Recently I have been confined to my house for health reasons and have been mainly watching My Life in Books, a BBC series presented by Anne Robinson which features various famous faces talking about books which have influenced them in their lives. It has been entertaining for several reasons. Firstly, it satisfies the need in me to talk about literature and discover new books to read. Since watching this programme I have been on a feverish quest to make a list of every book I want to read EVER. It is growing daily; one book will lead to another which leads to another. It will take me years to read them all, and there are some of them that will probably never even make it onto my bookshelf.
Another reason it has been interesting is learning about the lives of famous faces. I’m not talking about your average celebs, I’m talking about authors such as P.D James (or to give her full title, Baroness James of Holland Park) and Jeanette Winterson, the Duchess of Devonshire (Debo, youngest of the infamous Mitford sisters), the editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman (who it turns out had quite a bohemian start in life before adopting her now tee-total lifestyle), the two people who were on with their rich heritage (actress and what’s his face who had connections running back), and actresses Natascha McElhone and Anna Chancellor. There are male guests too of course, Keith Allen, Richard Bacon, Dan and Peter Snow, Sir Trevor McDonald and Nicky Haslam, so all in all quite a varied selection that makes it interesting watching, even if books aren’t quite your thing.
I also find it fun to play a little game whilst watching the programme. The rules are simple: count the number of times that Anne Robinson utters the word ‘meanwhile’ during the show. I counted six in one particular episode! I thought it would make a great literary drinking game but as I am off the devil’s drink at the moment I had to make do with swallies of tea instead… Fun nevertheless. Coincidentally, ‘nevertheless’ is an example of a different linking word Anne could have used to shake things up a little. “At the same time” or “Elsewhere in the country/world…” would also have been excellent alternatives. Maybe I should take up scriptwriting…
Anyway! The point of this post is that the programme got me thinking about which books have influenced my life so far. I’m only 23 though so I’d like to hope that I still have three quarters of my life to go… So shall we say, My Quarter-Life in Books? I think that would do as a starting place.
So taking the premise of series 1 of My Life in Books (series 1 is being repeated on BBC 2 at the moment at 1pm every day except Wednesday, told you I was getting addicted…) – the famous faces pick five books, one from childhood, three “serious” books, and finally, what they call a guilty pleasure or a beach read. Some of the books from my life jump out at me, others I’m not so sure of. Since it’s my “quarter-life”, please forgive me if I pick more than just one book from my childhood!
I don’t remember being taught to read; as far back as I can remember I have always been reading. From when I was a wee thing there aren’t many books I can recall – Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag Delivers the Mail, Ladybird’s Tootles the Taxi, and lots of Beatrix Potter. I wasn’t a big Famous Five or Secret Seven fan, but Enid Blyton does make it into the top of my childhood books list with her excellent adventure story The Secret Island. It was about two sisters and their brother living with their horrible aunt and uncle and escaping to a secret island with the help of a local boy Jack, living on berries and such like, building a willow tree house and sleeping on beds of heather. I can still remember one of my favourite lines from it –
“Oh, for a heathery bed and a starry sky!”
I reread it a few years ago and was drawn straight back into it, and all of the fond memories of how it had caught my imagination and been the inspiration for many childhood games, pretending I was setting up camp on a secret island, collecting heather to sleep on. It was a brilliant story.
Where I grew up we didn’t have a library, too small a population. Instead, we had something far greater – the library van. The library van came every Tuesday afternoon to the first cul-de-sac of the housing estate, at 3.20pm if I remember correctly (just in time for me to walk home from school and pick up my library books!). I used the library van throughout all of my school years, although at secondary school I had to change time and meeting place with the van. Instead, I would get off the school bus with two of my friends and we’d sit around on the green and wait for the library van to arrive. The librarians were friendly and came to know us well, and they graciously helped feed my appetite for Sweet Valley Twins novels. And then later on, my appetite for Sweet Valley High novels (I use the term “novels” loosely here you understand).
I’d say that the Sweet Valley Twins/High series, were very influential in my life. For example, I was convinced that I was actually separated at birth from my identical twin (not helped by a great aunt saying “You don’t look like anyone in this family! You’re definitely adopted!”) and that when I was older I would have the same lives that they did, driving around in a red Jeep Cherokee (open top, of course), going to discos on beaches bathed in moonlight, having the confidence and good fashion sense of Jessica mixed with the intelligence and compassion of Elizabeth. I definitely thought I would be the Super Twin. Looking back now, though, Jessica was vapid and Elizabeth horribly self-righteous, I would have been insufferable with that pairing of personalities.
Moving on to my teenage years, my choice also has a sense of duality to it. It is the Scottish classic, Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
“Two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart.”
Of everything I’ve ever read the quotes from that novel are ones that will stay with me. Not in their entirety, I forget words here and there but I feel like they’re still inside me somewhere, should they ever need to be called to the front again. That was the first time I think that I had ever really read a book about where I was from, or kind of close. I’m not from Aberdeenshire, but I did live surrounded by hills and fields and I felt like I could relate to it, like I knew it without even realising, the twists and turns of the country roads; the bit on the hill where you could get a good view of the big old country house; the woods and the farms and the hay bales.
It was only with this book that I recognised this knowledge and I am so thankful that I read at the time I did. The main character Chris Guthrie was a similar age to me, and it showed her coming of age, at a period when I was just finding my feet. It was this novel that made me realise that I wanted to study English at university. I remember crying in my Higher English class at the end of the book, and since then it’s not often that I’ve cried reading book (just the obvious ones you know, Sophie’s Choice, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – it’s so sad when Dumbledore dies!). It’s a novel that I imagine I will reread many times throughout my life.
Now comes the tricky part – my other three novels. I have read many, and a lot of them, I think I read too young. I recently reread Ali Smith’s The Accidental and got so much more out of it. I think age is important when reading, not just age necessarily but the stage of your life that you’re at. I hadn’t developed enough as a reader for that. Anyway, my other contenders, I’ll list a few and see which fits the best. On the Road by Jack Kerouac probably has to be one of them, although Big Sur was also quite influential. I was struck by the great change in the man, from young and desirous of new experiences in On the Road, to the moody, stumbling alcoholic of Big Sur, depressed and grateful for solitude. They made such an impression, in fact, that I wrote my dissertation on the novels.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is also a contender, I think I have read it thrice as well, once of my own accord, twice for my studies, and I have tremendously enjoyed it all three times. Although I know the story, I get sucked in anyway, to this foreboding world, this strong but plain woman, and of course, the brooding and mysterious Mr Rochester.
I was introduced to Paul Auster on a postmodernism course and I really love the way he writes, The Brooklyn Follies stood out for me particularly, and The New York Trilogy, although come to think of it I don’t think I’ve finished the third book yet so does that one count? I think so, I often think back to it, how cleverly Auster weaves his stories and manipulates his characters and writes himself and the writing process into the trilogy. I had recently read John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman so I was quite interested at the time on new ways of writing and authors putting themselves in their novels!
I haven’t followed the rules particularly well – no guilty pleasure is included (although if I’m honest I do dip into the Sweet Valley High series from time to time…) and I have cheated a bit on the childhood book, but nevertheless, I am happy with my final list:
The Secret Island, by Enid Blyton
Sweet Valley High series, created by Francine Pascal
Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster
And now, the final questions (it seems quite odd asking them to myself!) : –
What book out of all of them would I recommend?
It would have to be The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I have surprised myself with that answer because when I set out writing this post it wasn’t even a contender. It is intelligent, playful and I think shows a different approach to writing that gets the reader thinking about the art of reading and writing in different ways.
What do I think my book choices say about me?
I think they demonstrate a mixture of adventure and contemplation, as well as the art of writing itself, demonstrated by the final three books.
And on that note I shall bow out gracefully. What are the books that have influenced your lives and what do they say about you? I would love to hear other people’s takes on my books, as well as a list of your own. Expect another post in 23 years’ time!!
Meanwhile (!!!), if you’re interested in watching some of the TV programme, some of them are still available on the BBC iPlayer. Find out more and watch some clips here.