Yesterday, my Facebook memories showed that I had finished a book a year ago, and the last line of my post was, “NOW what do I read?!”. I remember that genuine feeling of book reader specific panic that follows you around after a good book, and sometimes even after you start a new one you doubt yourself; am I doing my previous book justice in this choice? For sure, this is a writers world problem too, when it comes to writing different characters and books, but the almost gut punching grief that comes when you put that book back on the shelf, finished, is unique.
Beyond that, there is also the level to which books reach you. Skin deep? Bone deep? Soul deep? Just quite how far in to your psyche does each book touch you, whether you invited it in or not. Some books you finish and never really think of again. Others stay with you for life, for various reasons. And so here are ten books I have read that have left their mark on me. All are different. Some I read as a child, some in the last year. All are now key parts of my bookish life. So, in no particular order:
The first book that deserves mentioning is the wonderful “Ballet Shoes” by Noel Streatfeild. Despite being published almost a hundred years ago in 1936 (and yes, 1936 is nearly a hundred years ago, for anyone else sitting there suddenly feeling very old), it is as relevant today as it was then. The message that girls could be and do anything, and didn’t have to sit in a box designed for them by society was exactly the message I needed. Being reassured there was no right or wrong way to be a girl was a breath of fresh air, even in the late 90s, when I first read it. I can’t count how many books I have read over my time as a reader, but I still remember specifics from this book, twenty years later.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night – Time
I was slightly older than when I read “Ballet Shoes” when this book first presented itself to me in 2003, but still young enough to have maybe failed to understand that some people were not neurotypical. There was neither the understanding nor the awareness of Autism we have today, and whilst my brain does indeed function differently to many peoples, this was eye opening in how it watched a situation present itself, develop, and yet seemingly never overwhelm at what I would have deemed the “correct” moments. Seeing a written explanation of how wrong I really was regarding people who processed differently at such an age is something I will always be grateful for. The author has since stated that he is not an expert on ASD, but personally I feel his work in representing differences in brain function will never stop being important.
The Harry Potter Series
I have absolutely no shame in confessing my absolute love for Harry Potter, no matter how many times some in the book community consider it cliché nowadays. Harry Potter had a huge impact on my life, for so many years. I was lucky enough to grow up with Harry from the beginning, until The Very End, and the books were my safety net in so many ways. The messages to be gained from the series could well have their own post for their number (note to self: write Harry Potter post), but what can be more important and timeless than the traditional good vs evil? The most important thing, the immortal thing, about Harry Potter, is everyone can relate to him. Everyone has been the bottom of the pecking order, everyone has felt they are worth nothing, everyone has wished at some point they could vanish away from their every day life. And that’s exactly what Harry manages. It gives you hope, as a Nobody, that you can be a Somebody and, whatever your age, who doesn’t want to be reassured of that?
I originally started reading Les Miserables after auditioning to join a youth production of the show (spoiler: I didn’t get the part because I thought the song they had asked us to sing was the worst one from the soundtrack and asked to sing a different one instead. Except, the part that it turned out I was auditioning for had to sing that song. At least I helped them cross a name off their list.) and listening to the soundtrack on repeat for weeks. Mum, Dad, I’m so sorry. I have OCD and so have rather obsessive phases, so when I spotted the unabridged version of the book in the school library, I was quick to pick it up. It was huge, and easily the heaviest book my school bag was ever subjected to. I had to renew it several times because it took me so long to read but, once the initial “look at me, I’m so smart” smugness had worn off from whipping it out wherever I was, I found that I was engrossed. I couldn’t put it down. I devoured each page hungrily, disturbing my French teacher on more than one occasion to translate French beyond my 12 year old capabilities. It was a book of so many “firsts” for me, and really confirmed that I would never be without a book on the go again. I sobbed so many times. You think the stage show turns you into a sobbing wreck? Read the book. It will destroy you.
The Silence Of The Girls
A bit different from some of the above, as I only finished reading this book recently. However it is easily one of the most powerful books I have ever read, and I was every level of emotion upon reading it. Furious. Desperate. Miserable. Generally, heart broken. This book swept me up and carried me off to a land and sea far away, but also kept me present, reminding me to use my voice. To be silent is to be part of my own destruction. Reading the enforced silence history has surrounded fictional and real women in, I found my own voice growing louder. No. Not any more. This book, this beautiful, breath taking book, filled me with a fire that had started to extinguish through the mundane every day. The impact it had on me will be felt by everyone in contact with me for a long time to come.
Pig Heart Boy
This book was a set reading book for my year eight or nine (so, age 13 / 14) class English class. My school experience isn’t one I look back on fondly, but I did enjoy English and History. The book, designed to be deliberately controversial and thought provoking for teenagers, looks at a boy who needs a heart transplant, and for a reason I admittedly cannot remember, ends up having a pigs heart used. Side note; this also taught me my favourite word of all time “xenotransplantation”, which is the graft of muscle, skin or organ, animal to human. It brought up some interesting discussions, some horrible spelling tests, and some deep inner thoughts. Fifteen years later and I’m genuinely glad that book was the one chosen for our class. The moral dilemmas navigated, the impact of your actions on others, and how to refrain from judgement, not because of the threat of some form of god, but because it is the right thing to do, were all things we needed to hear.
Whilst this has risen back to popular view due to the much praised TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale was very much on many “must read” lists before the last year. With Margaret Atwood having (thankfully, finally, terrifyingly) announced a follow up, to be released later this year, THIRTY FOUR YEARS LATER, this book becomes even more important. I do not need to state how many rights and lives of women hang in the balance every single day around the world. Currently the world could pretty much show itself as a dystopian novel as it is. This particular take on a dystopia, however, is one of the more harrowing I have read, if not the most. Striped of even their names, women become property in a sense worse even than history has shown us. Yet, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. And whilst a book of fiction itself must not be taken as fact, when you start to see reflections of it in your own society, that is when you need to be there with your eyes wide open. If you haven’t already, read the damn book.
The Secret Life Of Bees
I remember my mum giving me this book to read when it came free with a magazine, back in the day when free books were The Thing to attach to women’s mags. I don’t remember my mum ever even sitting down to read them. Maybe she did, but after we’d gone to bed, she’d poured a gin, and did not give a single shit what she had in front of her. I was at an in between age, that awkward stage where full blown adult books – even those devoid of any sex mention! – might be too intense, yet the stage below that was frustratingly infantile. I suppose she figured she was giving me an easy going book, having been free, and that it would be harmless. What she actually gave me was a book about child abuse, horrific racism, murder and suicide. The other thing she gave me was an opportunity to expand my horizons and see what books were waiting out there. The book shocked me, and as it should well have. It was a shocking read. Also a brilliant one. I think back to certain passages in it quite often. I’m so glad I read it when I was impressionable.
And last, but certainly not least, the book that led to this post.
Me Before You
I was slow to jump on the Me Before You bandwagon. I’m not really a romance kind of reader. This however, was different, I was assured, and thank all the gods possible that I listened, because it has gone on to be one of the most influential books that I have read. As it happened, I read this book during a very rough time with my health. I was depressed and struggling with pain – the two of which obviously can become very much a cycle – and genuinely just very frustrated with the life I have been given. So I start reading the book. I became so immersed that with the death of Will, I genuinely felt myself grieving. I have tried very hard to avoid spoilers of any of these books, but I figure having been out for several years and made into a major film, I’m not giving away anything to state that happening. The quote from the book, “Just live well. Just, live”, hovers in the air around me sometimes, like a companion. Almost as if it is the ghost of a book. And when that happens, I know it means I’m forgetting to Live Well, and at the next opportunity I buy myself something little, or I have a sing, or I put on a fancy dress for absolutely no other reason than the fact I am living. Those words almost feel like direct instructions from a beloved friend rather than a quote, and the impact of those instructions cannot be underestimated, especially in times of struggle.
Obviously, this is not every book that has ever impacted me, or we would be here for a long time, but these ten are some of the most meaningful to me, ranging from between the last six months, and twenty years ago. The things that leave the biggest marks on your life can’t always be predicted, and nor should they be; it would make life incredibly dull. And so it is with books. We very rarely, if ever, pick up a book knowing it will change us forever. Thank goodness they are more insightful than we are.