Reading

10 Books that Changed my Life

Collage of life-changing books

There’s a great meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment, where people share their 10 life-changing books. I’ve loved seeing the diverse range of books my friends have included in their lists – you all have great taste!

My friends and fellow writers Penni Russon and Becky Goddard-Hill both tagged me to take part, and while I haven’t shared mine on Facebook (frankly I didn’t think even my immediate family would have the patience for a post from me 10 days in a row), I did share them over on my bookish Instagram account (@ruthreadsbooks).  I posted my last book this morning, and then thought it might be worth collating them into a blog post.

I would love to know your own choices – feel free to leave me a comment below!

1. The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. In my final year of high school, I had a fantastic English teacher who introduced our tiny class of six to Carol Ann Duffy. We read Anne Hathaway from this collection, which is still one of my favourite poems. The World’s Wife was my first, gentle introduction to feminism and the moment when I realised how many stories have another side to them – so often a woman’s perspective – that is never told. It took a good few years more before I started to intentionally change my reading habits to include more women writers, but I’m still grateful for the ‘ah-ha’ moment this book prompted in my late teens.

2. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. This was another book I first read at high school (didn’t we all?!) and remains one of my absolute faves. He’s one of the few old white guy writers that I still have a real soft spot for, and when my husband and I moved in together and combined our book collections this was the only one we doubled up on. I didn’t get it AT ALL the first time I read it, I thought it was just a cute story about a kid hanging out in New York, but another excellent English teacher pushed me to read a little harder. It was the first book that taught me that it’s okay to question the reliability of a narrator, and. it’s a comfort book that I return to and re-read at least once a year.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Inspired at least in part by Colin Firth, this was the first ‘classic’ book that I can remember reading. It was the first time where I felt the plot and the characters were worth ploughing through the slightly archaic language. The other book I remember reading around the same tine was Tess of the D’Urbervilles (also after seeing a TV adaptation) but that one made me furious and upset. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice in years, but I did recently read Longbourn by Jo Baker which tells the same story from the perspective of the servants, and it really added to my enjoyment and understanding of the original.

4. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. This is an important book because it marked my first genuine rebellion as a teenager (there weren’t many of them!). I was forbidden to read the book but did anyway, buying a copy and stashing it in my room, reading the whole thing just a few pages at a time over many weeks. It was a fashionable book at the time because of the film adaptation but I was less interested in that than I was in the words – the wonderful written dialect – and I memorised large chunks of it, turning the sounds over and over in my mouth. It’s the only Irvine Welsh book that I’ve enjoyed.

5. Venus As a Boy by Luke Sutherland. I remember reading this on a train from London to Edinburgh (and when I pulled it off the shelf last week it still had the train ticket as a bookmark!). It’s a staggeringly beautiful book, I’m quite astonished that Luke Sutherland didn’t become a far more successful and well known writer. I think this one has stuck with me because it defies categorisation. Is it a prose poem, poetic prose, or something entirely different and wonderful? I re-read it at least once a year and still don’t have an answer.

6. The Sopranos by Alan Warner. I LOVE this book, and Alan Warner ranks in my top 3 favourite writers of all time. He has an astonishing ability to write realistic, rounded, young female characters. This was the first time I read a book that felt – at least in part – like it was reflecting my life back at me. He absolutely captures the nuances of living in a Scottish coastal community, the hierarchy and politics of school age girls, and the heady feeling of freedom that comes when small town teenagers are let loose in the city.

7. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. I read this book in my third or fourth year of university, as part of an English Lit module called Western Fictions. It was unlike anything I’d read before, and probably the first book I’d encountered as an undergraduate that pushed me outside my reading comfort zone (in a good way). Needless to say, I am utterly bummed to find out in the wake of #MeToo how problematic Sherman Alexie is/was. This one will be staying on my shelf, but I won’t be buying any of his others. Top of my reading to-do list for this year is seeking out books by other Native American writers.

8. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. I hadn’t realised until I pulled this off the shelf that it features another of my problematic faves – Kevin Spacey – so I guess I’ll be turning this copy in and exchanging it for one which doesn’t have a movie cover tie-in. The Shipping News is a beautiful book, infused with such a vivid sense of place and complicated, layered characters. It was the first Annie Proulx book that I read and remains my favourite. I’m not a novelist, but this is still the one book that I credit the most with making me want to write.

9. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. From the moment I discovered I was pregnant right up until the present day, I’ve devoured books about motherhood. I’ve always found memoir and poetry much more enlightening than any parenting ‘manuals’ – perhaps because the only truth about parenting is that there is no right way to do it. Creative non-fiction doesn’t even pretend that there is. Two of my faves are The Blue Jay’s Dance by Louise Erdrich and Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, but it was this book by Rachel Cusk that changed my life most profoundly because of its raw honesty. It was the book that gave me permission to admit that even with a much loved and wanted child there are some days, especially early on, that are horrific and hard. Reading that was much more helpful than anything I read by Gina Bloody Ford.

10. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I had an amazing run a few years back where I read this, The Night Circus by Emily Morgenstern and The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness in quick succession. Any one of those three books would be a worthy inclusion in my Top 10, but this is definitely my winner. This is my Desert Island Discs book: I think it is absolutely perfect. I don’t read a lot of genre fiction – I like my books fairly firmly planted on the ground – but this has just the right balance of reality and apocalypse. every time I read it I’m reminded of how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful world.

So that’s my Top 10. Or at least, it’s my Top 10 for this week… I suspect you could ask this question again in a year and elicit an entirely different selection!

Let me know your own favourites in the comments below – what books have changed your life, and why?

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