Recent book talk on Facebook has set me thinking about the thousands of books I have read in my lifetime. Which ones have influenced me the most and why? Aiming to be succinct, this list represents the ‘power of three’ for each decade so far – and the reason why they have helped me become the person I am today.
‘Chalky the Blackboard Boy’ appeared every week in ‘Jack and Jill’. I would climb onto Grandad’s knee and insist he read my ‘nomic’ – woe betide him if he tried to pick up the pace by skipping a page. I always knew!
‘The Famous Five’ by Enid Blyton (plus the 400 other books she wrote, with the possible exception of some of the ‘Noddy’ series). This author, more than any, is the one to whom I owe my love of reading. What an inspiration! Whether building dens in the garden and creating Secret Seven membership cards, or mentally climbing the Faraway Tree, my sixties childhood lived and breathed adventure, bouncing off her pages. Timmy the Dog and his four intrepid pals in particular meant that being sent to my room for some misdemeanour was never a punishment – just stretch out on top of the eiderdown, reach for that well thumbed copy and lose myself in another world.
‘The Observer’s Book of Horses’ was a well thumbed tome – in those innocent days you were either a tomboy who yearned to go riding, or a dainty young thing who adored ballet. Needless to say, I was the former and would flick through my little pocket book trying to identify any equine I saw, never once spotting the long dreamt of Palomino. To prove just how big an influence this book was, I have steadily added to my collection over the years and still hunt out Observer books whenever I can – with one of my greatest finds being ‘The Observer’s Book of Observer Books’. Sad.
‘Anne Frank’s Diary’ needs no introduction, as I suspect it is a rite of passage for many – bringing with it a loss of innocence at the horrors of the Holocaust and the hideous crimes of mankind. I still remember how absorbed I was by Anne’s brilliant writing and vividly remember how I wept at the outcome.
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte was another book which struck a chord, with my sister Mandy inscribing the treasured copy she gave me on my 18th birthday which still has pride of place on my bookcase. I immediately bonded with Jane when I realised that she, too, loved to curl up on a window seat to read, ideally hidden by the curtains. Plus, of course, Mr Rochester – the romantic hero that all men have had to match up to ever since. And failed.
‘Manwatching’ by Desmond Morris is in the minority as non fiction, but I clearly remember my excitement at having a £10 book token to spend in a long gone bookshop down a side street in Beaconsfield. To this day if you want to buy me a gift, make it a token! The big spinoff of this particular choice was that it influenced my choice of degree with the Open University – Psychology.
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier is one that haunted me at the time, with a first line that stays with me still: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The Cornish setting of her novels is always a draw, being one of my favourite places in the world, and her writing is now, quite rightly, considered to be classic.
‘The Go Between’ by L P Hartley is another story that shattered my youthful belief in honesty and trust. The film, too, is a rare example of an accurate transfer to celluloid of a text that shocked me as I read about how adults can manipulate children in an act of betrayal.
‘Photo School’, a long out of print book totally inspired my love of photography and sits on my bookcase to this day. I read nothing else that Christmas when I received it as a gift from a friend.
‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens turned out to be far more enjoyable than I anticipated (it was the set text for an OU Foundation Course) and it re-engaged me into studying. It is also a rare choice in that I clearly remember where I was when reading one of the chapters – in a holiday apartment in Valletta, Malta, during an awesome thunderstorm which rocked around our dual aspect lounge (a cheap and cheerful ‘Teletex’ find in the days when you used to book by landline at the last minute when cash was short, not having a clue where you were staying until the coach disgorged you on the doorstep of some foreign billet).
‘Cider with Rosie’ by Laurie Lee is set in Gloucestershire, at about the same period as when my grandad Percy was a lad (my ‘Chalky’ hero), and I always imagine it describes the sort of childhood he had. Except for the initiation bit.
‘Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends’ by the Rev Awdry – what a lot of editions there were! I must have read all of them hundreds of times, first of all to nephew James and then to Joe my eldest. The mature language taught me to never patronise young readers, and to this day that approach has made me the teacher I am.
‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ by Tracey Chevalier – totally absorbing and ‘unputadownable’ when we spent Tim’s fiftieth Birthday at Littlecote Manor. My apologies Andy and Lyn for being such a poor conversationalist that weekend! This book introduced me to ‘faction’, the clever combination of fact with fiction.
‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks – quite possibly the book most likely to still be in print in 300 years time. I can remember carrying the horror of the trenches around in my head for weeks, and being particularly irritated by someone dressed as an Easter Bunny at the Bishop Centre just after I finished it. How dare they be so trivial!
‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C S Lewis, is again, that rare example of when a film actually gets it right with ‘Narnia’. This is my all time favourite focus book for teaching literacy. As I get older, I also find myself fascinated and intrigued by the sub text of faith and Christianity.
Is only just beginning … (she lies) and the jury is still out. In the running at the moment are ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger (read in a Norfolk windmill), ‘Me before You’ by Jojo Moyes (read in Costa this weekend), ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls (a whole new genre of writing style with its narrative leaps) and anything by Bill Bryson, in particular ‘Notes from a Small Island’ and ‘Down Under’, which remind me of how very special it is when you can match the book you are reading to the place where you are.