Some time ago, I was tagged on Facebook by Liz Hassall aka Trundlebug of Mostly Knitting to list ten books that have stayed with me. The delay has been due largely to the need to give my list proper regard but also by the virus that laid me low for two weeks and made thinking about anything far too arduous. I’m writing here (and will copy the actual list to FB) as I can’t possibly keep this short enough for a FB post! Besides, it’s an interesting exercise, which is why I am actually responding as I normally ignore tags.
Ten books that have stayed with me
Not list your ten favourite books (I don’t do favourites) nor name the the ten books you think the best, but list ten books that have stayed with you. I like that concept.
I am not one for re-reading and it is a rare book that I will settle down with twice, so this does not allow me any easy approach to my list. I have no ten books with tattered covers that I constantly return to. I opt instead for books that have stayed in my memory, evoked some kind of change in me, raised aspirations or otherwise coloured my world forever.
Difficult enough to restrict to just ten titles, please do not expect me to rank them in any semblance of order.
I may cheat a little…
The Treasure Seekers (and E.Nesbit canon)
Books gave me a welcome escape from a fairly unhappy childhood and I naturally gravitated to escapist fiction… anything magical would catch and hold my interest. The Bastable children grabbed my attention because they had such fun. I so wanted to be a part of their family and when I read, I could be.
The Story of the Treasure Seekers: Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune was my first Nesbit but by no means my last. It’s the title itemised here because it introduced me to Edith Nesbit but my favourite Nesbit book was the entirely magical Five Children and It, with its grumpy old Psammead.
I loved the Nesbit books so much as a child that as an adult, I invested in two boxed sets from Folio… waiting to be read in my “old age”. Perhaps whether or not a book made it into my Folio collection should be the basis of my books that stayed with me list!
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder spoke to me for what I suppose are very similar reasons. The Ingalls family was so unlike my own, with loving and involved parents, and they had such an interesting life as far removed from my gritty northern slum as possibly could be. Little House in the Big Woods carried me away to another place and time and (a large point this) introduced me to the notion of Maple Syrup. All my life I remembered the segment on The Sugaring and Laura’s telling of how they boiled up the freshly-tapped maple syrup and poured it on to the snow to harden. All my young life I wanted to taste that, to know what Maple Syrup was like. It took many years before I had a chance to sample some.
There are several classic books of children’s fiction that I have carried with me: Heidi, Pollyana, Little Women, the wonderful Anne of Green Gables and others but I chose the Little House just because of the sheer natural magic and danger of the woods, so beautifully and clearly drawn in my imagination although I had no experience on which to model.
The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis
More magic? I must have been quite obsessed as a child. (OK, I read every one of Andrew Lang’s coloured Fairy Books by the time that I was nine. Definitely an obsession.)
The Magician’s Nephew (The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 1) – yes, not The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.
By now I was growing up, ten years old, and had moved from my gritty northern city to the leafy lanes of village Kent. Life was very different there, particularly at school. The village school that I attended was small, C of E maintained, and staffed by wonderful interested and kind teachers, not least of whom was the headmaster. The head’s wife would come into school on Friday afternoons and read to us. I can’t recall any of the books now that she read to us then except for this one – my very first CS Lewis and still the best (for me, at least.)
She would carry us away at the end of the week, spending the afternoon wandering into the Wood Between The Worlds with magic rings taking us into this wonderful universe of magic and I would hate the moment when the chapter ended, she closed the book and we would have to go home.
I moved on independently into the world of Narnia although I never completed the series, finding the text too childish for me after a while. Later in life I attempted a reading of the whole series but found myself choking on what I suddenly perceived as a somewhat over-egged Christian allegory. So disaffected was I that I never introduced my own children to the magical world of Narnia and truthfully have never resolved the issue of whether or not I failed them there or perhaps saved them from a religious indoctrination.
Should a childhood really be empty of Aslan and Mr Tumnus?
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Scarlet Letter (Penguin English Library) was an emotional read for me at quite an early age, around twelve or thirteen, and I think it possibly sowed the first seeds of feminism. How my heart ached for poor Hester Prynne and how I admired her quiet dignity. It was an angry read, as I began to understand the double standards by which society (men?) operates. Hester may well have influenced me in other ways too – I have been reluctant to conform with society’s standards in various ways over the years.
Truthfully, the details are now hazy. I am prompted to read it again and have just added it to my Kindle, though may just unearth my Folio copy to read instead.
The Stainless Steel Rat
I had read everything of interest in the Children’s Library and therefore applied for a special access to the Adult section when I was 13. This was where I had found Hester. It was also where I found the yellow-clad spines of Gollancz’s Science Fiction catalogue. I read my way along the shelf and began a lifetime love affair with Sci Fi.
I am capable of being a literary snob and I do enjoy serious literary reading but a quick romp though the stars is also very enjoyable and I have a well-developed taste for space junk as well as Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. In my early twenties I read my way through several Sci Fi series such as Doc Smith’s Skylark and Lensman books. I was quite indiscriminate and would buy boxes of books from the second hand shop and just discover what was in them. In such a box I met Harry Harrison and his rascally, brilliant, atheist protaganist: James Bolivar diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat. I fell in love.
Light entertainment, comic reading and escapist fun – but not without material to make one think. I really must catch up on the rat’s latest adventures.
There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse
My parents used to read the Daily Mirror newspaper, in which Keith Waterhouse wrote a weekly column. I was an avid reader of that column from a very early age and I loved his way with words.
A very gifted teacher that I had when I was in the fourth form at school enjoyed departing the syllabus and giving us something more interesting to do. Thus it was that I met Billy Liar in print, having already fallen halfway in love with Tom Courtenay’s Billy in the 1963 film adaptation. My teacher suggested that if I had enjoyed Billy so much I might like to look at There is a Happy Land.
This is a book that really meets the brief. It has stayed with me always. It is different to all the other books in my list – not particularly inspirational and certainly not transformative by way of carrying me off to a strange and wonderful place. Like all good books it picked me up and carried me away to another place – just not one of fantasy. This was a book of reality and memory and even nostalgia. It is set in Leeds, not Sheffield, and seen through the eyes of a lad, not a lass. Set just post-war, it’s a few years ahead of my own experience but despite these small differences I recognised the truths in it all the same. It might have been my own childhood in many ways, my own small world of a small handful of back-to back streets, but the reason that I love it is in the writing. This was the first book that made me wish that I might write too. The skill of Waterhouse is so evident in it. The book is a work of genius.
It took a great deal of tracking down but I did recently get hold of a paperback copy to re-read. I was not mistaken in my memory, the voices are so authentic and it is a very real world that they inhabit. Speaking of voices, there is a BBC Radio production of There is a Happy land, recorded in 1961. It features the late Davy Jones in his professional début. You can listen to it on Davy’s website, though why a Mancunian urchin was cast for a Leeds-based piece, I really do not know.
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
One of my almost-illicit reads as a very junior member of the Adult section of the library – I must have read this not long after it was published. Included rather than the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, as it was my first exposure to Muriel Spark and therefore constituted something of a gateway drug. It was about now that I was really learning the power of words and how to distinguish good reading from everything else.
Sharp, tart and funny.
I have often found Muriel difficult reading, but never less than rewarding of the effort.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Another gateway drug – my introduction to Margaret Atwood who would be, if I “did” favourites, my favourite author. No ifs, ands or buts; absolutely no questions – and no changing minds on other days – I love reading Margaret Atwood. End of.
I am so pleased that I read this book before seeing the rather poor film made of it. It’s a powerful tale of speculative fiction from a clear feminist perspective and very well written.
Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace are perhaps the two Atwood books that I have enjoyed most but The Handmaid’s Tale was a revelation in reading, and the tale profoundly moving to the young woman that I was in 1985.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
Yes, we all love the Hitchhiker’s Guide but I believe that DNA saved his best work for Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Perhaps it’s the hilarious notion of the sofa stuck on the stairs but this is the book that sticks with me. It’s actually one that I have read and re-read more than once. It had ideas within it that resonated for me but I was unsure why. I actually read it a second time as soon as I had finished the first reading – and is the only book with which I have ever done that.
Later in life, when I was working my way through my Open University Degree, I met the field of Systems Thinking and wham! it hit me, that’s where DNA was coming from: The interconnectedness of all things… it’s Systems! I have a fancy that I looked into this at the time and found that DNA actually was influenced by Peter Checkland but I may be making that up, perhaps Douglas was simply in tune with the whole thing by way of his very nature.
Silly, hilarious, possibly thought-provoking, if held at the right angle to the incident light.
Nine down and only one to go and I have thirteen potential candidates for this final position. I am going to have to plump.
Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray
Is this cheating? Probably, but it is one coherent work when all is done – Lanark: A Life in Four Books.
And a massive rambling multi-layered piece it is. Innovative in its writing, structure and techniques it is both fantasy and autobiography, imbued with great sadness; dystopian and surreal. Some call it dense, opaque and difficult to read but I find it otherwise – with short, punchy easily-digested sentence structures. Difficult to put down and quickly read.
Lanark is a unique work and impossible to describe. It has to be read – if you haven’t read it, you are missing out.
Gray is a unique author with a clear and distinctive voice that holds Glasgow in its every nuance. Lanark has been another gateway drug for me and Alasdair Gray is rapidly becoming one of my favoured authors.
That’s my 10. I’m sorry that I could not get Anne Frank or the novels of Sherri Tepper into this list…
What an interesting exercise it has been and quite a revelation.