Not long ago I stumbled across an article about dangerous criminals and the books they liked to read. Whilst we are all familiar with video games being blamed for reckless and violent behaviour in real life (fortunately obsessive playing of Frogger as a child never led to me being squashed whilst crossing a road) it is rarer in 2022 to hear anyone blame literature for criminal activity. Yet the evidence is there in abundance: Mark David Chapman allegedly claimed to be Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and even proposed at one point that he killed John Lennon to promote that very book; Richard Ramirez – responsible for multiple rapes, kidnaps and murders in 1980s America – is believed to have considered In Cold Blood by Truman Capote his favourite novel. This started me thinking about books that have influenced me and my life in certain ways (don’t panic, I have never resorted to violence) and I thought I would share with you the titles that have impacted me the most and helped create the person I am today.
1) I can still remember now the excitement I would feel as I dove between the cloth-bound, hardback covers of my mother’s Enid Blyton collection and Malory Towers was always my favourite. It opened my eyes to a world outside of my own narrow childhood experience and I found myself longing for midnight feasts and lacrosse matches (very hypocritically given I always hated PE). Even now there is a sense of escapism whenever I think of those tales and it reminds me of the first moments I truly understood the magical lure of reading as a way of firing the imagination. Those are precious memories.
2) When I first reached university I found many of the set texts hard going, with reading for pleasure often secondary to the fact I had to get through so many books at pace. Just occasionally a novel would be so readable that it allowed me to remember why I was studying English and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was one example of this. But as I delved further into the depths of its pages, it became more and more uncomfortable – I couldn’t compute how a novel could be so popular yet so inherently racist in the stereotypes of black people it portrayed. When I timidly ventured those views in a seminar, I discovered I was far from being the first to feel this way and it was widely seen as a controversial, divisive text. For the first time I was actively vocalising my disgust at prejudice, something that has grown to be a key part of my value base today.
3) In my 30s I was feeling a little lost. I knew the world felt unfair as a woman but was struggling to articulate this in a meaningful way. Then a friend recommended Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny and I had a proper lightbulb moment – here was someone so coherently saying all that I had been feeling for so long. It gave me the strength to know I was not alone in the way I viewed injustice, helped me challenge my thinking further and empowered me to vocalise my views. I am now proud to call myself a feminist and unafraid to challenge behaviours that before I would have accepted as the way of the world. This book made me strong in ways too numerous to count.
4) I always love it when other people recommend me things they have read and think I will respond positively to and Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera was no exception. We widely recognise that the British education system fails to teach us anything meaningful about colonialism, so I learnt a vast amount about the good, the bad and the ugly of imperialism. What I found most refreshing was the authenticity of Sanghera’s voice and his unique position as both British and “other”. This book helped me understand that it is all too easy to dismiss the negative actions of a country to the past and that evidence shows the “empire state of mind” is very much alive and kicking today. The current government do not – and never will – act in my name.
5) I would never have independently picked up The Overstory by Richard Powers but as it was a Book Club choice, I delved in with some apprehension. I am so, so glad I did – this novel revolutionised the way I view the natural world. I learnt a huge amount about how intelligent trees are, their ability to communicate and – most significantly – how reliant human existence is on their presence. Ever since then I have found myself taking more time to appreciate the greenery around me, pausing to wonder at the magnitude of things we don’t truly understand about nature. It is an amazing read.
I like to think the person I am today has been influenced by all of these texts in different ways and I certainly wouldn’t be me without the experience of reading them. This excites me for what is still to come – imagine who I could be in another ten years? I would love to hear which books have changed you in ways big and small. Let me know. After all, we are what we read.