Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Seven books that changed the way I see the world


A while ago I read blog posts by Rachel Bickley and StEvelin on Seven books that changed the way I see the world, originally inspired by Bobbi Newman’s post on the same topic. Now that 23 Things is over, I’ve been thinking about what my own choices would be. It was a tough decision, but I’ve finally come to a conclusion.


The Story of Holly and Ivy – Rumer Godden
I first read this book when I was about five and found it on the bookshelf in my infant school. It made such an impact on me that I tried to track it down on Amazon twenty years later, having still remembered the story after all this time.

The book is about a lonely orphan girl called Holly and how she wishes for a grandmother to love her and a doll of her own. Put on the train to a children’s home one Christmas, she ends up in the little village of Appleton, where Christmas doll Holly waits in the window of the toy shop hoping for a little girl to love. Meanwhile, Mrs. Jones prepares for Christmas, all the time feeling that Christmas is a time for children and wishing that she had a little girl of her own.

This is a lovely story about Christmas, magic and wishing. It strongly influenced my view of Christmas and the sort of books I liked to read afterwards – books with a bit of magic in them, even if it’s implicit.

The Doll in the Garden – Mary Downing Hahn
I came across this book while I was in primary school. Though I absolutely adored reading as a child I wasn’t incredibly adventurous – I read a lot of Enid Blyton for example – but took this book out of my local library as part of the Summer Reading Challenge.

The story is about a young girl called Ashley whose father has recently died. She and her mother move into a house next door to a rather unpleasant old woman, Miss Cooper. While exploring the garden, Ashley and her new friend Kristi find a doll buried in the soil, along with an apology note. Following a ghostly white cat that appears in the garden, Ashley travels back in time to the early 1900s and finds the owner of the doll, a young girl called Louisa, who is seriously ill with consumption. Back in the present day, Ashley and Kristi discover that their neighbour Miss Cooper is the person who stole the doll all those years ago and have to try to persuade her to return the doll to Louisa, hoping that this will help her get better.

This book is excellent in the way it explores grief, jealousy and relationships, dealing with adult themes in a way children can relate to. It made me think about all of these things in a way I hadn’t before, and the memory of it stayed with me all these years. As with The Story of Holly and Ivy, I managed to track down The Doll in the Garden on Amazon recently and enjoyed re-reading it from an adult point of view.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
This one’s probably a bit of a cliché but I first read this book when I was about eleven and really related to the heroine. I really admired Jane and tried to model myself on her. I think she is inspiring in the way she maintains her self-respect and determination even though she is completely alone in the world. I have to admit that I have never expected a Mr Rochester-like figure to turn up and carry me off, although I maintain that Edward Rochester could wipe the floor with Fitzwilliam Darcy.

His Dark Materials Trilogy – Philip Pullman
I first read this trilogy when I was about fifteen, around the time the final book, The Amber Spyglass, was released, and absolutely loved it. As well as telling a fantastic story, the books tackle important subjects like religion, philosophy, quantum physics and the nature of the soul. One part that made an enormous impression on me was the part towards the end where Will and Lyra end up in the world of the dead. I loved the idea that when you die the most important thing is to have a story to tell – about something you’ve done or something you’ve learned – to show that you’ve lived. This genuinely influenced my outlook on life.

I can also thank The Amber Spyglass in particular for my interest in poetry. At the beginning of each chapter there is a quote from a poem or play and I took great pleasure in tracking down the ones I didn’t recognise, which in turn led me to a greater exploration and understanding of poetry.

Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
I absolutely love Thomas Hardy’s books, even though most people I know can’t stand him. In Jude the Obscure, the title character Jude Fawley faces a number of hardships including being unable to attend university owing to his working-class background, difficult relationships, and other tragedies I won’t go into in case I spoil the story for those who haven’t read it. Jude is my favourite of Hardy’s novels, though it’s also considered his most depressing. I think this is why I like it so much, although I’m not entirely sure if Hardy appeals to me because of my pessimistic nature or whether his books influenced my pessimism. In any case, I sometimes feel like I do have a bit of a fatalistic attitude to life which was probably shaped by his books, especially this one.

The Seagull – Anton Chekhov
The Seagull is a play not a book, but I’m including it anyway – I do actually have the text in book form, though I’ve also seen it performed three times. It is set on a Russian country estate and peopled with a rounded cast of characters. The younger characters have different ambitions and dreams. Konstantin wants to write plays, but his innovative work meets with bafflement. Nina wants to be an actress, but her family is opposed to the idea and she has to sneak out of the house in secret. The older characters have unfulfilled dreams and regrets of their own: Konstantin’s mother Irina is a fading actress, while Trigorin is a writer who is slightly scornful of his own middlebrow novels. Irina’s brother Sorin, meanwhile, spends much of the play lamenting the mistakes he made while young.

Love triangles and emotional undercurrents form the backbone of the play but it was the different reactions of the main characters to tragic events in their lives that really struck me. Konstantin and Nina in particular deal with things very differently and I found their actions and behaviour alternately saddening, inspiring and thought-provoking. I won’t say any more for the sake of those who haven’t read or seen the play, but it made me think about my own attitude to life and how I deal with things.

Antarctic Navigation – Elizabeth Arthur
I wasn’t sure whether to include this book or not, seeing as I only read it a few months ago. However I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I discovered it in a moment of serendipity – it caught my eye while I was browsing the shelves in my local library and I thought it looked interesting.

In short, Antarctic Navigation is about one woman’s mission to visit Antarctica and trek to the South Pole. However it is so much more than that. Covering the first thirty or so years of the heroine Morgan Lamont’s life, it is a kind of Bildungsroman in the tradition of the great Victorian novels. You learn about her childhood, the beginning of her interest in Antarctica, and her obsession with Robert Scott which eventually prompts her to try and recreate his doomed 1912 expedition. The descriptions of the harsh Antarctic landscape are vivid and the history and science of the area are woven into the story in a fascinating way. The story has quite a modern sensibility as it carries the awareness that the continent is under threat due to human activity and the fragility of nature. Antarctica itself also becomes a kind of symbol for the unknown, and the book’s title is a kind of metaphor for exploration both externally and inside of you – this is much more beautifully done in the book than my clumsy explanation suggests.

It’s a sign of a good book when you don’t want it to end and feel bereft when you close it for the last time – particularly when the book is eight hundred pages long. Before reading this novel, I had a passing albeit largely unexplored interest in Antarctica. Now, I have a wishlist of books about the place and really want to learn more.


These books are among my favourites, but I do have other favourite books which I wouldn’t necessarily put on this list. It’s interesting that I read four out of the seven while I was a child – I wonder if you are less likely to have your viewpoint challenged or shaped as an adult. Do we lose the capacity to be strongly influenced by literature as we get older?