Books have always taught me things about myself. I once learned that the best kinds of books are the ones that feel as if they are reaching out to you, through a channel of time and thought, to hold your hand and show you who you are.
However, upon sitting down to write this article, the immense prospect of narrowing down my entire life’s reading experience to five books suddenly seemed to stare at me, chasm-like. Life does not always present itself to us in such neat sequences. I spent many minutes perusing my bookshelves, hoping some books would jump out at me, screaming “I changed your life!” Then I realized that I was approaching this from the wrong direction: I ought to work backwards. Instead of starting with the books and figuring out how they shaped me, I should examine the most essential parts of myself – those pieces that shape the puzzle of my being – and then find the five books that I believe most helped form such soul-stuff.
I suppose I should begin in chronological order. I was thirteen years old when I read I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It was the first book that ever moved me to tears, and I suppose this fact contains its own significance. But this book shaped me in many other ways; it was the first book to truly spark my interest in reading, because it was the first time I found that some books can have a very unique way of making you feel things. It was the first time I felt that hand reaching out to me, and found myself wanting to reach out too and take it. There were many reasons for this, but mostly because this book is about being young and having a complicated, messy family, about discovering who you are, and it is a beautifully written exploration of art and passion. The sibling relationship in the book reminded me of my relationship with my own sister: that unique sort of fraught allegiance to somebody you have shared a womb with. This book taught me to see the magic in the ordinary, and made me want to become a writer so I could craft the kinds of sentences I found within it. I remember feeling a strange sort of jealousy at the fact that somebody else had written something I found so beautiful, but I treasured the pleasure of experiencing it the way I did, the first time reading the finished product, like a beautifully wrapped present made just for me.
To preclude the collective eye roll I imagine will occur when I talk about the next book, I would like to remind readers that we were all teenagers once. I suppose that is what keeps me coming back to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. There is something so quintessentially adolescent about Salinger’s magnum opus. It captures the profound mix of arrogance and earnestness, confidence and vulnerability, age and youth that comes with being on the cusp of adulthood. I first read it when I was fifteen, and gloried in the explosion of teenage angst. It made me feel less alone, knowing that others experienced the volatile cocktail of frustration, excitement, fear and repression that I too was feeling. Coming back to it five years later, I feel a strange sort of protectiveness over Holden Caulfield. He is pure, distilled teenagehood, immortalised forever in the uncanny, frustrated limbo of adolescence. He wants to catch children before they fall over cliffs, but now that I am older than him, I know that he is the one who needs catching.
When I was sixteen, we studied a poetry module for my English Literature class. This was what brought me to Ariel, a collection by Sylvia Plath. I had never felt a keen interest in poetry before, always finding it frustrating, inaccessible, and distant. This all changed with Ariel. For the first time in my life, I felt that special connection to poetry that I had been missing all my life. Plath’s visceral and vicious depiction of female oppression and mental health, and her unique, explosive way of crafting verse helped me to finally get poetry, to understand what it is all about. I finally had words to express the depression that I, myself, was feeling, and I am forever grateful to Plath for giving me such a gift. Poetry is a way of expressing what is often unexplainable, emotions that prose can’t adequately capture, and Ariel will always be the book that I turn to when my heart feels too heavy for my chest.
Being a young woman in a political world is at the heart of Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, a book that I read when I was eighteen and full of precocious political ideas. It is about two young women newly graduated from university, and as somebody who was just about to enter the world of university, I was desperately drawn to this book. I thought it would tell me who I was – or at least who I could be – but this book ended up teaching me that the act of discovering who you are is a lot harder than you think it will be. It taught me to be patient with myself, and to recognise my own naïveté. Ultimately, this book is about growing older, the importance of being politically aware while living in a world where politics informs every aspect of life, and learning that it is okay to be aimless, to not quite have everything figured out. It is also about relationships and connection, and taught me to realise that the people around me are the most precious things in my life.
A year ago, I read The Waves by Virginia Woolf. It felt like being thirteen again, and like I was discovering the wonder of a perfectly-crafted sentence for the first time. I had never read anything like it before; the writing was so beautiful, experimental, fragmented and human. For the first time in seven years, I once again felt that potent mixture of awe and jealousy for a piece of writing that was so unmatched in its beauty and creativity. I decided that it was finally time to realise that dream of becoming a writer. It had rested on the back-burner for years, this dream of mine, and reading The Waves was the final push I needed to pick the dream back up. Life sometimes comes around in circles, and The Waves came to me at the exact moment I needed it to: when it was finally time to circle back to the beginning, helping me to remember that feeling of wonder and connection that first brought me to literature. A feeling I would one day like to emulate with my own writing.
In truth, there have been many more than just these five books that have meant many things to me at many different moments in time. But I consider these the monoliths: the five giants in my memory. These are the ones that felt like hands reaching out to me. They are a snapshot of the first twenty years of my life. I’m sure, as I grow older, there will be many more.
Image Credit: Heffloaf (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.