I did one of those Facebook things some time ago where I listed 10 books that have stayed with me throughout my life. I took the list quite seriously at the time. For me, it was not enough to simply list the books, I wanted to try and find something that encapsulated why the book had become something that resonated with me even as I moved from childhood to adulthood.
And that is what struck me as my list appeared recently, as it does every year, in my Facebook memories. Most of the books on my list are books I read as a child. I have always been an avid reader. Books, the look of them, the feel of them, the weight of them in my hands, have always been something I have loved, longed for, and sought. There is nothing more powerful than words on a page. But there is something particularly potent, intoxicating even, about reading books in your childhood. It is a magic that is rarely replicated as we grow up. Since the childhood years, I have found some books that really capture my heart, but it is the old favourites, the ones I have loved for as long as I have known how much I love books, that really are the diamonds of my personal library.
So, with that in mind, here is that list of mine.
1. The Blue Castle – LM Montgomery ‘“I’ve been trying to please people all my life and failed”, she said. “After this I shall please myself. I shall never pretend anything again. I’ve breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretences and evasions all my life. What a luxury it would be to tell the truth!”’ Valancy is one of my favourite characters ever created. A downtrodden people-pleaser who finds fulfilment and purpose as she finds her voice. How can anyone not fall in love with her, and champion her as she strives to do precisely what she sets out to do – to please herself, and revel in the luxury of the truth.
2. Rilla of Ingleside – LM Montgomery ‘Rilla woke that morning when the dawn was beginning to break and went to her window to look out, her thick creamy eyelids heavy with sleep. Just at dawn the world looks as it never looks at any other time. The air was cold with dew and the orchard and grove and Rainbow Valley were full of mystery and wonder. Over the eastern hill were golden deeps and silvery-pink shallows. There was no wind, and Rilla heard distinctly a dog howling in a melancholy way down in the direction of the station. Was it Dog Monday? And if it were, why was he howling like that?’ Little Dog Monday wasn’t the only one howling. I remember throwing myself on to my bed and sobbing my heart out at that point. LM Mongomery hadn’t even told the reader what had happened – but as readers we all instinctively knew. It is storytelling at its blissful best.
3. Narnia Chronicles – CS Lewis “Pooh! Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations.” I read the Narnia Chronicles over and over as a child. In a world which often didn’t make sense, Narnia was like stepping into one that did. Good and evil were easy to define, and the consequences for choices made were always fair.
4. Atonement – Ian McEwan “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.” I read this when I was fast approaching thirty. It was one of those books where the story haunted me, the writing masterful.
5. The Turn of the Screw – Henry James “It was like fighting with a demon for a human soul, and when I had fairly so appraised it I saw how the human soul – held out, in the tremor of my hands, at arm’s length – had a perfect dew of sweat on a lovely childish forehead.” I read this in my first year of university, and I remember my skin froze as I reached the twist of the book.
6. Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens “The last time he had seen his slighted child, there had been in that sad embrace between her and her dying mother, which was at once a revelation and a reproach to him. Let him be absorbed as he would in the Son on whom he built such high hopes, he could not forget that scene. He could not forget that he had no part in it.” The book that brought me to Dickens. How can you not live in awe of such genius?
7. The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” This book is the book that came as close as possible to recreating the magic of reading as a child – because it recognised that it is almost impossible to do so.
8. Keeping Faith – Jodi Picoult “”Your daughter,” Dr Kelly says flatly. “I think she’s seeing God”. Jodi Picoult can turn out a great book. But this one, there was so much going on it, so much to keep the reader entranced, and so much to think about.
9. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte “I looked at my love: that feeling which was my master’s – which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle; sickness and anguish had seized it: it could not seek Mr Rochester’s arms – it could not derive warmth from his breast”. Reading this book as a child is very different to reading it as an adult. Every time I read it, I find something new.
10. The Chrysalids – John Wyndham “My father’s voice went on explaining about the need for Purity in thought as well as in heart and conduct, and its very particular importance to women”. Still as relevant today as it was when I first read it, with the policing of women’s bodies, and a society based on theological fallacy to shame, other, and subordinate into gender specific roles.
I still have a copy of most of these books. Most of them, I have carried with me as I have moved from country to country, single to married woman, to divorced, child to adult. Books are my constant. They are joy.