Five Books That Changed My Life

No, don’t worry. There’s nothing particularly worthy on this list. This post is not designed to shame you, but rather to give you a bit of insight into the books that had a great impact on me, perhaps great enough that they shaped the course of my life in some way.

1. Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd

See, I told you it wasn’t worthy! Whenever I think back to the books of my early childhood, Hairy Maclary and his band of wonderfully rhymingly named friends really stick out to me. I’ve always been a fan of dogs and all animals with two or four legs, but there is something I particularly like about books written from the point of view of animals. Humans are complicated creatures that I still haven’t worked out yet, but authors who write about animals have a gift for observing the world in its simplest terms. They can just cut to the core of existence and get rid of all the baggage we humans like to carry. If something we do is weird or destructive, they’ll say so.

I don’t want to get too philosophical here, after all these are just fun picture books, but it is safe to say that I have some very fond memories of my mum reading me these books. I particularly remember her impression of Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. We would make loud hissing and spitting sounds together that entertained me endlessly. And I think that’s the point really. If you introduce your child to the delight and wonder of reading at an early age, it will stick with them for ever. And what a wonderful gift that is to give someone. Thanks, Mum!

2. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I started to go off reading. At my school, we had shelves of books in each classroom that we were dutifully supposed to borrow from, but I guess nothing there really inspired me. I remember struggling through my SATs tests because one of the tests was to write a coherent story, but my creativity levels were at an all-time low. My teacher probably didn’t help, because she was extremely disparaging about the books I did try to read, about animal rescues and the like. She wanted me to read much more worthy titles, and anyone who has been forced to read literary “classics” as part of the school curriculum may know just how much that discourages you from reading at all.

So, my dislike of reading continued until one day my mum brought me home an adult high-fantasy book called Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. I completely devoured it and read straight through the next two books in the series, too. I’d never got attached to a character in a book as much as I was attached to Fitz, so this book not only rekindled my interest in reading, it also introduced me to the idea that characters were there to actually become emotionally involved with. It was like my empathy for fictitious characters suddenly kicked in, and I was away, completely sold on the idea of reading again. To this day, being emotionally involved with the POV character is absolutely essential to my enjoyment of a book. And, crucially, this was the book that inspired me to actually write my own story, my first full-length story when I was about 13 or 14. So, once again, thanks, Mum!

3. Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Not long after Robin Hobb came Tamora Pierce. I have very distinct memories of reading her books with my best friend at school when we were about 13 or 14. She and I were very similar in that we both wanted to be adventurers. We both loved Lara Croft and films like The Fifth Element that have very strong female leads. This was very early in the 21st century, so us girls were still very much subject to gender stereotypes. At the school I went to, girls were expected to do English Lit, Art and Theatre Studies at A-level. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these subjects, but there is absolutely something wrong with the expectation that girls should just study the arts and leave the sciences to the boys. We were also under the reign of the “popular” girls, who were all very girly girls and thought of little else other than how they looked and which boy they were going out with.

So, when my friend and I found Tamora Pierce, it was like the sky had split open and the world was turned upside down. Here was a girl, Alanna of Trebond, who dared to have the ambitions of a boy, to dress up as a boy, to do as well as a boy and to go on daring adventures. It was utterly inspiring, and more importantly, it was aspiring. Tamora showed us girls trapped in a world of stereotypes that we didn’t have to stay trapped if we didn’t want to. I say this list isn’t worthy, but what more important lesson could a girl learn these days? You are equal, you are valuable, you matter, you can choose to do whatever you want, and you don’t have to accept the limits that other people place upon you. Song of the Lioness is a defining piece of literature in my life.

4. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Yes, yes, I know. It’s a bit of an obvious and unoriginal choice, but this might not be for the obvious and unoriginal reasons you are expecting. Harry Potter is not only important to me, it is important to everyone. It has become deeply embedded in our culture, and if you haven’t read the books, or at least watched the films, I really don’t know how you survive the average conversation without becoming totally confused.

However, for me, there’s another layer of significance here that deeply impacted my life. Harry Potter introduced me to fandoms and the idea of being a fan of something, really, being more than just a casual fan. The definition of a geek is “a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast” of something, and all of a sudden, it became acceptable to be a geek. The rise of the fandoms in the age of the internet and subsequent social media is a direct cause for the rise of the modern geek, something that is now considered cool to call oneself. This is a liberating turn in our culture. We’ve all been able to come out of our geek closets and admit that we actually really like something, and we like to collect objects and information that pertain to that something. No more do we have to hide our collections in the garden shed or temper our public displays of affection and enthusiasm. Harry Potter was the start of a chain of events that mean it is now cool to engage with and know a lot about something. Harry Potter is the reason I have a snorlax plush on my desk. Harry Potter is the reason I meet with my friends in restaurants to discuss the latest computer games. Harry Potter is the reason I go to Comic Con and cosplay as my favourite fictional characters. Harry Potter is the reason I display every other fun, unworthy book I own in my house with pride. Harry Potter is the reason I don’t have to feel ashamed to be me and love the things that I love any more. That is why these books are so important to me.

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Okay, so here is my one slightly worthy contribution to this list, but I’m not going to go into the traditional lit crit essay you can find in any study guide. There is a very specific reason why Jane Austen is on my list, and it has nothing to do with Mr Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is on my list because it’s the first JA book that I actually read, rather than just watching the TV and film adaptations, and it taught me a very important lesson in my writing. It taught me to upgrade my vocabulary. Whenever I feel myself getting a bit beige with my language or a bit inarticulate, I read a bit of Jane Austen, because every time I do, my language and powers of articulation suddenly increase tenfold.

I think it’s very easy to slip into bland words and common expressions because these days the most common use of language is to convey information in the shortest and most transparent way possible. Text messages, for instance, emails, news bulletins, tweets. Nobody has time any more to really take time to explore and use the more obscure words and phrases in our language. The English language has around 170,000 words in it, but the average adult English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000, and much of this is passive vocabulary that they understand but don’t actually use.

I’m not trying to tell you all that you’re not trying hard enough or that you are stupid or lazy, or for that matter that I am wonderfully articulate and learned. What I’m saying is that by reading the language used by Jane Austen, I’ve become more confident to increase the complexity of my own language, because people can still understand me. That’s what I’m saying: that readers are more intelligent than they are often given credit for in fiction.

What I like about Jane Austen is that it stretches my linguistic muscles. The words and sentences and expressions themselves are part of the enjoyment of the book, not just the clever plots and dashing heroes. She pushes and challenges me to think more about my language, be more conscious about the things I write and the way I express myself. She has taught me to love my language and find words interesting and write them down so that I can use them somewhere in conversation or in writing. And for that reason, Pride and Pred had to be on my list.

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