Undoubtedly, many people read simply for entertainment and escapism without a thought for whether they particularly like, or agree with the central protagonists.
For me however, a good book, and in particular the characters in fictional narratives, can rattle around my head long after I’ve turned the last page, as I try to make sense of the emotional responses, actions and comeuppances of those whose lives I’ve inhabited for several weeks.
With this in mind, here’s my list of the top five books which have influenced my thinking, or inspired me in some way, particularly when the going’s got tough:
1. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
This key A level text made a huge impression on me as a shy teenager desperate to cultivate an air of sophistication and confidence. The main protagonist is a naïve but head-strong young woman holding her own in a man’s world. The novel charts her personal growth as she contends with the trials and tribulations of running a big farm and a tumultuous love- life, each knock back teaching her a valuable life-lesson. A true heroine, flawed and yet, self-knowing. Bathsheba Everdene, I salute you.
2. The Whole Woman, by Germaine Greer
As a young woman in my twenties and in all honesty, in hot pursuit of men, the notion that I might be a feminist was faintly ridiculous – didn’t they burn their bras and have dodgy haircuts? Needless to say, as press officer for Nottingham Trent University I was required to report on a lecture she was giving and was so buoyed up by the experience I swiftly went out to buy her latest book. Although I don’t fully embrace all of Greer’s opinions, The Whole Woman made me question things I’d never considered before about women, gender and equality.
3. Lovely Green Eyes, by Arnost Lustig
This gripping story centres on a teenage girl sent with her family to Auschwitz. Using her red hair and green eyes as cover, 15 year old Hanka poses as an Aryan to gain work in a German military brothel. Her unfaltering self-preservation and cunning enable her to escape death. This was quite a harrowing read, but Hanka’s survival reminded me of the immense strength, dignity and unfaltering hope of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. I can recall reading this at a particularly trying time in my early married life, dealing with family and financial problems, and realising how insignificant my woes were in comparison to those living through wars or persecution. Humbling.
4. Eat, Love and Pray, by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book, which preceded the no doubt smaltzy film, heralded a fresh mind set for me during a very difficult period of hurt and confusion about what direction my life should take following my separation. Very few of us can go to such great lengths to find inner peace, but like Liz, learning to allow myself to step off the treadmill and ‘just be’ has been hugely restorative.
4. Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, by Maya Angelou
I chanced upon this book earlier this year, whilst I was struggling to juggle my demanding job and look after (single-handedly) my young daughter. Maya’s lessons on life are poetic, humourous and forgiving of human fallibility. Her guidance is as much about loving thy neighbour, as the importance of self-preservation and dignity. Take this nugget: “Whining is not only graceless but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighbourhood”. Sage words indeed.
So dear book lovers, now it’s your turn – which books have inspired you, helped inform your life philosophy or given you succour when you needed it?