…Or, My Ideal Bookshelf
I recently read a great post by adoptingjames, where, inspired by the book ‘My Ideal Bookshelf’ [ed. Thessaly La Force], he decided to put his own selection together. And I liked this idea so much that I decided I would do the same. It’s a bit like ‘Desert Island Discs’ for your books, I suppose. You choose the tomes that are significant to your life and provide a short explanation why.
I have chosen ten books that have/had a lasting impact on my life, and categorised each one to make clear why I chose it.
Here is my selection, and I would love to hear what others would choose, if you’d like to share in the comments!
1) The book where it all began/The sentimental choice
Winnie-the-Pooh was my favourite book when I was younger. It is funny, engaging, incredibly sweet, and always beautifully illustrated, not to mention wonderfully written. The characters are vivid and embody the childish dream that toys can talk and have their own lives. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from Pooh et al. about friendship and acceptance.
“Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them”
2) The book that made me laugh
It’s not often that you come across a book that makes you laugh out loud. Bill Bryson is a very funny guy, and out of the broad range of his novels that I’ve read, this one is my favourite. The ‘Notes from a Small Island’ section frequently had me crying with laughter; each description of the less tourist-friendly spots in Britain so well-described and recognisable. The chapter on Milton Keynes was a particular highlight for me, living not too far and sympathising all too well with Bill’s struggle in the multi-storey car park.
I read this while I was living in Halls at uni. The girl in the next room asked to borrow it after having put up with my snorts and cackles through the very thin dividing wall each night. I suppose that’s as good a recommendation as a book can get.
3) The book that encouraged me
‘Spies’ by Michael Frayn was the first book we studied on my English Lit A-Level course, and is the book that convinced me to apply for an English degree, rather than History as I’d been planning. I had always loved reading and writing, but was uninspired during the GCSE years when it was all about ticking boxes and making sure everyone came away with a passing grade. The A-Level was different, though: the texts were more interesting, there was more opportunity to find your ‘own’ reading, and we got to spend weeks and weeks with one novel or play, learning it inside-out.
‘Spies’ is an incredibly clever story, and very carefully constructed. I have since read a couple more of Michael Frayn’s works and thoroughly enjoyed each one.
4) The book I read again and again
‘Atonement’ is one of my favourite novels, and my current re-reading count is three. I don’t re-read books that often because I always seem to have a never-ending pile to get through. But I am willing to make space for Ian McEwan’s story of school girl jealousy and a fatal misunderstanding.
This book is so well-written that often I forget it is fiction. By the time I reach the last section, where Briony says that she cannot publish what has preceded until her cousin Lola and Paul Marshall are dead, I often take the words as truth before remembering, of course, that it is Ian McEwan’s name on the front of the novel and not Briony Tallis’.
5) The book that I love most
I will always champion the ‘Harry Potter’ series because it made kids excited about reading. The first installment came out when I was seven, and I couldn’t be happier that I was able to “grow up” with the characters as the novels came out.
I will always remember when the final book was published: a couple of my friends had arranged to meet up to celebrate the end of our GCSE exams. Half of us were seriously into the wizarding world, and the other half weren’t so bothered. Those of us who were spent most of the day sweating and panicking in case we inadvertently came across a spoiler anywhere. And one of the girls who had brought the book along with her kept trying to read out the last page. Good friends.
I love that each publication was such an event. And it makes me quite sad if the children I’m babysitting tell me they love the films but have never read the books!
6) The book that opened my eyes
My knowledge of Postcolonialism was woefully slender before the final year of my degree, but ended up being the subject I specialised in. It was fascinating; brutal; unimaginable; and the literature so vivid. There were so many great texts on this subject to choose from. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ acknowledges the wider clash between traditional culture and colonialism by focusing on one man’s struggle to protect his village by the only means he knows. Unfortunately his strengths are also his weaknesses. It makes a story about widespread exploitation into a deeply tragic personal account.
7) The controversial book
This is another novel I read during my degree and, after three years averaging three novels a week, this is my standout favourite. It’s not like many other books. It’s difficult to explain, occasionally difficult to follow, but that’s why I liked it. There was only a scattered concept of linear time, interspersed with flashbacks, subplots, and dream sequences, and during the chapters when it was supposed to be ‘real life’, well, that’s when it often got stranger than ever.
It got Mr Rushdie into an awful lot of trouble (to put it lightly), but I’m sure glad he wrote it.
8) The book that changed my life
For years this was my favourite book. I love literature about the World Wars because they are written with so much intensity and, I feel, use language to its greatest effect. ‘Birdsong’ is so wonderfully written from beginning to end. Faulks does not always make his war-time protagonist easy to sympathise with, which is, I think, a brave thing for a novel to do. It is a great study of human nature and relationships, in the most unnatural and isolating environment imaginable.
9) My favourite book
‘1984’ by George Orwell has been my reigning favourite for over four years now. I had picked it as my holiday reading before going away with some friends. I know – solid choice for a girly beach holiday. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, it was just one of those novels I thought I should tick off the list. I ended up spending the majority of that holiday sitting under a shaded rock on the beach reading page after page while my friends splashed about in the sea. They teased me mercilessly (still do), and I came home as pale as when I left, but really it was a perfect opportunity to sit and read everyday without any other distractions. And I’m so glad it was this book. I love it.
10) Special acknowledgement
I couldn’t decide which Shakespeare play to pick for this list, so I thought I’d cheat and include all of them. I’ll concede that my favourite is probably ‘Hamlet’ – it embodies most of what I love about Shakespeare’s work. I often find the tragedies have some greater comic moments than the comedies themselves, as a result of ingenious wordplay. I would probably sell my entire house for a fraction of Shakespeare’s talent and writing ability.