This morning I dressed my kids up as Mildred Hubble and the Lorax (I even made a truffala tree!) to celebrate World Book Day. They are very happy and excited; the school have a children’s author coming in to give a little talk, and what’s not to love about dressing up instead of having a school uniform?!
My daughter remarked that I must love World Book Day because I love books. I quite like that, as they seem to associate me with books and reading. They are both very naturally drawn to books, and literally surround themselves with them by tucking their favourites into the sides of their beds instead of back on the shelves.
After the school run I came up to my desk and had a chance to think. My daughter is right: I do love books. I had, however, struggled to answer her follow up question: “Which one is your favourite?”
My first thoughts were an almost panicked and urgent need to start reeling off the latest scholarship I’d been reading, or to talk about which historians’ take on interwar education systems I appreciated the most. My knee-jerk reaction had entirely missed the point of today, which should be the glee of celebrating books and discussing how all children can have greater access to them. So perhaps this was a sign that I’m a little overwhelmed lately (and let’s be honest, I need to get a life!) and I should take some time out today to have a happier think about books.
I don’t and will probably never have A Favourite Book, but I do have favourites for a particular time:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker was a life-changing book for me. It forced my young, privileged and very white self to confront issues and realities that I had never considered possible. It’s an incredibly powerful book about a very powerless woman, and reading it as a teenager was a profound experience. Also, the prose style was something I had never seen before. I remember feeling completely absorbed by Celie’s letters as if she were confiding in me personally.
Bill Bryson’s Down Under was given to me by my Dad when I expressed a desire to move to Australia one day. I’d grown up in a different country to him, but he was not at all keen for me to move THAT far away, so he told me to read it in an effort to scare me about all the creepy crawlies there (the line, ‘The thing about Australia is that it’s full of things that want to kill you’ still makes me chuckle!). There were times when I had to set the book down as I was laughing too hard to continue. His observations were sharp and entertaining, and I went on to devour most of his other books over the coming years. I lost my Dad to cancer in 2011, and miss him a great deal still. Every now and then I pick up a Bryson book to read, as his sense of humour was identical to my Dad’s, and reading a book of his is like wrapping myself up in my Dad’s jumper.
The award for Most Un-Put-Downable goes to Suskind’s Perfume. How does an author write so deliciously about a topic so bone-chilling as kidnap and murder? I believe I read that book in one sitting, staying up later than I should just to keep the pages turning. The film is rubbish, don’t bother, but if you like stories that absorb you into them then please pick this one up.
My favourite ‘classic’: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The story of how and why it was written is almost as good as the book itself of course, but Shelley’s prose is a delight. The moral message was unashamedly fierce, and I felt the presence of a woman who had to spend a fair amount of time in the company of men with an eyebrow raised and an eye on the clock. She was too good for them.
Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, along with Kite Runner, were very engaging to read too. Again, Hosseini drew me in to a point at which I felt I was sitting in Mariam’s living room, willing her to not only survive but to somehow thrive. I was a teenager when 9/11 happened, and so the start of my political awareness was about confronting issues in the Middle East and what it meant to be a citizen of a country that was bombing another country. Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns introduced me to the real Afghanistan and what it had been, not the desecrated shell I saw pop up on the BBC news screen.
For poetry, I’m a Hollie McNish girl. Her honest, emotive and sweary look at parenting was nothing short of a life-line through my post-partum depression. I felt connected to another struggling mother through an invisible string found between her rhythmic syntax about breastfeeding and finding space for babies in a very anti-baby society. I met her at the Cambridge Literature Festival one year, and I almost cried when I stood up to tell her how grateful I was to her for writing the book I so desperately needed at that time.
Oh go on then, a history book to finish! Selina Todd’s The People was the first book on my undergrad syllabus that I read from cover to cover. Unfortunately her comments lately on trans people have been disappointing, but this book is worth mentioning on this list as it turned my head towards labour history. I was only looking for some quotable bits for an essay, but that was quickly put on hold as I much preferred to explore the whole of the book. Todd peppered scholarly insight with real people’s lives and experiences in a way that was completely seamless, and I put the book down with the strong feeling that not enough real people made it into the pages of texts books.
I’ll finish by mentioning the book that is currently sitting on my book shelf and faintly but firmly calling to me to read it. Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is about the lives of the women killed in Whitechapel in 1888, and although I’m really looking forward to cracking it open, I’ve told myself I have to finish my thesis chapter first. It’s been dragging on too long and I’m sure my supervisor’s patience will be running out fairly soon. However, once I’ve gotten over this particular hurdle, I’ll be gladly making space to read it!
Happy reading, everyone!