There have been a few memes going the rounds detailing books that have been influential in people's lives, and I've been wondering how I would be able to narrow down my lists of special books to 5's or 10's, and have decided it would be impossible. Every time I think about it, the titles of other, now-almost-forgotten, (but back then, highly important) books swing into my mind, and they've been swirling around, so I thought, without anything as organised as a list (since blogger has inexplicably dumped bullets, numbers and colours for text recently, anyway) I'd jot down some of the books that have been important for me.
I owned books as a child - Heidi, The Child's Garden of Verse, Book of Irish Songs, Anne of Green Gables, The Tale of Mrs. Tiggywinkle, Tarka the Otter... all special, all read, re-read, recited from, sung from. Illustrations were traced over, and traced over, but all these books, beloved as they were, were relegated to second-best the day I discovered Enid Blyton. - My eleventh birthday, I went to my Grandmother and Aunt Imelda's house for my Tuesday piano-lesson. Auntie said "When we've finished the lesson, there's a surprise on top of the TV for you" I played my scales and arpeggios all at top-speed, and slid from the piano-stool, haring into the next room to claim my prize. "The Secret of Spiggy Holes". Ah. It was like falling down a rabbit-hole and landing in a magical kingdom, in which I could become the sixth of the Famous Five, the fifth of the Four On A..., I devoured her books with an insatiable appetite, believed no-one would ever write a better book, and I simply cannot understand that she has gone out of fashion with young people. How can any eleven-year old not be entranced? Mystery.
But, time passed, and other books did begin to present themselves. Dickens, the complete children's classics - I began to read just whatever I could lay my hands on, so that at age thirteen, there I was, feet tucked under me on the kitchen rocker, when my father passed by, spotted my read of the moment and blanched - "Should you be reading that?" I turned my book around, scanned the cover - and said "Yes. Why not?" He couldn't come up with a tactful reply, so said nothing, and I went back to my book, with renewed interest, now that he'd given me to believe there might be something spicy in there for me. Gone with the Wind didn't quite live up to the expectation he'd kindled, but it gave me a taste for big, big books. Walter Macken and Tolstoy followed - War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
By fifteen, other things were claiming my attention, and the books that I carried around took a philosophical turn. The Little Prince, The Prophet, The Renewal of Civilization. Dog-eared, beloved. Spike Milligan - Puckoon, Small Dreams of a Scorpion. Flann O'Brien and his anarchic, off-beat, clever, clever humour. Then along came Tolkein - Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, followed by Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books. What do they call it? Fantasy? Yes, yes, yes. And then, Small is Beautiful, Diet for a Small Planet... and feminism. Betty Freidan, Germaine Greer - The Female Eunuch! Life-changing book - made me realise it wasn't necessarily my fault if a relationship broke up, and in fact, there was no onus on me to agree to "Still be friends" with someone who'd just broken my heart. (Thank you, Germaine!) My fiction taste-buds were fed by James Michener, Leon Uris.
There follows a blank-spot. I was reading - I know I was reading - but I can't seem to recall now what were the books that really mattered in my twenties. Maybe I was distracted - marriage and motherhood will do that to you. Breast is Best and Penelope Leach's Baby and Childcare were on my kitchen shelves. Ok. Confession. - And a mix of Fay Weldon, Maeve Binchy, Roddy Doyle, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Arthur Hailey. Once more, anything printed in black on a white page, that could be read without too much effort, in the moments between feeds, changes, feeds and changes.
And then, as my energy was gradually returned to me and to my mind, simultaneously, along came Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker... And since then, along have come Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Paula Meehan, M. Scott Peck, Julia Cameron, Fritjof Capra, Carl Rogers, Natalie Goldbarg, Rebecca Wells, Fannie Flagg, Pat Conroy, AS Byatt. I've been enthralled by The Lovely Bones, The Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time , struck by memoirs, lucky enough to hear some wonderful writers read their work, and speak about their writing process. I sit in a room with books on three walls. Books are my companions. Little piles sit on surfaces in every room except my bathroom (I'm funny like that - Have too much respect for books!) There have been times I feel embarrassed because what I'm reading isn't considered "quality", but now, I'm just glad to be reading when I can. I don't find it easy to read a lot of fiction these days. My mind wanders away somehow, but I trust that's a temporary thing. I think it will come back, and in the meantime, a poem, a snatch from some familiar book is like a brief chat with an old friend, enough to keep me going, enough to remind me that I am never alone. There are always books.