I first read Catch when I was 15, and very very angry, and thought I knew everything. I also thought I understood the book. Newsflash: I didn’t. I’ve since read it again and there’s no way I could possible have grasped the nuances of the sheer brilliance that is this parody of war and the human condition. What I did understand at 15 was the violent nature of the book, the way it threw everything at me it could, misery, frustration, hopelessness, rage….and knifelike wit. I learnt that you can find humour in despair, and that good does not always prevail. I learnt that war is absurd, and that the absurd is often beautiful. It was my first ever grown up book and I quote from it even today.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“It was inevitable. The scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love”
I read this opening line in a book shop in Barcelona, aged 20, felt those words reach inside me, grab my heart and yank it through my chest, and I have never been the same woman since. I’d spent much of my life until that day reading books with a point – if I was going to spend my precious time committing to a story, it had to teach me something important. The opening line to this novel taught me precisely nothing. I fell for the allure of the language. I was astonished that words could be beautiful for their own sake, and throughout the book would read a sentence, pause, and then read it again in awe of its brilliance. I learned that a story did not have to have a moral, and that deeply flawed characters make for the best reading. I read about the power of unrequited love and tragic women and the men who love them with a kind of delirious joy. As for Garcia Marquez, all his works followed, then came more magical realism; Isabel Allende, Laura Esquival, Jorge Luis Borges. I have loved them all, but none like my first.
The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
I read this at 22, after I graduated and moved to London. I had been angry for a long time about the constant struggle I felt I faced with what is beautiful. I wasn’t quite sure where to direct my frustration, but I felt it acutely, every time I put makeup on, every time I stepped on the scales, every time I looked in vain for a role model in the media who was greying and wrinkled and who wasn’t afraid of ageing. I read this book, with its dissection of beauty as a demand and a judgment upon women. At times I hated its polemic and hated myself for having bought into The Beauty Myth, but from the day I opened this book I have not looked back. The impossible goal of ‘beauty’ undermines women in order to play politics and make money. Women become victims. I was a victim. This book told me why.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Even at the ripe old age of 25, this was hard. This book was a really, really hard mistress but it was oh so worth it. Set in a Congolese village during the 1960s, the book is narrated by four daughters of a missionary. At first we see the Congolese villagers as savages, and as the girls mature we discover the depth and complexity of the Congolese people and their culture and ritual and way of life. It shines a light on how we judge other cultures through our own lens, how we justify that, and our arrogance in happily imposing on other cultures to explore an idea that we have created. The misogynistic father and his refusal to respect the Congolese villagers made me want to throw the book out of the window, but the book held a mirror up to the way I approach travel – never again would I patronise other cultures by claiming to understand who or why they are. Set against the backdrop of the brutality of Belgian rule in the Congo, this book ripped apart my views on colonial rule, on the West, on religion. This novel broke my heart but gave me fire.
So, readers, tell us! What are the books that made you you? What shaped you, what taught you? Anyone can contribute to this mini-series, anyone at all. Or leave a comment…or write a whole post! (Please write a post. We love submissions).
“A good book should leave you… slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it.” – William Styron, interview, Writers at Work, 1958