that bit!

  2. Great post... I also did an English Lit degree, and I used to be an English teacher. I find it so difficult when someone asks me what my favourite book is, because there are too many! This post has made me want to check out Prep and How To Be Free...

    Liz xx

    1. Exactly! Too many books to pick a favourite - I can maybe narrow it down to ten, but even that is pushing it!

  3. I've not read any of these (even Catcher in the Rye, though that is in my to-read pile!), but all these books sound so good! Xo

  4. I really want to read something by Poppy Z. Brite. For some reason I've never got round to it, but I'll add those two to my 'to read' list

  5. Glad to see Catcher in the Rye and How to be Free on there - I'll have to check out the others!

  6. Lovely post! You have been so diligent with #BEDM I've loved all your posts :)

    1. Thanks! I am starting to flag now...