I met a friend for lunch the other day. Within five minutes of sitting down she was recommending a book I ‘really must read’ (Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, if you’re interested). I LOVE the feeling you get when you discover a book that’s SO good you can’t keep it to yourself, when it resonates SO strongly you know it will stay with you forever and influence your behaviour from thereon. I have another friend who I *suspect* rigged a Secret Santa draw in order to put Alexandra Schulman’s Inside Vogue on my lap for this very reason. No complaints here, more than happy to plead ignorant. Similarly, it drives my sister that bit further up the wall every time I see her and *still* haven’t read Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss (sorry B, I’m coming to it, promise). But it got me thinking, particularly as I’ve seen two blogs in the past fortnight with glowing reviews for Daisy Buchanan’s How To Be A Grown Up (another for said list): if I was to pick five books that have had the biggest influence on me since reading, what would they be?
I’ve read a lot books, fact and fiction, good and bad, but if you asked me for a run down of plots and summaries even a year after they’d been thumbed, I couldn’t tell you. My brain is a sieve. I don’t know why I’m so crap at remembering – same goes for films and plays: it doesn’t matter how much I enjoyed or was moved by something, nothing sticks. I can recall how they made me feel but, if you were to quiz me on chapter and verse, I’d fail miserably. Saying that, I’ve been teaching myself to speed read recently (much harder than you’d think: main principles involve not saying the words aloud in your head and consuming blocks and lines rather than individual words), so I’ve refamiliarised myself with some old texts. Okay, I cheated and found chapter summaries online too. Either way, I’ve come up with a list of six (tried five but I’m being brutal enough as it is), and I’m satisfied that these are the game-changers. All are non-fiction works because otherwise, well: too many, and while I can appreciate they might not be the most profound works in any given genre, sometimes books just come along at the right moment to shape your opinions, your personality or provide the right information at the right time to get you out of a hole (see Secrets of the Baby whisperer). That’s why I’ve selected these. Listed in order of consumption; here are my six. I’d be interested to hear what yours are too.
No Logo. Naomi Klein (2000)
Behold the college cliché. Before reading this book I don’t think I’d even heard the term globalisation. I certainly wasn’t politically minded: I was a 22-year-old fashion student who took absolutely everything I owned and did for granted. I’m not saying that immediately after reading I boycotted Nike, McDonalds or any of the big brands that Klein reviles as the enemy. But it made me start thinking about the bigger picture, conjured new awareness and the bubble around my sheltered, privileged life went pop.
Eats Shoots & Leaves. Lynne Truss (2003)
Anyone who’s noticed my appalling use of grammar will scoff and splutter at this choice. Thing is, I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. The furthest I got with English was my GCSEs. So, when after taking a degree in Illustration I somehow got a place on a fashion journalism Masters’ course, I had more than a little brushing up to do if I was to make a career of it. Whenever I find myself on the back foot I read. And after spending a fortune on text books that made my eyes bleed with boredom, I came across Truss and her ‘zero tolerance approach to punctuation’. In an amusing but anally retentive way, she explained everything I needed to know about where to put a comma (not that I’ve ever fully grasped it). But it clicked more than any of the others because she gives you real examples of bad language (not the sweary kind) and I still dip in and out now. Although I’ll probably never be able to fully explain an auxiliary verb or a past-participle, neither will I forget the panda that went into a cafe, finished his grub, fired a gun and left…
How To Be a Woman. Caitlin Moran (2011)
There’s no other book I’ve laughed out loud to as much. Part memoir, part big-sisterly advice offering, Moran’s observations of life from a female perspective have you screaming ‘me too!’ as much as scraping your jaw off the floor. I’d just found out I was expecting a baby girl when I read her chapter on feminism. Explaining that the need for equality has nothing to do with beating men down but bringing women up (and there is still a long way to go to balance the scales), she made me that bit more prepared for bringing a daughter into this world – even if her gruesome labour tales and masturbation stories didn’t.
Secrets of the Baby Whisperer. Tracy Hogg (2001)
Speaking of babbas, how I wish no one had ever uttered the words Gina and Ford to me. Stuck with a newborn that wouldn’t sleep anywhere but in a moving pushchair, a car seat or a lap, I turned to the super nanny’s strict methods out of desperation. Except, they didn’t work for us. And I’m glad they didn’t because a baby who only slept in silent, pitch-black conditions wouldn’t have suited our lifestyle either. Thankfully, someone recommended Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, which deploys a much gentler method of getting your baby into a routine. Promoting the ‘EASY’ cycle of Eating. Activity. Sleeping and You time, on repeat, I read it in the snatched moments I should have been resting. Fortunately, banking on short-term pain for longterm gain paid dividends. It’s the only baby book I would ever suggest to new mums and, although I was on the fence about including it here, it really did change my life, so it stays.
When Breath Becomes Air. Paul Kalanithi (2016)
Paul Kalanithi is 36 and dying of lung cancer when he writes this memoir. What makes it extra poignant is that he’s a neurosurgeon, so he’s acutely aware of how his body is failing him. Not only that, he’s a damn good writer because, before venturing into medicine, he took degrees in English, History, Philosophy and all kinds of clever stuff. Prior to diagnosis, his eternal mission was to understand the meaning of life. Ironically, this was only something he started to understand when his own mortality was in question. Head spinning stuff I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, but it’s not really. It’s honest and beautiful and it really does make you think about quality of life and survival. If you suggested I watch a weepy film about terminal illness, like say The Fault In Our Stars I’d run a mile, so I’m not sure what made me pick this up. Maybe it was hearing Paul’s wife Lucy on the radio talking about it; her uplifting tribute and togetherness was inspiring. His words changed the way I think about not just death but living.
The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. Sarah Knight (2015)
Lightening the tone for my last one, my most recent moment of enlightenment came with a pinch of salt. Although Knight’s manuscript is something of a piss-take, her advice isn’t to be sniffed at. When you become a parent your priorities shift. And while this book doesn’t necessarily focus on parenting, Knight’s theories resonated because, at the time of reading, I had a child about to start school and with that came a slew of new stuff that I was expected to give a f**k about. ‘Too many fu**ks’, as she puts it. But these particular f**ks were important ones, which meant I had less time and energy to devote to the kind of crap that bogs you down but are too polite to dismiss. Fortunately, the book told me how to stop being a people pleaser, stop humouring time wasters and distinguish between stuff I wanted to do and felt obliged to – all without being a prick. Deciding which things I genuinely gave a f**ck about was liberating. These days I’m much more ruthless about who and what get them.