Saturday, September 06, 2014

You are what you read?

I was tagged on Facebook by a friend who had listed ten books that 'stayed' with her. The challenge was not to think hard or come up with great literature, but to list, off the top of my head, ten books that had affected me in some way.


Only ten books!

We own about three thousand, and while I freely admit that I am unlikely to read some of them again (and at least a few hundred are thrillers which I don't suppose I'll ever read) I feel most comfortable when I am in a house with plenty of books. When I know I will never run out of things to read. I keep a couple of hundred unread books on my Kindle, too, just in case.

I think, if I absolutely had to, I could reduce my books to around one thousand, so long as I knew that the rest were going to good homes. But even that would be difficult. So many good books, so many wonderful authors. Even if I don't re-read a book in its entirety, I may well dip into it again.

But it was a challenge I could not resist. I certainly wasn't going to write about the first ten books that came into my head; I wanted to make sure they really had influenced or affected me in some way - that they had genuinely 'stayed' with me over the years.  So I started jotting down a few titles...

Taking my cue from the old 'Desert Island Discs' radio show, I decided to assume that the Bible and the entire works of Shakespeare can automatically be included, so I wasn't going to list either as part of my ten. The Bible has affected me more than any other book; or, rather, collection of books - it's kept one volume, usually, but is 66 books in all. Some of them are very short, and some have influenced me a lot more than others. John's gospel and letters are probably the ones I would choose if I had to pick just a few.

As for Shakespeare, I'm not an unqualified out-and-out fan, but several of his plays have stuck in my mind and I love watching them; Shakespeare coined so many phrases that we're all affected by him regularly.

I thought more about the insistence that I should choose books should have STAYED with me. I decided that, for that to be the case, they must be books which I first read at least 20 years ago. So that excludes Philip Yancey's 'What's so Amazing about Grace?' (and all else he's written), JK Rowling's Harry Potter series,  Susan Howatch's 'Glittering Images' (and sequels), plus Wayne Jacobsen and Brian McLaren's books - all of which will undoubtedly stay with me and be re-read in the future. These books have affected my philosophy and worldview within the past twenty years and I'd recommend them to anyone. I make no apology for the Christian themes (overt or otherwise) for all the above. (Links are to my book reviews blog).

When I started thinking about books that had influenced me profoundly, I really wanted to include the original 'Good Housekeeping' cookery book, which we were given as a wedding present and which I still refer to, even though it's falling to pieces (and even though I have an updated modern version - which is still good, but completely different). But something had to go, so I decided to limit my list to fiction, if I was to have any hope at all of choosing just ten.

Below is the list I posted, in roughly the order in which I first read them. I decided to see which of them I had read in the past 16 years and thus reviewed on my book blog, and was a little surprised to find eight of them - some of them I read more than once, even in this timeframe. I think that underlines just how much these books have, indeed, stayed with me. As for the remaining two, one is too short for a book review on my blog, and one of them is long out of print and unavailable.

1. The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton - this is the earliest book I can recall reading, when I was about five or six. I was - well - enchanted by it and its sequels, and re-read them many times. This book introduced me to fairies and fairy-tales, dreams and wishes, and the concept of good triumphing over evil. (They're not at all politically correct, but I didn't notice until I read them aloud to my sons many years later).

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis - I suppose I was about six or seven when I first read this. Maybe younger - it's a book that's always been on my shelves, along with its sequels. I do know that the first time I read it, I took it all at face value as a wonderful adventure story. A couple of years later I read the whole series again and had an amazing 'aha!' moment as I realised that it was all connected with God. I'm so glad I discovered that for myself, and that nobody tried to explain the allegories to me.

3. Margaret and the Currant Bunny by Edith Elias - I read this book almost every summer from the time I was about seven; it was on the shelves in my bedroom at my grandparents' house; an old book, even in the 1960s. It sent shivers up my spine but I couldn't resist it. I wish I knew what had happened to it - it's apparently impossible to find a copy of it now. Maybe I would hate it as an adult. But I've never forgotten it.

4. The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer - This is another book which I initially discovered at my grandparents' home, along with about fifteen of the sequels. I was perhaps eight or nine when I started reading these; I already loved Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers books, but there was so much more depth in the Chalet School series. I was thrilled to find the entire series (over 50 books!) in the library at my secondary school. The first book isn't my favourite by a long way; it's a bit slow-moving and I'd recommend new readers to start with the second. But it was my entry into the wonderful world of thinking, discussing, interesting education. The books also reinforced the importance of honesty and authenticity, and close families; it also helped me understand good sportsmanship. I wanted to be Joey Maynard when I grew up.

5. Gemma by Noel Streatfeild. I'd read 'Ballet Shoes', of course, and various others by this author, but I think I was about ten before I came across 'Gemma' and its three sequels, and was totally captivated. Wonderful family stories, even if they do include the typecast highly gifted children!

6. Mystery at Witchend by Malcolm Saville. Again, the first of a series and not my favourite of the 20 'Lone Pine' books; but it was the introduction to yet another world of friendship mixed with loyalty and love.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - We had to read the first two or three chapters of this for English homework one weekend when I was around 14. I started reading.. and couldn't put it down. I emerged, starry-eyed, when it was time for lunch and kept reading afterwards. I asked for a copy of my own for Christmas and re-read it many times. It was my favourite book for years.

8. An Old-fashioned girl by Louisa M Alcott - I'd read the 'Little Women' books, but came across this lesser-known teenage novel by the same author when I was about fifteen. I fell in love with it and have read it many times.

9. The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 3/4 by Adrian Plass - I first read this shortly after it was published in 1987, and it was the first book ever to make me laugh out loud on almost every page. It pokes gentle satirical fun at the silliness of some (all right, a lot of) Christians, and yet is incredibly thought-provoking at the same time. I became an instant Plass fan, and have read all his other books, but the first one (which STILL makes me chuckle when I re-read it) has a special place in my heart.

10. Dogger by Shirley Hughes. I first came across this when a friend's small daughter borrowed it from school - so although it's a children's picture book, I didn't actually read it until around 1990. She read half of it to me, and I read the rest to myself later; it was so lovely, it brought tears to my eyes. I bought it for my sons, and read it to them - difficult without choking up - and gradually they grew out of it. But it's one of the picture book I've kept, and when I got it out to read to small friends in the past few years, it made me cry all over again. I love all Shirley Hughes' books, but 'Dogger' is, I think, my all-time favourite picture book.

So - that's ten books, all of which influenced me in some way, all of which have reinforced positive character traits and the importance of family and friends. I think that's probably why they stood out in my mind; a couple of hours after writing the Facebook update, I think these are still the ten I would choose.

As I was writing my list, I did remember many other books that have been important to me over the years. As a child, I loved the Paddington series by Michael Bond, AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, books by E Nesbit, Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, and many more. In more recent years I've discovered and enjoyed the 'Sophie' series by Dick King-Smith, and the series starting with 'Saffy's Angel' by Hilary McKay. And I suppose if I want to be literal about a book staying with me, I should also mention 'I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew' by Dr Seuss, which I used to read nightly to my sister, and can still recite, pretty much, from memory.

But while I read and enjoyed all those books, and others, I don't think they affected me on a deep level as the ones on my list did. Having said that, I should give a special mention to 'Treasures of the Snow' by Patricia M St John; I first read that when I was about six and it had a profound influence on my life and my early Christian faith. It certainly affected me as a child, in a far-reaching way; but I haven't read it in a long time, and didn't think of it until I'd finished my list. Perhaps I should re-read it soon.

As a young adult, I enjoyed books by Georgette Heyer, and PG Wodehouse, and Rosamunde Pilcher; these were my stepping stones from children's fiction into books intended for adults, so they are significant in that respect; I've discovered many great authors in the past thirty years or so. But I haven't been influenced by fiction as an adult nearly as much as I was as a child. But then, my core values and beliefs were mostly formed by the time I was in my twenties.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

I've read two of your ten, and only "The lion, the witch and the wardrobe" would be on my top ten.

These are my highest rated:

Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the life of the world: sacraments and
Schmemann, Alexander. 2000. The journals of Father Alexander Schmemann
Williams, Charles. 1965. The place of the lion.
Garner, Alan. 1963. The weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Williams, Charles. 1964. The greater trumps.
Anonymous. 1989. The living God.
Garner, Alan. 1967. The moon of Gomrath.
Allen, Roland. 1962. Missionary methods: St Paul's or ours.
Aslanoff, Catherine (ed) 1995. The incarnate God (2 vols)
Baxter, Angus. 1987. In search of your British and Irish roots : a complete
guide to tracing your English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish
Caird, G.B. 1956. Principalities and powers: a study in Pauline theology.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1959. The brothers Karamazov.
Lewis, C.S. 1960. That hideous strength.
Schmemann, Alexander. 1969. Great Lent: journey to Pascha.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings.
Aulén, Gustav. 1965. Christus Victor.
Barbery, Muriel. 2008. The elegance of the hedgehog.
Conrad, Joseph. 1964. Under Western eyes.

But I wouldn't say they have all been most influential -- I've rated them as best of their genre, I suppose.

So on the desert island test, or most influential, it would be

Schmemann, Alexander. 1973. For the life of the world: sacraments and
Williams, Charles. 1965. The place of the lion.
Garner, Alan. 1963. The weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Williams, Charles. 1964. The greater trumps.
Allen, Roland. 1962. Missionary methods: St Paul's or ours.
Caird, G.B. 1956. Principalities and powers: a study in Pauline theology.
Lewis, C.S. 1960. That hideous strength.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings.
Aulén, Gustav. 1965. Christus Victor.
Williams, Charles. 1957. War in heaven.
Kerouac, Jack. 1958. The Dharma bums.
Lewis, C.S. 1952. Out of the silent planet.

So there you have it!