I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Sixpence House by Paul Collins
A History of God by Karen Armstrong
Conundrum by Jan Morris
The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Caribou Island by David Vann
To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.
Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.
Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.
For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).
One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.
Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).
I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.
Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:
(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)
As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.
I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.
~from “Skulking,” a poem from Helen Dunmore’s The Malarkey
After more than ten years here, I still struggle with English winters. It’s not that they’re colder than what I grew up experiencing on America’s east coast. In terms of temperatures, snowfall and ice buildup, there’s no real comparison. I keenly remember the winter of 2004, when the wind-chill was about 10° F and all the fountains in Washington, D.C. froze solid.
But English winters have particularly disheartening qualities: they’re overwhelmingly dark, bone-seepingly wet, and seemingly endless. I’ll never forget when, in my first-ever winter in England (during my study abroad year in 2003), I looked out a University of Reading library window around 3:00 in the afternoon and realized the sun was setting behind the trees.
All these years later, I still find that dim mid-afternoon light depressing, and the damp cold nearly intolerable. In our study abroad information packet we were warned that British interiors are kept 10 degrees cooler than American ones. But because we’re both thrifty and environmentally conscious, our house is significantly colder. Most of the time I’ll wear four to seven layers and huddle under blankets rather than turn on the heat – why warm a whole house for one person and one cat? I’m not entirely joking when I say to my husband that I wish I could hibernate from roughly November to April. Just wake me up for Christmas.
Ahhhhhh, Christmas, which the English do wonderfully – much better than Americans, in my opinion. Carol services, dense dried fruit desserts, booze in and with everything, a gentler tinge to the commercialism, plus maybe some nostalgic Dickensian tint I’m giving it all in my mind. I’ve had some wonderful Christmases here over the past 12 years.
So I’m ambivalent about winter, and was interested to see how the authors collected in Melissa Harrison’s final seasonal anthology would explore its inherent contradictions. I especially appreciated the views of outsiders. Jini Reddy, a Quebec native, calls British winters “a long, grey sigh or a drawn-out ache.” In two of my favorite pieces, Christina McLeish and Nakul Krishna – from Australia and India, respectively – compare the warm, sunny winters they experienced in their homelands with their early experiences in Britain. McLeish remembers finding a disembodied badger paw on a frosty day during one of her first winters in England, while Krishna tells of a time he spent dogsitting in Oxford when all the students were on break. His decorous, timeless prose reminded me of J.R. Ackerley’s.
The series is in support of the Wildlife Trusts, and a key message of this volume in particular is that nature is always there to be experienced – even in what feels like a dead time of year. Kate Blincoe observes an urban starling murmuration in an essay that nicely blends the lofty and the earthy; Nicola Chester takes a wintry beach walk and documents what she finds in the strandline, such as goose barnacles; Joseph Addison celebrates the pleasures of a winter garden; Patrick Barkham examines the ways butterfly life* continues through the winter, usually as eggs; and Richard Adams (author of Watership Down) insists, “Wild flowers are like pubs. There are generally one or two open somewhere, if only you look hard enough.”
As in the other volumes, Harrison has chosen a lovely mixture of older and contemporary pieces. Occasional passages from Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster on the timing of natural phenomena help create a sense of chronological progression, from November through to February. The contemporary nature writing scene is represented by previously published material from Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Classic literature is here in the opening of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and the Great Frost passage from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There are also excerpts from Coleridge’s diary and freed slave Olaudah Equiano’s account of seeing snow for the first time. In general, this volume is better at including diverse voices, like the final piece from Anita Sethi on her family’s unlikely garden in Manchester.
Christmas doesn’t really appear here; it’s a book about the natural year rather than the cultural year. But another event does, very powerfully: In another of my top few pieces, Jon Dunn (who authored my favorite piece in Autumn) tells how the overpowering darkness of a Shetland winter is broken by the defiant Up Helly Aa festival, in which the residents dress up as Vikings and ceremonially burn a longboat. Life goes on, no matter how bleak everything seems. That’s an important thing to keep in mind after all the troubling events of 2016.
*My husband’s piece, positioned between John Fowles’s and Richard Jeffries’s, is also about the surprising insect life that can be discovered in the winter.
[I came late to the series so will be reading, but not reviewing, Spring next year.]
More beautiful lines to treasure:
“Claws of grey rain break to rake through a gold half-light and the squall moves like a huge aerial jellyfish, obscuring then revealing this wreckers’ coast of muted blue headlands. Swirling white snowflakes move against a grey mass, turning Lundy Island into a Turner painting.” (Nicola Chester)
“I am the garnet shock / of rosehip on frost / the robin’s titian flare.” (Julian Beach)
“the tower blocks are advent calendars, / every curtain pulled to reveal a snow-blurred face.” (Liz Berry)
“A whole year of concerns, worries and squabbles sloughed off in a bone-chilling baptism of copper water.” (Matt Gaw)
“Two hundred jackdaws drape the skeleton of the winter beech like jet beads around the neck of a Victorian mourner.” (Jane Adams)
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
I initially wanted to title this post “Books that Changed My Life,” but soon realized it would probably be more accurate to speak about them as the books that have shaped my life as a keen reader and meant the most to me as the years have passed.
In making this list I was inspired by a book I recently finished, Kate Gross’s memoir Late Fragments, which finishes with a bibliography of books that influenced her during different periods of her life. Gross, who died of colon cancer at age 36 in 2014, divides her reading life into five distinct, whimsically named eras: “With my back to the radiator” (childhood), “The grub years” (adolescence), “Emerging from the cocoon” (early adulthood), “The woman in the arena” (career life) and “End of life book club.”
I’ll do a follow-up post on the key books from my twenties next month, but for now I want to focus on the books that defined my growing-up and teen years.
What Bewick’s Birds was for Jane Eyre, my parents’ book on flower arranging was for me. I couldn’t tell you the title or author, but I think this green fabric covered tome with its glossy pages and lush full-color photographs was the origin of my love of books as physical objects. I must have spent hours paging through the illustrations and breathing in the new-book aroma. I’ve been a book sniffer ever since.
I can’t recall many of the individual picture books my mother read with me when I was little, but one that does stand out in my memory is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, about an eccentric woman who goes about planting lupines. Again, it’s a gorgeous book filled with flowers – you’d think I might have become a botanist!
C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books I ever read by myself, starting at age five. It took me years to get to the allegory-heavy The Last Battle, but I read the other volumes over and over, even after the PBS television movies came out. The Silver Chair was always my favorite, but I’m sure I must have read the first three books 10 or 20 times each.
Richard Adams’s Watership Down was the first book I ever borrowed from the adult section of the public library, at age nine. Crossing the big open lobby of the Silver Spring, Maryland library from the children’s room to the imposing stacks of Adult Fiction was like a rite of passage; when I emerged clutching the fat plastic-covered hardback I felt a little bit like a rebel but mostly just pretty darn proud of myself. I inhaled the several hundred pages of this bunny epic and for years afterwards considered it my favorite book.
Nowadays I don’t like to commit to series, but as a kid I couldn’t get enough of them: after Narnia, I devoured the Babysitter’s Club and Saddle Club books, the Anastasia Krupnik books, and so on. Whenever I found an author I loved I dutifully read everything they’d written. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, in particular, accompanied me through my early teen years. I think I saw the CBC/PBS television miniseries starring Megan Follows first and read the books afterwards. Bereft once the eight-book cycle was over, I read the much darker Emily trilogy, but it just couldn’t live up to the Anne books.
My first foray into the realm of heavy-duty classics was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14. I bought a battered secondhand paperback from a library sale and was immediately entranced, from the first line onwards: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” No doubt the idea of discovering my own potential heroism was what drew me in, but I loved everything about this novel: the rich panorama of nineteenth-century life, the vibrant secondary characters, the under-the-surface humor you had to work a little bit to understand, and the sweet second-chance romance. This was the start of my love affair with Victorian literature. I’ve read it three times since then. If ever asked for my favorite book, this is what I name.
It wasn’t my first Hardy novel (that was Far from the Madding Crowd, another all-time favorite), but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is most memorable for the circumstances in which I read it. At age 19 I accompanied my sister, who’d won a singing contest on local radio, to the Season 2 finale of American Idol in Hollywood. If you were a loyal viewer, you might recall that this was the showdown between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, on whom I had a hopeless crush – it later emerged that he’s gay. I read Tess on the flight to Los Angeles. Stranger pairings have been known, I’m sure, but I’ll never forget that disconnect between bleak England (where I hadn’t yet been at that point) and the sunny entertainment capital.
What are some of the books that meant the most to you in your early years?