Ten books that changed my life

So, in the summer of 2018, a friend of mine wondered if I had time to do this thing on Facebook where you talk about books that changed your life. I found the time, because I loved how it forced me to think about books every day, and then to write about them, too.

In doing this, friends and (on Instagram) strangers opened up about their own favourite books, and about their love of the books I was writing about. I discovered how people had been hanging on to the same version of The Bell Jar as me; how my schoolfriends had loved the Enid Blyton boarding school books as much as I did. The posts encouraged people to read some of the books (a few people decided to finally read Catcher in the Rye;  one friend went out and bought As I Lay Dying on the day I wrote about it). It sparked conversation, and no one told me my choices were wrong. Everyone who read the posts understood that these were the books that had changed my life. Everyone respected what I was revealing about myself. And that was enough.

Here are my top ten, in the order I posted about them, but in no other particular order. I’ve made some changes to the text, but the essence of what I originally typed onto my Facebook wall, and then reproduced on my Instagram feed when the sun was shining all those months ago, remains.

Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism edited by Lester D. Friedman

This book did more than change my life. I truly believe it saved my life. It got me out of a teaching career that was starting to smother me. It was the first book I ever edited and it showed me I was born for the job. It brought several people into my life who, years later, have had me at their weddings, celebrated big birthdays with me, travelled with me, loaned books to me. It reminded me that I knew my shit. It made my mum proud.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It’s 1986. I am heading into my second year of A Level English Literature. We are studying this. At that time, it was probably the strangest book I had ever read. There’s a chapter that is only one line; another narrated by a dead woman, halfway through her journey to her burial place. Layer by layer, each character is developed as they narrate their chapters to us. I am soaked in the language, the imagery. It opened my eyes to what American literature could do. It sent me to second-hand bookshops to buy all the Faulkner I could. This copy of As I Lay Dying accompanied me into my A Level exam, its underlined passages and tiny essay plans seeing me through. I re-read it for the first time in over 30 years last year. Luckily those pencil marks had faded, so I had little distraction from the beauty of every sentence, every chapter, every character.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

This book. THIS BOOK. In February 1979, my dad died. I was 10. It broke my picture of the world. At the end of that year, my brother gave me a double album of Beatles’ love songs for Christmas. Less weird once I had worked out it was meant for someone else who was no longer around. I listened and I fell in love with it and the Beatles. A year later. December 1980. John Lennon was killed. His killer cited this book. I was intrigued. A few years later, as an angsty mid-teen, I read it. I can’t remember what I thought of it then, but clearly enough to make me re-read it, at another point of emotional crisis, in my mid-20s. That second reading made it clear to me that I hadn’t got it before. This book was funny. Really funny. In between those readings I had read everything Salinger wrote that was available in book form, so something must have stuck. Last year I re-read it again. And it broke me. Still funny, yes, sure. But I had forgotten that it is a book about grief and loss and depression. Is that why I turn to it at certain stages in my life? Maybe. I can think of several books, massive doorstops of books, that I adore and that speak to me as if written for me personally. The Lacuna. The Goldfinch. The Blind Assassin. But this. This skinny wretch of a book that puts me into a world and a life and a character so seemingly different to mine showed me how art and literature work to transcend those differences and speak to every tiny part of us. This book. This book is the one.

The Woman’s Travel Guide to New York by Josie Barnard

I was 28 before I went abroad. I know! (I’d been on a plane, but only to Jersey in the Channel Islands.) When I was a kid, we went to Ramsgate as a family. Bed, breakfast and evening meal. Donuts. Punch and Judy on the beach. After my dad died, it was a week in a caravan with my mum, aunts and cousins in Cornwall. I had nothing to complain about. It was lovely. There was no money for foreign holidays then, or as I moved through my teens and student days. And, if I’m honest, I didn’t really feel like it. I seemed to have little interest. I have no idea why. Parts of Europe were close and cheap enough, but even when I started work there just didn’t seem like enough money or time or impetus to go. Crazy. Utterly incomprehensible. Then I had my heart broken and for the first time in years – since I was born actually – I ended up living alone. I’d possibly been unconsciously craving it because I know it was partly my inaction that led me there (he says it was all his fault). Maybe I needed a bit of wing-spreading. Whatever. Seven months later I was on a plane to New York. With this book. My mum, whose key experience of the city came from NYPD Blue, was terrified. She needn’t have worried. Armed with this book, I navigated the city alone. I went to Macy’s and the movies. I did the Circle Line ferry tour. I went up the Empire State Building. I listened to the original recording of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in the TV and Radio museum. I walked across 110th street. I stood crying in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night in the Museum of Modern Art. I pounded the streets all day, stopping to gaze up at buildings that were so familiar from films and TV shows, and to eat giant slices of pizza. When a rain storm flooded the subway line I needed to get back to my cheap room, I worked out – by myself – how to get there (it helps that Manhattan is a grid). That journey took me past Central Park and some projects, in the dark and pouring rain, but I grew up on council estates and refused to let NYPD Blue dominate my thoughts, so I was ok. I had the best 5 days. So this book opened up the world to me. I was back in the city less than a year later with the heartbreaker and his first son, proudly negotiating the subway like a pro. And for as long as I’ve had enough money I’ve been away. Sometimes alone, sometimes with friends or boyfriends or colleagues. Sometimes in the UK, more often to the US, or Canada, or Europe, or Asia. This year I’m heading to the west coast of America alone and then making my first trip to Rome with some friends. I owe it all to this book.*

* Since first publishing this on Facebook, I have indeed travelled to San Francisco, Portland and Seattle alone, and made that pilgrimage to Rome with four friends. Nothing held me back.

The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books by Enid Blyton

I was going to say, “from the sublime to the ridiculous”, but if a certain kind of book gets you reading, it’s not ridiculous. As a small child, there was a period where I got a Ladybird book a week. Beauty and the Beast. Snow White and Rose Red. The Princess and the Pea. Rapunzel. And so on. Lots of fairy tales. Lots of girls being rescued. Lots of girls whose resourcefulness – such  as it was –  relied on being beautiful. Lots of girls whose beauty got them into trouble. It would have been my mum and dad who first bought me the first books in the series of which you see some examples here. And then two childhood friends who, courtesy of their much-loved, now much-missed mum, filled in the gaps at Christmas and on my birthday. Then I’d spend my pocket money on the rest. Enid Blyton’s boarding school books –  the St.Clare’s and Malory Towers series – brought clever and spirited girls into my reading life, like the many clever and spirited girls I knew in real life at that time. I don’t doubt that if I re-read these books they would reveal a privilege, racism and snobbery that passed me by when I was around 8 to 10 years old. But they were the first books I started buying for myself and the first books that brought female friendship and solidarity into my reading life; the first books to show me that girls could be pretty and clever, plain and clever, good at sports and maths and writing, in a way that reflected my real life in a state junior school in Pitsea in the 1970s. For that, I remain grateful.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Having popped my book-buying cherry on Enid Blyton’s boarding school series, there came a time when I needed more. I have no idea how I knew who Oscar Wilde was –  we weren’t an especially literary household –  but something must have sparked in me when I spotted this book on a second hand book stall in Basildon market at some point in the middle of my secondary school years. I would have been about 14. It was the first grown up novel I bought and the first I read outside of enforced school study (I was an avid library user though; libraries and school were my sources of more grown-up books). I remember being engrossed and bewitched, so deep into the plot, so enamoured of the style. The ending floored me, and even now, when someone mentions that I look a bit younger than my years (ahem), my standard reply is “You should see the portrait in my attic”. It’s a concept from literature that has entered common parlance. A second reading last year showed a more forced wit and style than I recall, but I still loved my re-reading of it. It showed me how literature could be grown up and gripping, and completely accessible to someone from such a different world. In the summer of 2017, on a work trip to Chicago, I was lucky enough to see the revolting portrait from the first film version up close, in the Art Institute of Chicago. The problem with the painting, as shown in the film, is that it can never be what we imagine, what we thought it would look like. Because we all have a portrait in our attic, and none of our portraits are the same.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is the book that made me realise that there could be someone out there who would write something for me; hold my hand through the tricky bits. This book made me feel less alone as a teenager. At university, when I casually mentioned how much I identified with Esther Greenwood, how much I felt that this book was written for me, a friend said, “So does every even slightly neurotic young woman.” Maybe that’s true. But the glittering gems of each line of this book, hard and sparkling as diamonds, are for me; its humour, its sadness, all for me. This book gives a woman the kind of deep and authentic interior life that I hadn’t really read before. A few years ago, I was staying in Haworth, and I made the pilgrimage to Hebden Bridge, and up to Heptonstall to find Sylvia’s grave. After spending some time in the wrong cemetery, I walked through a gate, worked my way to the middle (as I had been guided by a friend) and there she was. I was surprised at how tiny her grave was, almost like a child’s. The inscription on the headstone made me cry. The slightness of the grave itself made me cry. The flowers lying across where her belly must have been made me cry. I silently thanked her for everything she had given me: the poetry, this novel, and an idea of what it might mean for a woman to be a writer.

Praxis by Fay Weldon

I studied this during the second year of my degree, as part of my ‘minor’ subject, Modern English Literature. I went for English Lit as it seemed safe; I’d studied it before, and the addition of ‘modern’ meant I could avoid Chaucer. Looking back, I wish I’d done Modern European Literature instead, but then I would have missed out on this book. It made such an impact on me when I read it ahead of that second year that I used it as a loose (very loose) basis for my drama graduation production. The novel is written in the first and third person, a structural device that can be seen as a conversation between the younger and older versions of the same character as we follow her life story. She starts poor and neglected, marries, divorces, gets a job, a career, and ends up in prison for committing an act that many see as the worst a woman could commit. It’s a kind of everywoman story, almost accidentally – but not quite accidentally – feminist. There was a period where if you were female and I was buying you a birthday present, it was this book. It didn’t hold up as well on a second reading last year, but at the time I adored it, and I needed it; it spoke to something in me. I loved the structure, and the life and mind of this woman, Praxis. In psychology, praxis means the process by which a theory or lesson becomes part of lived experience through a cycle of action-reflection-action; in Feminist theory, praxis is the act of putting theory into practice, theory in action. The character of Praxis has many names throughout the novel, but it is her birth name that she returns to as she reflects on her lived experience. At the time I first read this novel, I had been a feminist, and a Jacqueline, Jackie, Jack, and Jacks, for as long as I could remember. I guess this was the first book to really make me reflect on that, on how women are handed identities by others, and on my own lived experience as I returned to the name I call myself when I write, the name I was given at birth.

Stations edited by Cherry Potts

Having rewritten the Ladybird stories in the back of the books, read my childish compositions to the headmaster, and bled my ideas out during English exams at secondary school, I started writing short stories with a vengeance in 2005. I picked at them over the years, and then I did a short story writing workshop in 2009. Whilst it didn’t offer me the collegiate nature of collaboration and support I had hoped for (I got that 3 years later, at the Bookseller Crow on the Hill, where I swam in support and guidance, and made friends that I am still close to), it did at least give me some good tips. As a result, I got some of my stories accepted for online and print magazines, and also got some readings at storytelling events. These events were usually themed, and I found myself digging out an existing story, shoehorning the theme into it, and hoping for the best. I still do this now, at times. But then it felt like all I could do – rework something that existed rather than write something new. “I can’t write to order,” I would say. Not in a diva-ish way; just sadly, because I knew this was a real shortcoming of mine.

In 2010, I got involved in a fundraising campaign to help the fight for the return of the cinema to Crystal Palace. The organiser read some of my stuff and asked me to write something to read at the event. She wanted “something Victorian. A bit Edgar Allan Poe”.

Did she not know I could not write to order?

Soon after I received this brief, I was in Germany, staying with friends. In the time it took them and their baby and their cats to have an afternoon nap, I had the idea for a new story: a ghost story, set now and in Victorian times, in Crystal Palace, with a cinema theme. I think you’ll find I more than ticked all the boxes there.

I read the result at the aforementioned fundraising event to an audience who had been denied their dessert in order to spare me the scraping of spoons on plates as I moved amongst the tables performing my story. They hid their annoyance well on the whole.

And then I found out about a new press, based in nearby Brockley, who were publishing a book of stories covering every station on the Highbury & Islington to Crystal Palace/West Croydon line. I had something that fitted the bill perfectly. Almost perfectly. You know what I did, don’t you? Yes, I shoehorned a scene with the character on an overground train into my existing story. You can’t see the join.

So, this book is the first anthology I ever appeared in, and it represents an example of me doing what I know I can do – I’ve called it shoehorning, but some may call it editing – as well as doing something else. This book contains a story that I wrote, from a brief, a commission, from scratch, from my imagination, while two adults, a baby and some cats napped in a nearby room.

From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea edited by Matt Haynes and Jude Rogers

Oh, this book REALLY changed my life. How much, remains to be seen. It’s not as obvious or straightforward as some of the other books, so settle down – this could take a while. Matt Haynes rejected the first story I submitted to Smoke: A London Peculiar, the magazine he had co-founded with Jude Rogers. His reasons for doing so rankled a bit. But I let it go. Then a year or so later I submitted another story, and this time he published it in the magazine. As a result, he and Jude asked if I would submit something to the first Smoke book, about the London 2012 Olympics. I could only do this because I’d had a kind of almost religious conversion at the end of the games, when I held one of the torches in a cupcake cafe in Crystal Palace, a couple of friends in attendance. And because I could now “write to order” (see previous entry). I found myself writing a love story that started out cynically and ended up romantically. A bit like my own relationship with the Olympics. As a result of this book, I was asked to contribute to another Smoke book, this time on London water. I had nothing. I did not want to write about the Thames. Then the internet told me that Dirk Bogarde, one of my favourite actors, had filmed scenes from a film on the boating lake in Crystal Palace Park in 1966. And my story was born. The book didn’t get published in the end, but the story ended up on the Smoke website. As a result of that (I warned you this was going to take a while), I made a new film producer friend on Facebook via a very longstanding real-life one. The film producer encouraged me to write a film version of the Dirk story. And so I did. Four years and many drafts later, we have something that might go somewhere. So, in a roundabout way, this book brought a whole bunch of interesting and funny people into my life, and if the film gets made and a few red carpets are brought into my life, I won’t be at all upset about that. Whatever happens, I have those people and I have this screenplay. All because of this book.

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2 Responses to Ten books that changed my life

  1. Ethan de Seife says:

    I know about half of these, and the others now go to my “must-read” list. The one that resonates most with me is AS I LAY DYING. When I read it in college, I had an experience similar to yours: I had never before read something so strange, so OTHER, and yet so utterly hilarious. Few books make me laugh like this one.

    I was also in the middle of re-reading this book when we had to had to evacuate our home when the fire – which would soon destroy it – was bearing down. My old paperback copy burned up on my nightstand. One of the many unforgettable details about that day.

    • Ah, thanks for reading this piece and for adding some to your reading list. That’s quite an honour. I’m interested to know which ones you’ll read now! I bet Praxis is one! Maybe those boarding school books 😀. That’s a very poignant AILD story and if I saw it in a movie I’d struggle to believe it and yet it happened and you write about it very evocatively. Do you feel ready to get a new copy and pick up where left off?

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