*This list is accurate as of today and can, and probably will, change depending on the weather, my mood and what other books I remember.
I was going to write a blog today about my attempts to do the #100happydays challenge and my thoughts on whether happiness is necessary every day, but then I saw a friend posting about the 10 books that have stayed with her on Facebook and decided to do that instead.
The question she answered was: Which 10 books do we keep going back to? What fiction really made a lasting impression? And because I enjoy reading, and re-reading, books (and because apparently if I forget to take my meds for a day it really screws me up and writing about happiness when I’m coming out of that frame of mind isn’t perhaps the best thing to do) I thought it’d writeabout the ones that made a lasting impression on me.
I should probably point out that I’m going to keep this list to fiction, although there are plenty of books I keep coming back to for the PhD. Some of these I do it because I have to and others because I want to, and a nice chunk of the ones I’ve read are well written and interesting (to name a few: Fan Cultures; Show Sold Separately; Digital Fandom; Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet; ) but it feels a bit like cheating to include those in a list of 10 books I keep coming back to. Plus the question specifies fiction so there is that… Maybe I’ll write about my top 10 academic books another time. For now though, here are some books that have left a lasting impression.
Harry Potter (J. K. Rowling) – I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was at university, so some time after the first one was published. I can’t remember why I started reading them but once I did I was hooked. I know people will say that Rowling isn’t the best writer, but she creates a world that is easy to enter and be absorbed by. And it’s magical! Who doesn’t want to fly on broomsticks or turn themselves into a cat or cast a spell? I’ve written about the Harry Potter books and their paratexts a few times and I think one of the reasons they’ve left such a lasting impression is that there’s so much that can be read into them, and so much good that’s come out of them. Studying fandom it’s great to use Harry Potter as an example of what can be done. And it’s also one of the only book fandoms I read fanfic in. Harry Potter fanfic can be awesome and there are quite a few stories (especially post-war ones) that I’ve loved reading. I read the books usually once a year and it’s high time I started this year’s re-read again.
Discworld (Terry Pratchett) – My dad first got me into the Discworld. He started reading them when I was in school (I can’t remember how old but I got a Death and Binky birthday card for my 17th birthday) and given we share a similar taste in books I probably borrowed one off him and became pretty hooked. The earlier novels aren’t my favourites, but it’s really the witches that I love. From Equal Rites when we ask why, exactly, women can’t be wizards to I Shall Wear Midnight where Tiffany learns what true power is, we get our world thrown back at us with humour and sarcasm and the odd innuendo here and there. I love the Watch novels – the later ones anyway – and Vimes shows us legality and politics, but the witches show us ethics and morality and for me that’s more important. Plus there’s a character with the same name as me in the series.
Dandelion Wine (Ray Bradbury) – I first read this when I was about 16, I think, and I fell in love with it. Bradury’s writing is so evocative. He captures the feel of a 1930s Illinois summer perfectly, so that even though I’ve never been to Illinois, much less been alive in the 1930s, I feel like I’m there. It’s a book I read every year, usually in October when the nights are drawing in and the leaves are changing. For my 30th birthday my sister made me a present – a photograph she’d taken imposed over the page of Dandelion Wine that has my favourite quote on it, with leaves falling down the page. I can’t describe it very well so this is what it looks like:
It lives above my bed now and there’s not a day goes by without me reading that extract.
The Town That Died (R. L. Lee) – My dad bought this book years and years ago, and I remember reading it as a kid. It was self-published (which I didn’t realise at the time) and hard to get hold of and for years dad promised he’d buy me a copy but couldn’t get hold of one. He eventually did, about five years ago I think, and I read it again. Reading it the second time (after a BA and an MA in English) I saw a lot of flaws in the writing which made it almost unreadable, but the story itself is one that has and will always stick with me, regardless of the quality of the prose. Lee was a Chinese-Welsh boy who grew up in Merthyr Tydfil (the next valley over to mine) in the 1930s. The book is an autobiographical account of his life in the town, and the effect that the depression had on Merthyr, and the valleys. Growing up in a similar area, albeit in a different time, it’s so easy for me to recognise echoes of Lee’s life in my town, and the description of his grandmother’s increasing senility is heartbreaking. The book ends with his gran outside, telling her son (who died years before) to come down off the roof. Lee takes her inside and a few days later she passes away. I was already in tears by this point, but the book closes with the epitaph on his grandmother’s grave and that has stayed with me since the first time I read it:
Warm summer sun
Shine kindly here
Warm southern breeze
Blow softly here
Green sod above
Lie light, lie light
Goodnight dear Gran
For Love of a Horse (Patricia Leitch) – When I was a kid I was massively into horses (still am, just can’t afford them). I had tons of books on them, and I mean that almost literally. Me and my dad used to go for motorbike rides over to Hay on Wye and take rucksacks with our lunch in. After lunch, we’d fill them up with books we bought and I had horsey books by the dozen. I used to hole up in my old bedroom, before I had my own horse, and read them and imagine being able to ride whenever I like. When I moved I went through through the boxes that my mother had kept in my old room and found all of the books I used to love, including the Jinny and Shantih series. Jinny was a tomboy living in Scotland (I really identified with her. You’ll see a theme recurring later) and had a gorgeous Arab horse called Shantih. Unlike a lot of the other horsey books I read the Jinny series wasn’t about middle-class girls and their ponies. There was a lot of Celtic mythology (that appealed to my Welsh side) and Jinny often had to confront her own prejudices and faults, something you didn’t see very often.
Sandman (Neil Gaiman) – I feel like I’ve written loads about the Sandman series but it is one of my favourites and I keep coming back to it. I’ve written about it here but beyond what I meant to me reading it in terms of my mental health, it’s a damn good series! I love the Endless and Death is an awesome character. I also like the weaving of myths and legends into new tales and I think that’s something Gaiman does well in all of his works. Plus I adore Dave McKean’s art and seeing the elements combined in Sandman and its spin offs really makes reading them a pleasure. My half-sleeve tattoos are inspired by Sandman novels and if that’s not a lasting impression I’m not sure what is…
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – The trilogy had been out for a while before I read it and I was a bit put off, intially, with the first person narrative and the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta; it struck me as a little too Twilight-y in some places. But having read the series in the space of a weekend, I loved it. I love dystopian fiction anyway, but I like the fact that Katniss is a strong lead character and she’s female. That’s still unusual (even in the 21st century) and she’s definitely got all her wits about her. The more I’ve read it the more I’ve become to dislike the last book though, or more specifically the last chapter. I’ve got the same problem here that I do with Harry Potter – the author is interfering with my stories! There are some things I just don’t think we need to know, and what happens to the characters years after the story ends is one of them.
The Famous Five (Enid Blyton) – I spent much of my childhood reading. I was hardly ever grounded because it wouldn’t have been a punishment for me at all – it would have been far worse to force me to go outside to play. Along with books about horses I read Enid Blyton voraciously. I haven’t read her for a long time, and I’ve got the feeling that if I did now I’d be disappointed with the portrayal of lots of things, but I guess the books were written in the 40s and I read them as a kid growing up, so it’s hard to judge them in that respect. I read a lot of Enid Blyton but my favourite by far was the Famous Five series. I had a full collection in red leather, some of which had been my mother’s when she was little and some of which I’d picked up at second hand bookshops in Hay on Wye. I identified with George so much it was ridiculous. I was a tomboy when I was little and hated being a girl. Like George I cut my hair short and lived in jeans and t-shirts. I hated wearing skirts and dresses and loved it when I was mistaken for a boy. My parents didn’t so much, but I don’t think they knew what to do with me. Having George was like having a role model.
Little Women (Louise May Alcott) – I identified so much with Jo when I was a teenager reading this! In case it’s not obvious by now I was a huge tomboy and I hated, hated girly things and I spent hours absorbed in books or writing stories. To have a character something like me in a book like this made it connect with me all the more. The fact that Jo is touted as an “early feminist” and her behavior as “androgynous nonconformity” just made her resonate with me more. The copy of the book I had was given to me by a great aunt before she went into a nursing home. It’s a leather-bound copy with gold writing on the spine and colour illustrations inside, and it meant a lot that Aunty Margery would give it to me. I’ve got no idea how many times I read this book growing up. I haven’t read it for a long time but it sits on the fourth shelf up in my bookcase, next to Jo’s Boys (which I also read repeatedly but it hasn’t left me feeling the same way as Little Women). And of course when Beth died I bawled my eyes out.
The Snow Spider Trilogy (Jenny Nimmo) – This is a pretty recent one, as opposed to the rest of the books on this list (I mean recent to me, not a new book). I heard about the series when I met one of my best friends at university in 2000. She’d lived a lot of her life in Australia and read the books there, and they made her want to come to Wales. I’m Welsh and I’d never heard of them, but it forged a connection between the two of us that I’m forever grateful for. It’s weird, then, to have a book make such an impact without ever having read it. But for Christmas a couple of years ago my friend gave me her copy of the trilogy. I read it, and the series is about magic and growing up and Wales and hiraeth and home. And I loved it. But I loved even more that the copy I had was the copy my friend had had, and she thought enough of me to let the book go. That’s what I’ll always take from this book.
There are more books that left a lasting impression, but having re-read them recently I’ve been disappointed. The Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony is one of these. I read it as a teenager and remember loving how it played with time and religion, but when I read it again a few years ago the sexism in the pages put me off it. I wouldn’t recommend the books to anyone now, or read them again.