So. As many of you have probably guessed, I read all the damn time. I read everywhere – in bed, on the train, while cleaning my teeth, while going down stairs (not recommended), while helping my dad paint a fence and while eating my dinner, which explains why so many of my books are covered in paint flecks and curry stains.
But not all books are created equal. The vast majority of the books I’ve read I’ve forgotten about, or disliked, or experienced that special kind of apathy which is way worse than actually hating something. But there are some books I’ll always remember. Sometimes I will look back over my long history as a reader and see distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases in the way I think and the type of things I seek out. Some books leave marks.
These are mine.
- The Witches by Roald Dahl
This was my favourite book when I was about six years old and the most goffik little child you ever saw. It was the first ‘scary’ book I can really remember enjoying, and I’m not really sure why – for some reason, the idea of seemingly-normal women ripping off wigs and gloves and masks to reveal their terrifying faces was kind of amazing to me, instead of horrifying. I had it on tape, read by a man with a very sinister British voice who may or may not have been Richard E. Grant. All I’m sure of is that even now, nearly twenty years after throwing that tape away, I can still remember the way the narrator says “Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.”
- Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary
This was another book I read at the age of about six or seven, and it sparked a lifelong love of history. For those of you who aren’t aware, this is part of the Horrible Histories series – a series of short history books aimed at kids that highlight all the really gross bits of history. This was the first one I read, and for years afterwards I was obsessed with ‘The Curse of the Mummy’, even though the book went to great lengths to make it clear that it wasn’t real. Horrible Histories was a hugely important part of my childhood, and I read them all until I was well into my teens. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t picked up Awful Egyptians, I wouldn’t have ended up doing my history degree.
- Greek Myths, Retold and Illustrated by Marcia Williams
Another childhood favourite. This was the first book of myths and legends I remember reading. It was a fairly sanitised version of the classical Greek myths, illustrated with silly little cartoons which I can still picture really clearly. I don’t remember much about the way the actual stories were told, unfortunately, as I was really small when I first read this one. However, after I read this book I spent the rest of my primary school years reading all the books of myths, legends and fairy tales that I could get my hands on. To this day I’m still really interested in folklore and mythology, and I can trace it all back to this book.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
I’ve already touched on my love of the Harry Potter series before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail here. Suffice to say that I read it as a slightly older child and continued well into my teens, and it completely dominated my childhood. My relationship with the series has changed as I’ve got older, and I don’t see it in quite the same way as I did, but there’s no denying it was a hugely important part of my life.
- Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Picture this. It’s the mid-2000s and my snotty teenage self is having a crisis: I’m on holiday, but I’ve read all the books I brought with me. The only solution is to drive my family mad. In desperation, my dad finds an English-language bookstore, grabs a Terry Pratchett book (“No, you’ll like it”) and presses it into my hands. I loved it, and I never looked back. This was the moment that ‘proper’ fantasy as a genre unfolded for me – at this point I’d already read Lord of the Rings and had felt kind of shut out by it. I read this book and a door unlocked. It’s not my favourite Pratchett book now, but it is one of the most sentimental, because I can still remember the moment it all fell into place when I was reading it.
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
This is another teenage darling of mine. Growing up I wasn’t really allowed to read horror – I got nightmares really easily and my parents didn’t want to make it worse. Obviously, this ended up triggering a massive secret horror phase, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I persuaded them to let me read Dracula because it was a ‘serious’ book, and read it on holiday at the age of about thirteen. I was completely spellbound – and to be honest, I still am. There’s something about the novel which keeps pulling me back, and I find the idea of an ageless, immortal being adrift from his own time utterly fascinating. My copy is falling to bits and still smells a bit like chlorine and suncream, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
This book taught me the value of the slow burn. Again, I read this one as an impatient teenager, and I found the book incredibly frustrating until I was about halfway through. Then, it got weird. When the twist was revealed, I saw the entire book in a completely different light. It completely blew my mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed the way I read. Without it, I never would’ve looked at half the books I now consider favourites.
- To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I really love this book. This was another novel that took a while for me to get into it, as I read it when I was a bit too young to appreciate the set-up of the first part. But as I got older, and read it again and again, it kind of blossomed for me. The more I read it, the more I discovered. Over the years it’s become a book I really lean on when I’m finding things difficult, and I’ve really grown to appreciate its bittersweet mix of hope and despair. I’ve listened to the audiobook when I was writing my dissertation, and in the aftermath of a very sudden death in the family, and every single time it’s an incredible source of comfort for me.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This is one of those rare books that I have to cuddle after I finish, it breaks my heart so exquisitely. I don’t usually go in for stuff set around the Second World War, as it’s not one of my favourite periods of history – I often find war fiction either very depressing or far too simplistic. But The Book Thief paints a vivid picture of life in Nazi Germany and the ways people resisted it, and in a way that isn’t exploitative or sensationalist. It stomps all over my feelings every time and I still keep coming back for more.
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I absolutely loathe this book, as I have repeatedly made clear. But there’s no denying it had a massive impact on me. I first read it at the height of the Twilight craze, and the first time I breezed through it in a few days and enjoyed it. But then, I read it again – and this time, I slowed down and actually thought about what I was reading. And I hated it. This was the first book that made me stop and look at things critically and engage with the text on a deeper level. I’ve never looked back! My experience of Twilight was by no means positive, but it encouraged me to be a critical reader and actually think about the mechanics of plotting and prose. Credit where credit’s due: I never would’ve started up this blog if it wasn’t for Stephenie Meyer.
And there you have it! It was really hard keeping this list down to ten books, but I managed it without crying once. It’s by no means set in stone. Ask me again in ten years and it’ll be completely different – but that’s one of the best parts about reading.