Landmark Books in My Life, Part II

This is a follow-up to a piece I wrote in September about the books that shaped my early life. I think of my twenties in general, and 2005–7 in particular, as a golden period in my reading life, when I started to develop the tastes that still guide my book choices today.


my-love-affairsixpence-houseI was an English and Religion major and studied abroad in England for my junior year in 2003–4. As I was getting ready to go overseas for that first time in the summer of 2003, Susan Allen Toth’s trilogy of travel memoirs, starting with My Love Affair with England, and Paul Collins’s Sixpence House whetted my appetite for travel in Great Britain and, in the case of the latter, made me determined to get to Hay-on-Wye, Wales as soon as I could. (I first visited in May 2004 and have gone back several times since.)

robert-elsmereOne of the most memorable books I read during my year abroad was Robert Elsmere by Mrs. Humphry Ward. It’s almost forgotten nowadays, but was a bestseller at its release in 1888. The story of a minister’s loss of faith and how it affects his marriage, it’s a stand-in for a whole faith-and-doubt subgenre that was wildly popular at the time. The novel is long, brooding and overwritten—in many ways it exemplifies the worst characteristics of the Victorian novel—but it resonated with my own crisis of faith and planted the seed for my Master’s thesis on women’s faith and doubt narratives in Victorian fiction.

history-of-godPart of working through that ongoing crisis of faith was seeing other religions more objectively and being open to the similarities between them. I found Karen Armstrong’s comparative study of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), A History of God, absolutely riveting when I read it in my senior year of college. It’s a classic.

small-worldMy academic conference career began and ended with one I attended the summer after college graduation. I adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality and was accepted to present it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s annual conference in 2005, which that year was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Thankfully, I’ve mostly blanked out my actual paper presentation as part of a panel of three young people, but the trip as a whole was wonderful—it was my first time in the southwest, and the conference included great field trips to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos and the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. I prepared for the experience by reading David Lodge’s Small World, a paperback I’d plucked from the shelves of the bookstore where I worked part-time during my senior year. “A satire about the academic conference circuit? I’m there!” I thought, and since then David Lodge has become one of my two or three favorite authors.

possessionIt wasn’t until I returned to England to get my Master’s in 2005–6 that I really reclaimed reading as a leisure activity. The last couple years of college had been so busy I’d barely been able to cope with my assigned reading; I remember never making it very far in any paperback I picked up from the public library (like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which I’ve never gone back to). But the long, lonely evenings in Leeds had to be filled somehow, and the upstairs stacks of the magnificent Brotherton Library had plenty to offer in the way of literary fiction. In that year I made my way through loads of books by A.S. Byatt and Julian Barnes, as well as David Lodge (my top 3, probably). Possession made the biggest impression, but I love pretty much all of Byatt’s work. If pressed to name my favorite author, it would be her.

three-dog-lifeIn the partial year between finishing my Master’s and getting married back in England, I lived at home with my parents and worked part-time at a community college library. My evening shifts were often dead quiet, so I got plenty of reading done behind the circulation desk. One book I selected at random from the public library shelves, Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life, had a big impact on me in 2007. The memoir tells of her husband’s traumatic brain injury and the aftermath. Thomas writes in a fragmentary, episodic format that felt fresh and jolted me. I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the style, but it sure was intriguing.

without-a-mapheavens-coastI picked up Meredith Hall’s Without a Map around the same time, which cemented my interest in women’s life stories. Memoirs have been among my favorite genres ever since. Mark Doty’s exquisite Heaven’s Coast, which I read the following year, kickstarted my particular fascination with bereavement memoirs. Also, I think it was through following up his memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry.


In recent years I’ve tried to branch out (e.g. into graphic novels and literature in translation), but contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, memoirs, theology and travel books remain my preferred genres. Most of these loves I can trace back to my early twenties.


What books meant the most to you in young adulthood?

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18 thoughts on “Landmark Books in My Life, Part II

  1. AS Byatt is probably my fave too. *high fives* Also, I love Mark Doty’s poetry and didn’t know he’d written a bereavement memoir – that sounds wonderful.

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    1. Yes, it’s about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. He has two other memoirs: Firebird, about his early life and marriage to a woman; and Dog Years, about life with dogs. All are good, but Heaven’s Coast is truly superlative. I’m now keen to get his ex-husband Paul Lisicky’s memoir, The Narrow Door…

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  2. I went through a substantial period reading all the WWI material I could find – everything from Vera Brittain’ ‘Testament of Youth’ to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of a fox-hunting man’ to Wilfred Owen, to Robert Graves and Edward Thomas. While I read the history too, it was the effect of this most dreadful of wars on the combattants and survivors that has stayed with me since.

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    1. I feel like I haven’t read the right WWI stuff. Certainly not any primary source material, and some lackluster contemporary fiction (Birdsong and The Ghost Road, though I know many people love them). I do mean to get hold of work by the poets you’ve mentioned; also, I enjoyed the TV adaptation of Parade’s End and have wondered if I could have the stamina to read it. One recent novel I did enjoy was Wake by Anna Hope.

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  3. I love hearing about your life through books! And I just added a bunch of new books to my list. I’ve never even heard of David Lodge.
    Books that made an impression on me in my 20s? Roots by Alex Haley, sparking my interest in books about the slave trade. Northanger Abbey and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, sparking my interest in classics. Christy by Catherine Marshall, The Lord of the Rings, anything by LM Montgomery (still and always). And Alias Grace sparked my interest in Margaret Atwood and led to other Canadian authors.

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    1. David Lodge writes comic novels, usually set on English university campuses. Try Changing Places and, if you like it, there’s plenty more where that came from! He’s in his eighties now and writing his memoirs, but I still hope for another novel from him.

      Christy is one of my mother’s favorite books. I’ve seen the TV series but never read the book.

      I’m trying to remember what my first Atwood was. I think The Handmaid’s Tale, but it was The Blind Assassin that really made me sit up and think she was something special. That’s one of my absolute favorites. I probably read it in around 2008.

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      1. That’s one of the ones I have to re-read, since it was so long ago now that I read it that I get it mixed up with The Robber Bride (which I should also re-read for the same reason). I just finished re-reading Alias Grace, and I still love it. 🙂
        Not many people I’ve talked to know about Christy, but I loved it.

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  4. This is lovely. Possession made a bit impression on me with I was in my early 20s, and I’m rereading it now. I don’t think it made a huge *impact* though, in terms of seeking out more stories about academics or Victorians or any of that. It was more the style. I’ve always looked for the difficult, denser books since, I think!

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    1. I was studying for a Master’s in Victorian literature at the time and some of the Yorkshire settings were close by, so I think that’s why it was particularly special for me and jumped to the top of my favorites list. I haven’t reread it since but hope it would live up to my memory. I remember being so impressed that Byatt wrote all the poetry herself.

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  5. Great blog post Rebecca.
    Such a shame that you had long, lonely evenings in Leeds a few years back because that was when I was working in Leeds city centre and we could have met up over a glass of wine to discuss books!
    My reading life was shaped by two main things – a mum who worked in a college library, and a superb English O and A level teacher who used to give us ‘reading lists’ for our school holidays.
    These reading lists were nothing to do with our exam reading and everything to do with fostering a love of good literature. Her guidance has stayed with me all my life.
    Got through all the ‘classics’ in my teens, all Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, Austen etc, even including War and Peace!

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    1. Thanks, Penny! I didn’t have the best experience at Leeds. After having my hand held every step of the way during my first study abroad year, I felt very much on my own and didn’t get along with my flatmates. Luckily I had support through the chaplaincy and a few good friends on my program (none of whom I’ve kept up with, alas).

      You got a much better education in the classics than I ever did. I’ve still only read two Austen novels, for instance, and none of the Russian masters. How wonderful that your teacher’s influence extended into the school holidays and far beyond!

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  6. Fascinating. I had two big periods of finding new authors in my life, aged 14-17 exploring an elderly friend’s bookshelves and aged 24-27 living alone in London and devouring books from the library. Might write about those times myself one day.

    I have an acquaintance with David Lodge, as I studied then worked at Birmingham, where he was Honorary Professor in my department. I have been taught by some of the models for his characters in Nice Work, and he once got put on the spot to recommend one of his own books to my husband at a pub session after a lecture he did! I love all his early books so, so much.

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