Ten Books - Ten Thoughts

I've been nominated for that social media challenge of picking ten books which affected me or shaped me in some way- and there's a challenge to savour. A week's thinking and a bit of writing later, here it is. Plots thankfully recovered.

When someone nominated me for the Ice Bucket Challenge, I slightly lost the plot. I didn't do it; I donated; we fell out. I don't really believe in public displays of anything: affection, affectation, philanthropy. But I've been nominated for that social media challenge of picking ten books which affected me or shaped me in some way- and there's a challenge to savour. A week's thinking and a bit of writing later, here it is. Plots thankfully recovered.

1.The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) - an initially delightful book for children, which deals with growing up (caterpillar to butterfly) and its demands (eating everything in sight), which encapsulates the environmental impact of humanity in its form - the holes on the pages, and which some people say is a comment on eating disorders... binge on everything you find, then turn into something beautiful. I just love how it has so many layers of meaning: the essential lesson of growing up is that everything does.

2.Winnie the Pooh (AA Milne) I don't really believe the characters of Winnie the Pooh are the embodiment of the facets of the personality according to Sigmund Freud. Ok, Pooh likes honey too much: he isn't the Freudian id really, he just indulges himself until he gets stuck in his friend Rabbit's front door. Christopher Robin's toys assume personalities a bit like those we all encounter daily among our 'friends and relations', and the Winnie the Pooh books are a great study of friendship and how we manage to get on with people who are nothing like ourselves. And I've always identified with Eeyore...

3.The Adventures of Paddington Bear (Michael Bond) - Paddington arrived, not just from Peru, but from Darkest Peru, when his Aunt Lucy (clearly his Legal Guardian) entered the Home For Retired Bears in Lima. An asylum seeker with a suitcase ('Wanted On Voyage'), he arrived in England and was named after his place of arrival, Paddington Station, by the Brown family, who adopted him. The various scrapes, misfortunes and eccentricities of this delightful character have stayed with me for a lifetime. He's emblematic of courage and spirit. Better still, when I wrote about this elsewhere, it somehow got to the eyes of the author, Michael Bond, who wrote to me to say thank you for appreciating the essence of Paddington's character! The letter remains a treasured possession just as the Paddington I got when I was 7 remains in my study at home to this day.

4.Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) I first encountered this book when I was 10, and my Dad read it to me. As soon as he finished it, I read it again myself, and it's been among my favourites ever since. Never mind the love story, wonderful though Mr Darcy is: I love the humour. I've always been delighted by the sense of irony and the fact that a romantic heroine can be ironic and witty and still be loveable. The non-heroic, ridiculous characters delight me most of all: Mr Collins, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mrs Bennet. I've lost count of how many times I've read this book and I find new things every time.

5.The Complete Works (William Shakespeare) This is a bit of a cheat, I know, but so many of Shakespeare's works - the plays particularly and among the plays, especially the tragedies - have felt enormously relevant to me at different times that I couldn't pick just one. Aged 14, I loved how The Merchant of Venice proved that supposed good guys might be hopelessly corrupt and supposed villains might be misunderstood heroes. Aged 15, I loved the darkness of Macbeth and age 17, fell in love with the darkness of Hamlet. Now, grown older, maybe it's later plays like King Lear which speak the truth. I don't think I'll ever forget walking into my classroom to teach an A Level lesson on Lear moments after receiving a message to tell me that my husband's Dad had died. 'He hates him who would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer' - lines which echo still.

6.The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald) Oh what a cliché, right, the English graduate who loves Gatsby? I'm not sure about Gatsby himself. I guess he turned out all right in the end. I love this book mostly for Nick, the narrator, whom I've often thought is one of the characters, of all those I've encountered, with whom I most identify. Nick is the eternal observer - often overlooked or forgotten about in a social situation, often feeling ill at ease when other people seem supremely confident. And yet he misses nothing, finding it hard to judge anybody by morals which nobody really lives out to the full, because he's just so fascinated by everyone he observes. Slowly he sees the falseness of the gilded outsides and the truth which lies beneath the façade which Jay Gatsby has created. Not for him the material chaos of cascading shirts which makes Daisy cry - Nick is the observer-narrator of quiet reflection and peripheral participation. Gatsby told me that maybe this role was credible and real.

7.Selected Poetry (John Donne) I had the strangest crushes, aged 18. Not boybands. Not the boys in the school's First XV rugby team, who barely knew I was alive. No: fictional characters (see Hamlet and Mr Darcy, above). Politicians - I'm not even going to say more about that. And John Donne. Donne's poetry made me fall in love with him, so much so that on a brief trip to London in my final year at school, I simply had to ask a warden in St Paul's Cathedral to bring me to see the famous statue. I loved how Donne was a rebel before he became a cleric; I loved how his poems were full of energy and argument, whether he wished to persuade a woman into bed or persuade God to forgive his sins. I loved the wit and the audacity; the complex references to the thinking of his time and to life itself. My reactions to his poems, first time round, weren't simply academic - it was a metaphysical relationship!

8.The Waste Land (TS Eliot) Everyone who studies English has to go through their pretentious phase. It's the law. Eliot was mine. I felt myself become obsessed by the darkening imagery of city life and corruption, of a sense of isolation which I shared, of the search for meaning in an empty universe. I tried to work out the complex references, then delighted in the notes which proved false trails. How disappointed I was when I found how much had been edited by Ezra Pound... how upset I was when someone pointed out TS Eliot was an anagram of Toilets. But I persevered. I still love Death by Water, but most of the time now I find more in Prufrock than in Four Quartets.

9.The Rotters' Club (Jonathan Coe) I've recommended this book to so many people: it's almost a test: if you love this book too, then we have principles in common and can be friends. A story of growing up in 1970s Birmingham, written with conviction and humour, yet also deeply moving. I feel as though the characters are friends I've left in my own past, long ago, and whom I'd love to meet again. The Closed Circle, the sequel, was enjoyable, but there was just something about the spirited Rotters' Club which engaged the full range of emotional response. I've read everything which Coe has written and this will always be my favourite, like that best friend whom you can't help liking more than everybody else you meet.

10.Death of a Naturalist (Seamus Heaney) I've read Heaney's poetry for as long as I can remember. Aged about 5 or 6, I brought my Dad's first edition of Death of a Naturalist to him from the shelf, and asked if it was 'a murder story'. Finding later that it was mostly about frogs and growing up, I grew to see it as a touchstone of modern poetry... that poetry could be about normal things and ordinary people, mixing the language of normal life with thinking and ways of writing which went far beyond us. I met Seamus Heaney - Famous Seamus - several times. Treasured memories... and I'm glad I had the opportunity to hear him reading or discussing his poetry and the poetry of others, adding a feeling for what he termed The Governance of the Tongue to my own attempts to read and write.

I know I've done this wrong. I know I've written far too much. But maybe what my chosen books have in common is a reassurance, even for somebody as tentative as me, that doing things your own way is fine. That finding your own meaning is all right. That spending half your life reading is worthwhile. And if displaying this in public might inspire even one person to read one book, then maybe for once a public display of my affection for reading is ok.


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