10 books that changed my life
From true crime to teenage heroes, a feminist business manual and of course my beloved Zadie Smith, these are ten books that have meant a great deal to me with brief (ish) explanations why...
1 I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” has got to be the best opening line of any novel, sorry Dickens, and it perfectly sets up I Capture The Castle which is both marvellously endearing and utterly barmy.
The Mortmain family live in picturesque poverty; their home is a dilapidated castle complete with moat. Mr Mortmain used to be a great writer but after a mysterious incident involving a bread knife and a brief spell in the clink, he spends his days barricaded in the castle tower completing cryptic crosswords, leaving his eldest daughter no choice but to hunt for a wealthy husband. Yes, it’s bonkers.
Yet it’s a fascinating book because while the first half is a rollicking ride full of delightfully eccentric characters and their laugh out loud predicaments, the second half is an acute depiction of the pain of unrequited love. The charismatic, youthful narrator Cassandra falls hopelessly in love with a man who does not love her back and at times it is agonising to read as she loses her innocence and learns the harsh truth of experience: you can’t always get what you want.
On a far less literary note, this book influenced my perfume. Ever since I read Cassandra’s description of a fancy scent in a posh London department store which smells of “bluebells but richer, deeper”, I was desperate to find it. I loved the idea of smelling like a bluebell wood just after the rain. I mentioned my quest to my father one day and he said, in an offhand manner, “Oh, she probably meant Bluebell by Penhaligon”. It is odd, the things people know. The next day I bought a bottle and have worn the perfume ever since.
To be honest, I’m not sure I even like the scent that much, but it reminds me of a book I like very much.
2 In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Have you ever played the elevator game? It is one of those grim “ice-breakers”: if you had to be trapped in an elevator with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?
For me, Truman Capote, without a doubt. I long to hear to that high pitched Tennessee drawl hiss gossip and anecdotes into my ear. He knew everyone - Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Cecil Beaton, the Vanderbilts - and was more than happy to dish the dirt. King of the put down, he pierced the hype around Jack Kerouac’s On The Road with one quip: “that’s not writing, that’s typing”.
But for all his bitchiness and vitriol - and there was lots - he was incredibly charming. How else could he, a camp 5ft4in Manhattanite, venture into a small farming community in deepest, darkest Kansas and befriend everyone, including local detectives assigned to a recent mass murder?
Capote did just that for In Cold Blood. Inspired by a 300-word story in the back of the New York Times announcing the murder of a family of four in their home in Holcomb, he headed there with his childhood pal Harper Lee to see if there was a book in it.
It consumed six years of his life and eventually broke him. He never completed another book and later said that if he had known what awaited him in Holcomb, he would have kept going “like a bat out of hell”.
So dark, so precisely written, In Cold Blood invented the true crime genre and opened up the possibilities of what journalism could do.
But it also illuminated a certain moral ambiguity. Capote was the original two-faced writer. The man who, as Zadie Smith described in her review of the film Capote, “knocks on your door with a smile, a pen and a shard of ice in his heart”.
I think of beautiful blonde Truman often, the master of self-promotion, who fled to Manhattan and wrangled himself a lowly job at The New Yorker when he was just 17. Dear Truman, the ultimate self-willed man, who never doubted that he was a genius, although he spelt it “genuis”, and channeled that spellbinding belief in self-transformation in Holly Golightly, the heroine of his novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
He is one of the rare writers whose talent backed up his egotistical bombast.
3 The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Some books should come with warnings, like the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker that used to appear on CD cases. The warning I would write on the cover of The Bell Jar is: If you are feeling at all blue DO NOT READ THIS BOOK, because honestly, The Bell Jar will tip you over the edge.
That’s part of its power. The novel follows Esther, a clever undergraduate, as she returns home for the summer and suffers a nervous breakdown. The brilliant and terrifying thing is that as the darkness descends upon Esther, it descends upon the reader as well.
It’s suffocating. The title comes from Plath’s metaphor for depression: a bell jar is a glass cover used to display an object of scientific curiosity. Esther lives in its airless confines, as she explains: “to the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream”.
Even when she has been “cured”, the bell jar still hovers over her head, ready to drop at any minute.
“How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”
Plath’s suicide at 30, a month after the novel was published, makes this symbol more sombre, sad and true.
Primarily a poet, she filled the book with powerful, vivid images. Beautiful Doreen’s hair is “cotton candy fluff”. Vodka goes “straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword”. And then there’s the oft-quoted passage about the paralysis of choice:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
I love The Bell Jar and I’m also a little afraid of it. It is not a book I return to often.
4 The Secret History by Donna Tartt *Spoiler ahead
I adored this novel when I was a teenager and raced through it at least six times, copying passages I considered especially brilliant into a notebook. Yes, I was that girl.
It had everything likely to appeal to an adolescent bookworm: murder, suspense, glamorous protagonists, sex, drugs, and gorgeous prose.
But I must face facts: The Secret History has to be one of the most pretentious novels ever written.
It is about an exclusive clique of aloof Classics students who mutter lines of Latin to one another, idolise their snobby tutor and stage a Bacchanal during which they accidentally kill a farmer, for goodness sake.
But even at the grand old age of 29, I cannot disavow it. Flicking through my battered copy while writing this, I discovered that the superb prologue still makes me want to cancel all my plans and curl up in bed with Tartt’s dark novel.
The line - “I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell” - will never not give me shivers.
So while I have (probably) grown out of my fervent admiration for this novel - I cringingly remember declaring it “the best book ever written” once - it will forever and always have a place in my heart and on my bookshelf.
5 Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
This is an odd one for the list because I only read it once and there are parts that I cannot recall without rolling my eyes.
It is a book that will date fast; that has already dated fast in the four years since its publication. The central premise - that women must “lean in” to the work place to get ahead and ultimately achieve parity with men - is deeply problematic. I know now that many industries have structures in place that ensure women cannot yet “lean in” - however much they strain forward, eager and willing.
But I also remember the eye-opening exhilaration of reading this book for the first time, nodding vigorously at Sandberg’s articulation of the inequalities women face at work and in the home, appreciating her refreshingly practical tips on how to squeeze around the boulders and make some room for yourself.
She pointed out that little girls who exhibit leadership qualities are often called “bossy”. It was how she was described as a child, and she was honest enough to acknowledge “there is still some part of me that feels it was unseemly for a little girl to be thought of as so… domineering”.
She explained that while few question whether men can have both a successful career and a happy home life, women are subject to the absurd pressure of “having it all”.
She wrote about how gender stereotypes, introduced in early childhood, become self-fulfilling prophecies:
Stereotypically, boys are better at math and science than girls… Stereotype threat discourages girls and women from entering technical fields and is one of the key reasons that so few study computer science. As a Facebook summer intern once told me: ‘In my school’s computer science department, there are more Daves than girls.’
This all seems old hat now but for a 25-year-old me, it was groundbreaking. Sandberg, CFO at Facebook, backed up her points with stats, studies and impressive candour. She admitted that she turned down the chance to study abroad because “a foreign country was not a likely place to turn a date into a husband”. She went instead to Washington, married at 24 and was divorced at 25. She added: “For many years, I felt that no matter what I accomplished professionally, it paled in comparison to the scarlet letter D stitched on my chest.”
While there are aspects of the book that make me cringe - its focus on white middle and upper class women who, if they have children, are married, and its insistence that women must address the internal obstacles which hinder them, perhaps overlooking the external obstacles - it did introduce me to practical, contemporary feminism. It’s not the bible I once considered it, but there is still plenty of gold to be found in Lean In.
6 Hamlet by William Shakespeare (duh)
I have a theory that everyone’s favourite Shakespeare is the play they studied at A-Level. When else do you get the opportunity to read and re-read one play over four months, pick apart scenes, analyse characters, themes, motifs and, if you went to my school, act it out with a pack of girls in a class room at the top of a town house in Harley Street? (My alma mater is a whole other blog post.)
While my friends may rave about King Lear, Macbeth or The Tempest, for me it has to be Hamlet.
It is an uneasy play, right from the very beginning, when it opens in darkness with a question: “Who’s there?” The answer of course is the spectacular ghost of Old Hamlet whose demand for vengeance sets the play in motion.
For the first time a piece of literature seemed to speak to me across the centuries. The whole of life was contained within those five acts. Even now, I find myself thinking “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” whenever I encounter a close minded belief or person. I still think of poor, dear, infuriating Ophelia, controlled by the men around her, so passive she does not even drown herself but lets herself be drowned in the irritatingly pretty pursuit of picking flowers beside a stream.
I didn’t just love the play, I loved Hamlet. The moody man in black who stalks the stage, grapples with his dilemma and either pretends to go mad or does go mad. Despite his crippling indecision, obvious misogyny - “Frailty, thy name is woman!” - and unhealthy interest in his mother’s sex life, I adored him. In fact, true story, I once went out with a boy because he “reminded” me of Hamlet. I sometimes worry for my teenage self.
Hamlet introduced me to the rhythmic beat of iambic pentameter and I found, to my amazement, that those duh-DUM duh-DUMs made quotations easier to remember in the exam hall. Lines from the play still rattle around my mind ten years after I last read it: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”; “when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”; “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Finally, it has one of the most convincing expressions of love I’ve come across, from murderous Claudius about his beloved Gertrude: “As a star moves not but in his sphere, I could not but by her.”
7 On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Oh, Zadie! What can I say about Zadie? Zadie the Great, Zadie the Wise, Zadie who changed her name from Sadie when she was a teenager because she had a thing for names that began with Z.
Zadie is my favourite. She is the only author whose books I will rush out to buy in hardback on publication day. I travelled to Edinburgh once because she was speaking at an event only to get starstruck and tongue-tied until my sister, who has no truck with “literature”, pushed to the front of the queue and said, “Hey Zadie, my sister’s a big fan of yours”, while I stood blushing and tittering like a shy schoolgirl.
It began with White Teeth, her first book, which I read while still at school. I didn’t know books could be like that. Sassy, articulate, wise, funny, moving - with swear words! “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway”- the opening sentence isn’t even grammatically correct! Yet I remember it all these years later and doesn’t it just trip off the tongue?
Her dialogue is a thing of beauty, her characters teem with life; she describes North London, where I grew up, as I have never read it before - i.e. as it is. The exuberance of White Teeth, its energy and verve, made me think: wow, this is what a novel can do!
A Zadie book will make you kinder; her novels pulse with benevolence. She’ll make you understand the lives and motivations of people you will never meet. In White Teeth, you watch a character tremble on the brink of becoming an Islamic terrorist and she somehow makes you feel for him. White Teeth was published before September 11 so Zadie was ahead of the times.
On Beauty is, I think, my favourite of her novels. I’m not going to summarise the plot, partly because a Zadie book is never about the plot. It’s about the characters, the place, the way she renders the world in pretty, playful prose.
I still dive into On Beauty from time to time and read a scene here, a scene there. My current favourite line comes as a character is about to cheat on his wife who he loves with a girl who he does not.
'Kiki’, she said suddenly. And how awful the corruption when you hear the name of your heart in the mouth of the person you are about to betray her with!
8 The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger
Introducing the number one literary crush: Holden Caulfield, the original rebel without a cause, the public school reject who hates “phonies” and goddamn “hot-shots” and cannot be bothered with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”.
Holden Caulfield is The Catcher In The Rye. Unlike other novels with a first person narrator, The Catcher In The Rye is utterly reliant on its intoxicating protagonist with every scene, every character filtered through the mind, attitude and slang of the eternal adolescent, a Peter Pan figure who cannot or will not grow up, who bristles at the idea of life being a game with rules because “if you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right - I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it?”
It’s a gloriously teenage sentiment but somehow I find the novel just as powerful as I get older. It stumps me. I know it’s a masterpiece, but I can’t quite figure out why. I can’t work out how Salinger did it.
Nothing much really happens. We simply follow Holden as he spends a dizzying few days free in New York after his expulsion from his latest fancy boarding school. It is mesmerising. I haven’t reread it in years but I vividly recall Holden’s old hunting cap , his love of the Museum of Natural History because “everything always stayed right where it was”, and his plaintive question, echoing throughout the novel: when the lagoon in Central Park ices over where do the ducks go?
Not many books make me weep. None of the novels on this list - with the exception of the final entry - have made me well up. But I will, without fail, blub like a baby at the end of The Catcher In The Rye, when Holden has to ask his beloved 10-year-old sister Phoebe if he can borrow the pocket money she has saved up to buy Christmas presents. Of course Phoebe says yes and presses it into his hands which makes me cry harder.
I fell in love with Holden, who is funny without intending to be, exaggerates constantly, hates anything “perverty”, and has a childishly rigid view of the world where everything is black and white and “big shots” and “phonies” are the enemy. His refusal to compromise and “play the game by the rules” is admirable, but also heartbreaking.
9 The Opposite Of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
I was working in a lovely bookshop on Marylebone High Street when The Opposite Of Loneliness was published. The manager of the shop devoted a whole window to it.
I was surprised. The cover was a photograph of the pretty, smiling 23-year-old author in a yellow duffel coat. The book was a collection of her short stories and essays most of which had appeared in her university newspaper. It came with a sad backstory: Keegan had been killed in a car crash just five days after graduation.
The whole thing seemed a little maudlin and I had no plans to read it until a copy turned up in the pile of free books in the shop’s back office.
I am so glad. The Opposite Of Loneliness is a beautifully written collection by an incredibly precocious author. The stories are well-crafted and imaginative, but it was the essays that really affected me.
They weren’t like the stuffy essays I had read before. They were gloriously off-beat, quirky and personal, but they showed you something you didn’t know; they meant something.
One is a six-page love letter to Keegan’s car. It has been the venue for romantic beginnings - “he slid his hand into mine for the first time when we got off the highway” - and romantic endings - “my car listened to me cry for all twenty-two-and-a-half miles home”. It is where she practised for auditions and college interviews and where she displayed her politics, decorating the back side windows with Obama stickers and “Republicans for Voldemort” badges.
Another essay details her Celiac Disease with a masterful opening:
On my deathbed, I will instruct a nurse to bring me the following: a box of Oreos, a bag of Goldfish, a McDonald’s hamburger, an assortment of Dunkin’ Donuts, a chicken pot pie, a Hot Pocket, a large pepperoni pizza, a French crepe, and an ice-cold beer. In my final moments, I will consume this food slowly and delicately as I fade to oblivion.
In I Kill For Money, Keegan shadowed a pest exterminator called Tommy Hart, who had the unfortunate habit of swinging dead mice by the tail in front of his face before stuffing them into his pouch. By the end of the essay we learn that Tommy, despite his initial enthusiasm for his job, is actually deeply embarrassed by it when he says, “It’s just like, no one wants bugs around, so no one wants me around.”
Keegan taught me that an essay can be about whatever you want it to be about. Hers were the first essays to make me feel: goodness, I wish I’d written that. And then: I’m going to try to write something like that.
10 Middlemarch by George Eliot
Often when I say Middlemarch is one of my favourite books, people wrinkle their noses remembering it as a dry novel full of dull morality that they were forced to read at school. Or worse, perhaps they think of it as one of those books you say you enjoy to make yourself sound cultured and clever.
But Middlemarch is magic. I read it for the first time when I was 16 and tore through its 688 pages in five days, propelled by a desire to discover what happened to each of its many characters. I decided that Dorothea was a bore and I idolised dashing Lydgate, the talented doctor who wants to do great things and help people but finds himself trapped in a terrible marriage to dreadful, vain Rosamund.
I picked it up again in my twenties and it was as though I had a different book in my hands. Dorothea wasn’t a bore at all - she was a heroine, a woman who wants to do good and does, by the book’s end, manage to do it. Lydgate, who I once considered so marvellous, was an arrogant man who married Rosamund because, despite all his talent and wisdom, he could not see past her pretty face.
This is the magic of Middlemarch: it changes each time you read it because you have changed. The next time I come to it, it will once again be a different book because I will be different.
Zadie the Great described this strange shapeshifting quality far more articulately in her superb essay on the novel. She wrote:
But then, Middlemarch is a book about the effects of experience that changes with experience. It gets better as you age, being, as Woolf knew, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. Jane Eyre is understood by the fourteen-year-old as effectively as by the forty-year-old, possibly better. Surely few fourteen-year-olds can make real sense of the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamund.
Middlemarch is a book for life, which will change each time you read it because the years have changed you. I cannot say that about about another novel on this list and that is the genius of George Eliot’s masterpiece.