My life in books

I love books.  This blog could actually have had a different subtitle: rather than ‘one woman’s quest to create a life of one’s own’, it could have easily been ‘one woman’s quest to create more storage space for books’.  I am not alone in this passion: although reading is largely a solitary occupation, books are one of life’s great shared experiences.  That’s why it is so magical to hear a primary school teacher reading aloud; it is one of the few times when the bond created by a good book is so clearly & obviously shared.  I still get a thrill thinking of Mrs Fuller reading ‘James & the Giant Peach’ & I still occasionally try – to no avail – to recreate her amazing New York accent for the pair of bystanders who feature towards the end of the book.

I love the way that books can actively influence one’s mood.  When I look back at my life, memories are often punctuated by a particular book & corresponding emotional response: age 16, bawling my eyes out at Wuthering Heights while sat on a beach in France with my family; age 18, during a post-break-up mini-break of freedom, frightening myself reading The Haunting of Hill House on a train between Sheffield & Liverpool; aged 22, crying with laughter reading Frank Skinner’s autobiography having been to Leeds to view my new home for the first time (this was also on a train; maybe I should further investigate the train/book/emotion phenomena…). 

Books also punctuate my life in terms of phases.  Like romantic relationships, a book will come into my life & I will fall in love with it; I will think it is the best book I’ve ever read & no book will ever be better or more suited to me.  I force everyone around me to listen to how great this book is.  I think I am the only person to have ever felt that way ever about a book.  It’s not just love – it’s destiny that we’re meant to be together!  Inevitably, though, the glow fades.  My wandering eye is tempted by another title & before I know it, another love affair begins…

Often my strongest relationships with books begin during a period of particular angst on my part.  These books tend to be united by a theme of gender & voyages of self-discovery – a point that has only just occurred to me.  I guess I’m looking to them for answers to my many questions.  I’m also quite fatalistic about these books: I don’t go looking for them, they all just seem to appear in my life.

Fear of Flying, Erica Jong: I’d never heard of this then read two references to it in one week.  I took that as a sign.  I was 14 or 15 at the time; it was hugely influential on me, even though I almost gave up after a few pages – it seemed too rude to me then.  Probably because of this early influence, I still love this book.  I now find Isadora slightly grating, but the yearning for freedom still speaks to my condition.

Appetites, Caroline Knapp: the cover caught my eye from across a crowded bookshop.  I bought it & devoured it in one sitting, stood leaning against the bar in my then-local.  A bystander commented that they’d never seen anyone eat Cheddars & drink cider without having to take their eyes off the page.  I loved this book so much that I bought a pile of copies & sent them to friends.  I’ve had mixed reactions from the people I’ve lent it to, but all I can say is that I was profoundly moved by her account – this is someone who feels how I feel was a revelation to me.  I was not alone.

Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf: again, this moved me to tears, simply because it reached out & touched me.  Actually, it grabbed my heart & my mind; Woolf named those feelings & experiences that existed only on the outer reaches of my consciousness – reading this short essay, I knew those encounters to be true for me too.  Whatever my thoughts on her other work, this piece convinced me of her genius – and also, crucially, of her human fraility.  Her sensitivity to the nuances of quotidien existence spoke to my soul.

The Treehouse, Naomi Wolf: my dad passed a copy of this to me when I had my breakdown.  An inspired move on his part: I can’t actually summarise what this book is about, except to say the meaning of life.  Brilliant.

The Wonderful Weekend Book, Elspeth Thompson: this just seemed to find its way into my hands.  It appears to be an simple book of good ideas for doing things at the weekend, but an amazingly refreshing ethos on life glows like a beacon from its pages.  I adore this book & another by Thompson.  I was deeply saddened to hear of the author’s death earlier this year – it haunted me somewhat, as it occurred in the week that I had made a simnel cake using her mother’s recipe & little chicken egg cosies using her pattern.  A sad coincidence.  I like to think I’m doing my small part to keep her legacy alive; a copy of the book is winging its way to a friend right now, hopefully to help & inspire her on her quest in life. 

And the latest: Your Name Written On Water, Irene Gonzalez Frei.  I’m not sure how this came to my attention, but it has.  Books like this just seem to come along as I need them.  Once more, I find myself somewhat shocked about how explicit a book can be (perhaps I’m just more naive than I think I am!).  But in between the raunchy sections there are passages that read as if someone has been spying on my journal, although the prose is far more eloquent than my own ramblings on life & love…

‘And at the time I was still on the lookout for the man of my dreams.  With that feverish anxiety of illusions destined for frustration, I had long been searching for him: down the streest of countless cities, in high school, in casual flings, in sordid, exultatn screws, in close friends, in the eyes of some stranger who caught my eye on a crowded streed.  Mine was a passion with no object, an absurd, obviously conceited pursuit.  The idealized outer shell of what passion should be.  It was an idea of love that I had created, and was focused entirely on myself.  It took the shape of all my desires & the oscillation of all my uncertainities.’

I’m sure others will join this list of signficant books in my life.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve temporarily forgotten, & others still that will enter and leave the list according to my emotional and intellectual needs and desires.  But one thing will remain: the power of books to make me fall in love, both with them & with life itself.

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