The books that changed my life: three decades of reading

In my last post, I shared how profound the impact reading has on my life. I truly believe a book is the greatest gift a girl can have on her journey to being a woman, a grown-up, a functioning adult in society. Whatever that is?

I have decided to share with you, some of the books that have truly helped me, informed me, educated me, made me think about what I want from life, how I can serve and most of all, entertained me.

It’s not an exhaustive list. I’ll probably press publish and kick myself because I have forgotten one. I have also read an awful lot of crap. Some enjoyable crap and some, just a waste of time, crap. I know I’m not going to win the respect of literary minds saying this, but I have enjoyed Catherine Cookson sagas, teenage romantic fiction, mid-twenties romantic fiction and a mixed bag of titles we have attempted at book club.

Judging people by what they read is a pointless act anyway. It’s so personal to them. What I take from a book is quite different from what they lady opposite me on the train might take from the very same book. We would disagree on what we imagine the characters look like and what they sound like. We will make our own judgements on how we enjoyed the writing – straight to the point or lingering prose. We will feel different emotions for the characters. I might think someone had their misfortune coming, where the train conductor reading on his break might feel more sympathy. Our own experiences colour our interpretation of the words on the pages and bring them to life in a unique way. My life is reflected in some of what I have read and sometimes what I read shapes my life.

My life in books (so far)

The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton created a series of books about the Magic Faraway Tree. The Tree led to lands that rotated on a regular basis at the top of the tree, that had their own environment, characters and adventures. The creatures of the Faraway Tree and their dedicated protagonists, Jo, Beth and Fanny, found themselves in various scrapes and adventures. Seeing the bizarre worlds through their eyes trained my imagination not to question anything, just go with it, don’t apply limits to what is possible and experience the thrill of the journey.

Age: Early primary school

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

I adore Roald Dahl. I love how he was always rooting for children. Children were undoubtedly the heroes of his stories and he empowered those children to take their place in the world, stand up to adults and be seen for the amazing young people they are. Roald Dahl is the antidote to the old childhood mantra, ‘be seen and not heard’. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory particularly captured my attention. The story of the Buckets, how hopeless the world had seemed for Charlie, the magic of a chocolate factory, the analysis of the morals of the children and their parents’ influence and of course the presence of Willy Wonka himself, unlikely hero and kingmaker. I pictured it all – could see, smell and even taste the pages.

Age: Early Primary School

Just as long as we’re together – Judy Blume

This book tackled two issues I felt very keenly growing up. Parents who are separated and school friends falling out. I was young when my parents separated but reading about the issues as I got older helped me make sense of the situation and put words in places where previously emotions I didn’t really understand took root. The friendships of girls are an absolute nightmare between the ages of 10 and 14. The third friend disrupting equilibrium, feeling left out, wondering who is the favourite? Clashing hormones and the first experiences of rumours and gossip are all difficult to digest. Judy Blume understands pre-teenage girls perfectly. She wrote so sensitively but set scenes and characters that are very realistic. The relief you feel when you read a Judy Blume book at ten and realise, actually, you are pretty normal, should be available in a capsule form.

Age: Late primary school

The Diary of Anne Frank  – Anne Frank

The first piece of biography I remember reading. From the early pages of a young girl’s life – describing friends, boys and school – you build empathy with Anne. You feel like you know here and understand her. Then her world starts to change but when it’s seen through her eyes you don’t only experience the terror of what is happening but the love, courage and camaraderie in her life make you feel hopeful. You feel that with your loved ones around you and with hope you can cope with just about anything. Anne had a tragic end to her life, but she observed life beautifully and described it so honestly. A teacher at school didn’t think I should be reading this book at 10. I think that teacher entirely missed the point.

Age: Late primary school

Emma – Jane Austen

It was a tricky thing, choosing the Jane Austen novel that would feature on this list. Without Emma, Jane Austen wouldn’t even be on the list. It was the first Austen novel I read. I adored it. I loved Emma’s meddling, I loved her journey of self-discovery and most of all I enjoyed Jane Austen’s wry observations. I chose this book for a ‘ Specialist Study’. I was advised against it. “It’s really hard to write anything original about classics. Choose something the examiners might not know about,” said the teacher. That started my tradition of ignoring advice about what made life easy and doing what I needed to get out of my system. Arguably, Pride and Prejudice is the better novel. Elizabeth Bennett is certainly a more admirable character than Emma… but I enjoy the latter’s meddling ways.

Age: Late secondary school

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

This is where my love of reading about other cultures, particularly the lives of women living in other cultures began. The world of a geisha was fascinating to me. At first, it seemed lonely, then glamorous, then just… sad. I learned about duty, fierce competition, discipline and questioned what independence and freedom mean as a woman in different cultures.

Age: University student

Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell

There are so many words of wisdom in this Civil War epic. Scarlett O’Hara is one of my favourite characters ever. She is certainly flawed but she is fierce. She is a woman who encounters significant challenges throughout the Civil War (and she creates a few for herself too). But her spirit is inspiring. She seizes an opportunity, stays stubbornly loyal to her family home of Tara and never, ever conforms. I can’t help but think if she was male she would be seen, less as flawed, but as… brave.

Age: University student

The Curious Truth of the Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

This is a book for young adults but boy is it clever! I think you have to be clever for young adults to pay any attention to what you are writing. They don’t suffer fools… This tale comes from the point of view of Christopher, a boy with Asperger’s. Christopher likes order, patterns and most of all, the truth. When he sets out to investigate a dog’s murder he teaches us a lot about what the difficult relationships us adults have with truth. This book captures brilliantly how the world is viewed by a young man with disabilities and makes us all better for understanding.

Age: Mid-twenties but I advise early secondary school

Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding

I really need to re-read this. I think I would get something different out of it now in my (very!) early 30s than the first time I read it when I was 16. Bridget is an unlikely hero. But she has long been a hero of mine. Bridget speaks for singletons at the turn of the Millennium. She so honestly captures her experiences of work, dating, fashion, dieting, drinking and London life. She is funny. She is always learning. I am so glad she wrote her diary because it gave me a highly unlikely manual for my 20s.

Age: Late secondary school. I advise re-reading every decade.

How to be a woman – Caitlin Moran

My favourite book. Ever. It’s also non-fiction which is not typical for me. Caitlin is a brilliant writer. She really makes you think. She also makes you laugh. That snorting laughter that gets you funny looks on trains. I really love that Caitlin lays out what you think are the truths of life as a woman – then smashes them up. The result is a much fairer and kinder view of the world – a world that is delightful to live in. This book is about feminism, and so much more. It’s about observing that things don’t have to be way the way you see them. She observes the world wonderfully. She calls out the misogynistic crap for what it is – and even better than that – has better ideas on how to sort it all out.

Age: Late teens and then for the rest of your life.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

No one can break my heart with their writing quite like Khaled Hosseini. With The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, he really took my emotions, twisted them up and hung them out dry. It is always worth it. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the tale of Mariam, a young Afghan woman. The things she encounters in her life are extraordinary. Since I have been a teenager the plight of people in Afghanistan, and in particular, women suffering at the hands of a regime have been the subject of countless reports I have read and watched. This book weaves these stories in a way that makes an epic story of the brutality of life on our planet.

Age: Mid-twenties

In many of the books I love, the struggles that women face is a theme. Because these stories reflect the wold we live in they make me sad, angry, happy, proud and often, grateful. There are also themes of adventure, courage and travel. The things in life that inspire me. I always want to live up to the promise of my own story.

***

You may consider buying some of these books for yourself or a young person you know. That would truly make my day and I would love to hear from you. I do ask one thing, though. Please buy from a bookshop where possible. Bookshops and libraries are what made my ferocious love of reading possible and I want to support them however and whenever I can. I dare to hope I can take my children and maybe even grandchildren to book shops one day and let them have the time and freedom to choose something to read.

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2 thoughts on “The books that changed my life: three decades of reading

  1. so many great reads on here Nicola.. I suspect I was reading them along with you at several points. I just recently found some old Enid Blyton books and started to re-read. LOVE… more adventure, courage and travel is always a good thing! xx

    Like

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