The books that made me me – Anna

 “Lord! When you sell a man a book you don’t sell just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book.” – Christopher Morley

So, it seems that we are a community of bookworms. It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s a delightful one. It makes me want to meet up with you all, drink gin whilst wearing pyjamas and wave paperbacks around excitedly discussing plots and characters and ideas.
A while back, we partners in crime were discussing the books that fundamentally shaped who we are today. Everyone’s got them – the books that made us us. And so, a mini-series was born.

And readers, writing this was hard. I desperately want to write you a list of books I recommend, and books you will love. But that’s not what this is about.

These are not the books I think you should read because I thought they were transcendent, books where I fell in love with a narrator or identified with a protagonist or, most possibly, a book that just made me forget who or what I was until I turned the last page, eyes heavy, and switched the light off at 5am. I have a thousand of those, and they are for another time.
The books that made me me are not the best books I ever read. They are not even the books with the best stories. They are the books that taught me something that made me me, this mess of character and belief and values. They shaped me as a child, as a teenager, and throughout my twenties. They weren’t always fun, and some of them I really wished I could close before I finished. They are all books with power, be that in their message, in their language or in their story.

And so, I bring you the books that made me, me.
Goodnight, Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

I didn’t want to read this when the sales assistant recommended it to me. I was 11, and obsessed with Sweet Valley High. I absolutely did not want to spend my hard-earned pocket money on a story about a child evacuated in war time to the countryside, and the old man who gives him a home and brings him back to life through love. But I bought it to be polite. And I can still remember the sheer shock I felt that a book could convey both horror and misery and make me cry like the little girl I was. Willy’s return to his mentally unstable mother in London – and what unfolds afterwards, is an unapologetic playing out of terror, love and loss. At 11, I had never been moved. That book showed me the power of the written word to dismay, to outrage and, ultimately, to awaken.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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
Categories: Books, Books That Made Me Me, Written By Anna
20 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Fee
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Anna – I had a similar experience with 'Back Home' by MM (except I was in my Babysitters Club phase rather than SVH!). Definitely worth a look if you haven't already read it.

    Also, did you know that 'Jessica and Elizabeth:10 years on' has just come out?! The teenager in me almost squealed when I spotted it in Waterstones!

  2. Posted June 22, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Jessica and Elizabth: 10 Years On might make it as the 6th book that made me, me! I must read it, now!

    I haven't read "Back Home"…but reading what it's about, I bet MM writes it masterfully. I have, however read A Little Love Song by the same author which is a wartime coming of age, and there's a scene in it where Rose is in the bath alone in the house and the love of her life comes home and knocks on the door, and good golly Miss Molly I was a goner.

  3. Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I love you guys. I think MM might be one of my favourites. A Little Love Song is the first on my list of books that made me. Back Home is also excellent, as is Good Night Mr Tom, but none spoke to me as much as A Little Love Song. I re-read it last week, if I'm being honest.

    The other book that made me was In Spite of All Terror, by Hester Burton.

    I wonder if it is any co-incidence that both those books were the ones I wrote about in my university dissertation?

    And SVH. They would totally make my list too. I bought the 10 years on book the moment it was released (how sad I am!)

  4. Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Seriously? SVH 10 Years On? Are you guys messing with me? Because don't. I'm going to Waterstones on my lunch break and there'll be all sorts of drama if it's not there!

    My mum and I watch Goodnight Mr Tom every year at Christmas. It kills me every time that they've managed to transfer all the sadness and the grief and the hope from the book onto the screen, it's so wonderful.

    Excited for more recommendations!


  5. Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    It's called SVH Confidential. It's exciting, but not as good as I hoped it would be. But if you loved SVH as a young teenager (and who am I kidding, I still re-read them with I go back to my parents) you will enjoy it :)

  6. Jessie
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Goodnight Mr Tom makes me cry so much. I might actually have to throw Of Mice and Men into that category, I will never forget the tears rolling down my face as I sat in some soulless classroom – and for once not caring what anyone thought of me which was quite something for 14 year-old me.

    My favourite books are those that shock me with their brilliance. It was this way that I became addicted to everything written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She draws so artistically on a time when story telling was an art revered above all.

    I also just started The Tiger's Wife. 10 pages in and I am hooked – and annoyed that I have to be at work rather than curled up on my sofa devouring it!

  7. Fee
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I'm not going to lie to you, I bought the SVH 10 years on book.

    It was not well written. There were a lot of cringe-worthy moment. I discovered I was not ready to read about the Wakefield twins having S-E-X.

    It was worth every penny. Buy it immediately!

  8. Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Fee I actually snorted and laughed out loud (much to my boss's (with whom I share an office) disgust) when I read your last comment.

    Thank you muchly for injecting laughter into my dull work day!

  9. Esme
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Goodnight Mr Tom! I had read this myself aged 11 and then we studied it at school. My teacher realised how much I loved it and let me read the final lines out loud to the class – I can still remember feeling so proud that I was introducing my class mates to this wonderful book. xx

    P.S. Love this idea for a post.

  10. Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    What a lovely series… I've only recently read Love in the time of cholera and I loved it. I wanted to be on holiday though…
    And The Poisinwood Bible – I read that whilst travelling around South Africa and what with all those thoughts and emotions plus the ones from the book – I cried. A lot.

  11. Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Talking of teenage books, it was the Jinny series by Patricia Leitch that captivated the teenage me, so much so that am I in the process of buying copies from ebay and whatnot to get the full collection again. Sad I may be, but they make me happy x

  12. Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    @Littlewifetolittlemama – I loved the Jinny books too. I rescued almost the entire series from my parents house.

  13. Anonymous
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    @Littlewifetomama…i'm collecting them again too- I wonder if it was you that outbid me the other day?! (nearly got the complete collection now though!)

    I also love the Poisonwood Bible- such a powerful book! (I am also now searching out SVH confidential!)

  14. Posted June 22, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    "Once there were two bears, Big Bear and Little Bear. Big Bear is the big bear and Little Bear is the little bear."

    PLEASE tell me someone read these as a little 'un. The Little Bear books are my doorway back to when I was tiny…we bought the full set for our friends baby recently-it's her christening on Sunday-and I spent an hour stroking the pages before I wrapped them! Loon. There may have been tears. I can neither confirm or deny this…


  15. Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Echo Jessie on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie… emotionally hard to read but impossibly rich and rewarding. Incredible, beautiful prose.

    I think I am the ONLY person on the planet who doesn't get Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I plowed on with 100 Years Of Solitude to the bitter end, but I didn't enjoy it and I can't remember anything that happens in it!

    Goodnight Mister Tom is devastating, seem to remember there being a film or serial of it at one point which made me bawl almost as much as the book.

    (Straight from Mallory Towers to Point Horror for me I'm afraid, never got into SVH or Babysitter's Club, unlike all my friends at the time…)


  16. Posted June 22, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I just wrote a super long comment and Blogger deleted it…fie, Blogger! Lots of fist-shaking occured.

    Penny – I know EXACTLY what you mean about Garcia Marquez – I have foisted that book on so many friends who have ended up wanting to smack me around the face with my own copy. Magical realism is a very niche taste – and definitely not for everyone – if you don't like waffly prose and jumping around storylines, it's a kind of hell to have to read!

    All – LOVING the SVH love. Surely prim, prissy Elizabeth can't have done the dirty? Surely she waited until she was married?

    Aisling – we recently held a book baby shower for my friend, where we all brought a book we loved as a kid. Little Bear, The Hungry Caterpillar, Peek-a-boo, The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Little Grey Rabbit… they were all there!

  17. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Me neither. I read (or rather, tried to) Love in the time of Cholera, and I just didn't like it, or get it.

    That said, I LOVED Allende's House of Spirits, which is also magical realism. I'm definitely writing you a post, because I can't talk about enough books in a comment.

  18. Becca
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone read Sweet Valley University?
    Elizabeth got fat and Todd was a dick. Jessica married a biker.

    It was all very trying.

    Goodnight Mr Tom is one of my favourite books ever.

    Along with the China Garden

    And Pride and Prejudice

    And the Junior Telegraph – tell me someone remembers the JT?

  19. Posted June 25, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post and inspired me to write my own response because I have too many to put in the comment here ;-)

    And I have never read Goodnight Mister Tom…so I better get down the bookshop!

One Trackback

  • By The Books That Made Me Me – Laura on February 29, 2012 at 12:19 am

    [...] Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. I read anything and everything as a young ‘un. Babysitters Club, SVH (already discussed on these peachy pages), Point Horror (The Cheerleader pretty much changed my life). I dabbled in Steven King, devoured [...]

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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