Sunday, 31 July 2011

Seven books that changed the way I see the world

The idea for this post is shamelessly pilfered from SaintEvelin and Bobbi L. Newman’s blog posts, which immediately made me try to work out which seven books changed the way that I see the world! Thank you to both of them for such inspiring thoughts on the topic, and I hope that they don’t mind that I have written my own version.

I’ve found it quite difficult to select my books. As an avid childhood and teenage reader, an English Literature graduate, and now an embarrassingly lapsed reader who rarely finds the time to read fiction, but still enjoys it, I have read a lot of books. I think that most of them have changed the way I think about things in very tiny, subtle ways and that, collectively, the books that I have read have shaped the way I see the world. It’s a challenge to try to pick out the ones that have had the most individual impact, and I am sure that there are more than these seven.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne
I can’t remember how old I was when I first read this, but I was young – maybe eight years old? I’m pretty sure it was the first book that I ever read that could be classed as “science fiction”, and it totally grabbed me. I had been reading non-fiction books about volcanoes from the children’s section of Kingstanding Library in Birmingham since I was about four or five years old, and was absolutely fascinated by them (those of you who know me will know that I remain a frustrated wannabe volcanologist to this day!). The idea of journeying to the centre of the earth, via volcanoes, exploring the Earth’s core, and what might be found down there (I won’t tell you in case you haven’t read it – go and read it!) was an amazing one to me, and this book boosted the vivid imagination that I had as a child. It sparked an interest not only in science fiction, but also in the possibilities of real-life exploration of our planet, and reinforced my desire to have a job playing in volcanoes when I grew up! I re-read it several times as a child and I think another re-read is long-overdue, particularly as I hope to visit one of the volcanoes featured in it in the not-too distant future. It also introduced me to the work of Jules Verne, much of which is excellent, though this remains my favourite.
The Chalet School series, Elinor M. Brent Dyer
I’m cheating a bit by choosing a whole series rather than a book, but there is no one particular book that I can pick out. It was the books near the start of the series, when the school was based in Austria, which most had an impact on me. I read them as a child and they introduced me to the European continent, sparking an interest in the countries and the languages. I was fascinated by the multilingual nature of the school and its pupils and staff, who came from all over Europe, and who were expected to be proficient in multiple languages; the school had two English, two French and two German days per week, where teaching and conversation were to be done solely in that language (on Sundays they could speak whatever language they liked).  I learnt my first bits of basic French and German (words for greetings and meal-times etc.) from these books, and couldn’t wait to start learning the languages properly at secondary school. Sadly, when I got there, I didn’t in the end take to German, but I loved French and Latin, and have, as an adult, started trying to pick up Spanish. I really believe that my love of languages and desire to visit different European countries first came from these books. Towards the end of series, the school is based in Switzerland (it had to move around several times due to circumstances such as the Nazi Party coming to power – these books really engage with the context of the time in which they were set). When my first ever opportunity to travel abroad arose when I was 11 years old, it was to go to Switzerland – I remember being hugely excited, in part because the books made it sound beautiful (I wasn’t disappointed).

Buxton Spice, Oonya Kempadoo
This is another book which sparked an interest in another area and culture of the world. This was the first book that I read during a module on Contemporary Caribbean Women’s Writing during the first year of my undergraduate degree. It is set in Guyana, and really evokes a sense of place. Since reading it, and subsequently other books from Caribbean countries, I have been fascinated by the Caribbean. After this module, I originally planned to do an MA in Postcolonial or Caribbean Literature and then a PhD in the same subject; obviously, that hasn’t happened, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of it ever happening. The interest in the Caribbean aroused by this book has affected my reading choices, my own writing, and has added a load of countries onto my list of places to visit. Prior to reading Buxton Spice, I didn’t have much interest in visiting the area – I thought that all there would be to visit were the usual holiday resorts – but since then I have had my eyes opened to all the possibilities of places to explore there. For me, having plans to travel and a travel “wish-list” enriches my life, and so this is why I would say this book was life-impacting, by adding to my list.

1984, George Orwell
This was the first dystopic novel that I read, and it prompted me to seek out more of them. I am fascinated by natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes etc etc!), the various dangers to us that are out there in Space, and I always like to consider the worst-case scenario when it comes to the destruction of society or the planet (I’m not sure what this says about me!), so dystopic literature really appeals to me. This book changed the way I see things because it demonstrated to me the power of the creative human mind to predict a possible future, or a worst-case scenario which science doesn’t always consider. When I was at university, my housemates who studied sciences predictably asked what the point of studying literature was. My reply was that writers, good ones, have the ability to predict a possible, likely future, based on their perceptions of what has happened in the world so far, and their ability to take these and imagine how the future might develop. Writers can see and consider things that scientists might not, and 1984 is an example of the power of imagination to look ahead into the future. While the scientists were busy developing technology (an important thing to do, of course, I’m not saying it isn’t), writers such as Orwell were thinking about the development of society.

Ariel, Sylvia Plath
A collection of poetry rather than a novel, but I feel it still counts as a book. Ariel inspired me to start writing poetry properly. I’d always written silly little poems throughout my childhood, and then songs during my teenage years of wanting to be Alanis Morissette. When, as an older teenager, I read this collection of poetry, it really showed me how writing poetry is a delicate, difficult craft in itself, and absolutely not the easy alternative to writing prose. It made me realise that writing poetry is not a case of scribbling down some words when inspiration strikes; you have to sit down and work on it, re-write over and over again, constantly question the effectiveness of the images and the impact of the words. It is hard work, but a well-written poem can have a massive impact on the reader, as do most of the poems in this collection. After realising this, I began to write poetry that was actually alright. I’ve let my writing slip in recent years, but I will go back to it, and when I do I will pick up Ariel again, as a reminder to myself that I will need to work hard.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
This maybe didn’t change the way I see the world in general, but it changed the way I see literature. I read this during my first year at university, and was completely blown away. It is the perfect novel. Absolutely perfect, in the way that it is written, it the way that it deals with different layers of themes, in the images and the sense of time and place. I cannot believe that Mary Shelley was only 18 years old when she wrote it, because it is just phenomenal. I have read many amazing books before and since, but none of them have struck me as another example of a perfect novel. I recommend you read all of the books on my list, if you haven’t already, but if you only choose one, make it this one.

The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler
I picked this up for £3 from Musiczone (remember Musiczone?!) when I was 15 and first interested in feminism. It felt a bit rebellious too, buying and reading on the bus a book with “vagina” in the title! Any childish thoughts like that, however, disappeared when I read the book. It made me realise that the vagina is actually a far more complicated thing than just a bit of the body; it symbolises a lot, and talking about it can be funny, sad and enlightening! This book developed my interest in gender and feminism – it’s probably the first thing that made me decide to define as a feminist, and feel able to explain why - and I have read it many times since. It has also boosted my confidence in talking about gender and feminism. Last year I performed in the stage version of The Vagina Monologues at Sheffield Students’ Union, and that too was life-impacting; being involved in the text and one of the people who brought it to life for an audience was an amazing feeling, and everyone who I spoke to who attended absolutely loved it and had a great time. 

Writing this post, and reading the posts that inspired it, really demonstrate the power of books! I’ve also enjoyed writing this very much; perhaps I should write about literature more.

What do you think? Did you have a similar experience with any of the books I’ve chosen, or did they leave you cold? What books have changed the way that you see the world?


  1. I loved the Chalet School books too! Jo inspired me to learn as many languages as possible and I blame my French and German A-Levels on her... I now read lots of other old children's books thanks to the Girlsown discussion group on Googlegroups. Do come and join us and talk Chalet School!

  2. Another vote for the Chalet School books! I'm trying to collect them all. Loved reading this, I want to write my own now!