After Jillian wrote her “personal canon” list (the books that have most impacted her), she asked me to do one too. Here it is, Jillian; I hope you like it. You did say that you like reading people’s emotional responses to books—so here I am, emoting absolutely all over the place. (There is a spoiler in here about Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in case anyone is concerned about that).
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I always include this on “favourite book” lists, but it’s true that it had an enormous impact on me. I picked this up a few years ago when I was in the midst of a period of incredible personal sadness. I have never read a better or more beautiful book about loneliness—it is particular pertinent when it discusses singleness in a church environment, which can be particularly hard because everything is always marriage and babies forever, rendering it impossible for childless spinsters to make meaningful friendships—even if you love being single as much as I do! It also helped me with something I have always struggled with, which is the idea of seasons, and moving on from them. The whole book is written from the perspective of someone who knows his life is ending. It is shot through with hope and melancholy and love; it points to God in every moment of every joy and sorrow.
Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome.
Here’s a thing: I am autistic. I was diagnosed a month ago, or assessed, or whatever you want to call it. When the nurse who did my assessment was talking me through my report, he commented that I have a much better understanding of sarcasm and subtle humour than I should, given my total social ineptness*. He chalked it up to the obsessive reading, and I am inclined to agree. I read books like Three Men in a Boat over and over again as a teenager, and I think that the way the narrator laughs at himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously had a huge effect on what I find funny—on my capacity to see something ridiculous in every day that passes, then laugh about it. I am inclined to be an earnest, serious person, and Three Men in a Boat in particular helped me to develop my sense of humour.
Fanny Herself by Edna Ferber. This is one of those books that I don’t talk about much on this blog, because in my heart of hearts I know it’s deeply and fundamentally flawed. It’s shot through with weird, uneven messages about equality and love and whether women really should be independent or not. However, I love it. I read it at the age of 17 or so, when I first discovered that the internet was full of little-known public domain classics. It captures, better than anything else I’ve ever read, the feeling of being a teenage girl burning with ambition—but trapped in a small community, confined by the way girls are meant to behave. Fanny’s world is claustrophobic and dull and lonely—and then eventually when she does burst out of her constraints, adulthood turns out to be filled with a new set of rules and constrictions—and, like all the best books, her journey ends at the mountains, surrounded by beauty.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I wrote quite a bit about my experience with this book here, but a summary: I find it very hard to force atrocities into my brain. When I went to see the trenches and the war graves with my school, I didn’t cry like my classmates, even though academically I knew I was looking at a colossal tragedy. Books like this tell small, intimate stories of people inexorably linked with tragedy. Seeing the ordinariness of the characters, linked with the extraordinary scale of their suffering, kicked off the empathy process in my brain in a way that learning facts and figures never did.
Wild Swans by Jung Chung. I think this is the first “grown-up” book that I ever read. Again, I’ve written about my experience of reading it elsewhere, but suffice to say that it really struck me, captivated me, and devastated me by turns. It was my first experience of knowing anything to do with history outside Western Europe, and I was constantly flummoxed when I remembered how recent it was. Chung was a student at almost the same time my mother was, but in a wildly different and more difficult environment. I have always, always been interested in the world outside the UK, but this started me off on the journey of realising how small we are, actually.
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Something I’ve written about quite a bit on this blog (and more posts scheduled on it soon)—but, like Gilead, this is a book that kept me company when I was lonely. It’s still the most compelling novel I’ve ever read. It also showed me how much I love writing. I have been writing short stories and poetry and songs since I could hold a pen (I have journals and lyrics dating back to when I was six), but participating in the online LOTR fanfiction community when I was a teenager showed me writing as a creative outlet in a way that I’d never experienced before. It solidified my love of writing—not only because I enjoyed spending my evenings making stories, but because Tolkien’s use of language is so superb that trying to emulate it was a joy in itself.
Rachel’s Tears by Beth Nimmo and Darrell Scott. Now, this book about one of the victims of the Columbine shooting, written by her parents, is troubling in a lot of respects. They publish many excerpts from her journal in a way that (rereading it as an adult) seems invasive to me. However, this book had such a lasting and positive impact on my relationship with God, and the way that I understand faith, that I can’t write a post like this in good conscience and exclude it. Although I had been a committed journaller for years when I read this as a young teenager, this book really helped me to understand journaling as catharsis and communication with God, simultaneously. The ability to pour all my thoughts and ramblings out has radically transformed my life—I read my teenage journals and cringe, but I also think my life would have been orders of magnitude more stressful had I been unable to write. Rachel’s Tears legitimised my scribbles and helped me to feel less self-conscious about them—and anything that made me feel less self-conscious about something, as a teenager, was clearly a plus!
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. Okay, here is another thing: I grew up in an environment where I did not see women being treated as equals. I did not see it in the church, I did not see it in the world, and I did not see it in my home. I deeply, truly believed that a woman’s greatest call was to quietness, prettiness, and shrinking submissiveness. I subscribed to all sorts of utterly toxic beliefs about gender and emotional labour and appropriate behaviour for women. I was crippled by guilt about my more “unfeminine” traits (i.e. most of them), doing my best to squish them. When I read Wildfell Hall, I was at university at a church with a very different culture, unlearning most of the things I had grown up believing. My copy of this novel states on the back that “Helen… slamming the door on her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England”. So it reverberated in my life. It dovetailed in with lots and lots of other things, but this depiction of an extremely devout woman nonetheless choosing to separate from her husband was a crucial step in realising that I have my value given to me by God, not men.
Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. Oh man, I loved these growing up and also now. I think I might have written this elsewhere on the blog, but these books gave me the life skills that I needed as a child to turn every setback into a fun new adventure. Because the characters in Swallows and Amazons are constantly telling themselves stories about the way their lives are, weaving together the facts of their lives into a narrative structure that is somehow exciting and far away and bigger than their childhood summer holiday—I don’t know; I feel like I still use that skill. When stuff is hard, I tell myself a story about it and turn it into an adventure with a discrete beginning, middle, and end. Thank you, Arthur Ransome. (Also, these are still some of the best books I’ve ever read. Not the best children’s books—the best books).
The Four Loves by CS Lewis. This comes with the GIANT caveat that everything Lewis says about sex in this is super weird and made me feel very grubby—but what he writes about the importance of friendship, about the necessary vulnerability inherent to all forms of love, about how each of my relationships is ultimately a partial reflection of the way God has first loved us—that was revelatory. I have the “to love at all is to be vulnerable” quote scribbled in the front of journals and on post-its on my walls, and on my heart. I am strongly inclined to shutter myself off and isolate myself from people who can and will hurt me. The reminder that God made Himself entirely and thoroughly vulnerable for my sake and yours, and the resulting bravery that gives me in my own friendships, has transformed and enriched my life immeasurably.
I am sure this will change over the years, though I imagine a few of these things will always remain on it. At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this post, which became much more personal than I had anticipated. Thank you for the prompt, Jillian!
*He used some much nicer word than “ineptness”.