As I highlighted in my previous post, writing is difficult right now for a lot of us. I want to thank everyone who responded with their own stories of how they’re struggling to write too; there’s a sense that we should just keep quiet and pretend we’ve got projects all simmering away when in fact, the truth is a lot harder to swallow. Admitting you can’t write during the COVID-19 crisis isn’t weak – it’s normal. And for those of you who are managing to write, please keep doing so and sharing. We need art now more than ever.
I thought I’d lighten things up a bit by reflecting on the top ten books that have shaped and inspired me as a writer over the years. Perhaps it’ll cause you to agree with me, or reply with fierce disapproval (“what do you mean that was a good book? It was the first thing I used as toilet paper when all the Andrex disappeared from the shelves of Asda!”), or inspire you to pick up one or two of the titles to keep you entertained during the long weekends in lockdown.
So, without further ado, here are my top ten (in no particular order. They’ve all contributed).
1. Matilda, Roald Dahl
How could I not open with Matilda? Roald Dahl was the first author to get me into ‘proper grown up books’ (ie. books that weren’t actual picture books, although Quentin Blake’s illustrations continue to delight me).
Matilda loved books. She devoured them, one after the other, with all the fervor and wide-eyed greed of Eric Carl’s charming The Very Hungry Caterpillar. She loved learning, and had a little bit of magic about her that gave her power over all the people who misunderstood her and tried to bring her down. Yet she never conformed to her TV binge-watching family, nor did she silence her voice, no matter how little she was.
To my primary school-aged self, she was a hero and taught so many readers to be unafraid to be your true self and be heard, even if other people want to silence you into being unremarkable.
2. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas
I remember asking for this book for Christmas when I was seventeen. I had a college friend who proposed that we set up a poetry club and wanted Dylan Thomas’s Love in the Asylum to be the first poem we read.
That lunch hour we spent unpicking it, line by line, was where I fell in love with Dylan Thomas’s work. That ending. That perfect, perfect ending.
“And taken by light in her arms at long and dear last
I may without fail
Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars.”
It remains my favourite Thomas poem to this day.
3. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
This was another college read. I’d recently fallen head over heels in love with her electrifying Ariel collection (more on that later), and had heard so much about The Bell Jar. I was going through a tough time mentally, and was told it could be triggering.
But I plucked it off the shelf anyway and spent every free lesson devouring it while sitting in the college library, with only the distant laughter of other students echoing from the corridors and the soft click of computer keys surrounding me. I barely noticed. I was there, with Esther Greenwood, on that beach. The imagery gives her away as a startlingly good poet; the experience of depression documented with razor-precision.
“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
It was a book that shook me to the core, and one that ended up quoted on one of my ankle tattoos. I’ve returned to it many, many times since.
4. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is another I’ve returned to over the years. Narrated in Celie’s dialect, it is direct and unflinching in a way that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you into seeing the world through Celie’s eyes – the brutality, the injustice, and the hope that still burns despite it all. Raped repeatedly by the man she calls ‘father’, Celie has two children taken away from her, is separated from her beloved sister Nettie and is trapped into an ugly marriage.
The glamorous Shug Avery is hard not to fall in love with, her blossoming friendship with Celie a powerful example of strength and sisterhood in a story haunted by poverty, segregation and abuse.
Beautifully written and affecting.
5. Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
Autobiography of Red is a strikingly original, gorgeously written, and often poignant coming-of-age reinvention of the myth of the tenth labour of Hercules. Familial trauma, heartbreak, exploration of sexuality and skin-prickling imagery make Carson’s verse-novel a must-read for anyone who craves that rare treasure of a book that persists in the mind long after the last page is turned.
There’s one particular poem within the sequence that has Red waking the day after a break-up, and describes that slow, gut-wrenching realisation of events that’s so painfully true during times of grief. That image of him sobbing at the kitchen sink, fist in mouth, utterly crushed as the realisation sinks in again absolutely shattered my heart.
A remarkable book.
6. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
As an English Literature graduate, people expect you to be most mesmerised by the language of Shakespeare.
For me that moment came with Chaucer. I’ll never forget my A level teacher first reading aloud in Middle English and creating pure magic – the language, the sounds of the words, the bubbling rhythm and cacophonous array of characters.
I still return to the sounds of those tales through audiobooks, taking pleasure in the way the language skips over the tongue as the stories unfolds in all their beautiful old chaos.
7. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
Oh, Markus Zusak. I’ve not met a single person who’s read this book who wasn’t reduced to tears despite being told of the inevitable ending on page one.
Death is such a gentle, warm, and ultimately surprising character, narrating the story of nine-year old German girl Liesel, living with her foster family on Himmel Street during the dark days of the Third Reich. Forbidden friendships, growing familial bonds and the threat of danger underpin this terrifically-written book, with characters that are so believably crafted that you can’t help but let them live on in your mind long after the final page is turned.
Probably one of my favourite quotations all time:
“The Book Thief – The Last Line
I have hated the words and
I have loved them,
and I hope I have made them right.”
8. Crossing the Water, Sylvia Plath
Although her widely-acclaimed Ariel first got me into Plath’s poetry, it’s Crossing the Water that I return to often. These poems were also written at the exceptionally creative period at the end of Plath’s life, and contains one of my favourite of her poems – and one that I think of as peculiarly underrated – In Plaster.
I remember reading that poem and feeling ‘seen’, as I so often have done when reading her work. Yet none so much as this one, an excerpt of which reads:
“She doesn’t need food, she is one of the real saints.
At the beginning I hated her, she had no personality —
She lay in bed with me like a dead body
And I was scared, because she was shaped just the way I was
Only much whiter and unbreakable and with no complaints.
I couldn’t sleep for a week, she was so cold.”
9. The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Mitch Albom
This is a glorious, heartwarming joy of a book that follows the life and death of a man named Eddie who is killed and sent to heaven, where he encounters five people who had a significant impact upon him while he was alive.
Every character in this book is written beautifully; the style of the narration almost fable-like in its simplicity.
One that will remind you quite simply to treasure every relationship you have, learn from every lesson, and hold onto what really matters.
10. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is the story of the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island in New York during the roaring twenties.
Some of the characters are not instantly likeable, yet the way they’re described and the narrative itself is superbly told – for all their wealth and glamour, Jay Gatsby and the others remain unfulfilled, hungry to satisfy a very human need for love.
Try reading this without being able to taste the drinks, feel the clip of your shoes against the polished floors, or smell the sweet aroma of manicured lawns. This is immersive, sumptuous writing that carries more than appears on the surface.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”