Books to Know Me By


I like the idea of a list of books that have meant so much to you that someone could read them all and understand something of who you were and who you are in a way mere words or explanations cannot convey. Which books have shaped you? A few of mine, in a vaguely chronological order and a by no means exhaustive list, as follows:

Dracula by Bram Stoker – I first read Dracula when I was six, and, as I remember, I was incredibly drawn to it even before then. I particularly liked the doomed Lucy, and the titular character, whom my young heart found hopelessly romantic. Peculiar, perhaps, for a six year old, but there it is.

Snow White, by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett – as an illustrator, Angela Barrett has no equal. Her images are sophisticated, complex, and astoundingly beautiful. They do not shy away from what is dark and haunting in tales, but even the darkest images are illuminated with the light of a glowing candle or cottage. This is the one book I keep with me no matter where I go, and I still look at it at least once a month.

Grimms’ Fairy Tales – the real ones, in which little boys are turned into deer and hunted down by dogs, toes are cut off and glass shoes fill with blood, and children are cast out into the wild by their parents. Grim, to be sure, but ever-hopeful, in a funny sort of way.

Everything by Edgar Allen Poe, but particularly The Fall of the House of Usher, which we listened to on tape on many a road trip. It still remains a favourite, and I re-read it just this week – my passion for literature about apparently sentient structures is unparalleled (see Gormenghast, below).

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman – written as the diary of a young medieval girl, this book never ceases to move me. It’s funny and clever and pensive, richly imagined and full of character. I re-read it every year.

Harry Potter – no doubt on such a list for a whole generation. I’m not sure I can quite convey or quantify the impact growing up along side these books had on my childhood. It’s not the magic that got me, but the simple moments – the daily life, he quiet glow of the common room and the majesty of the great hall, the classes and exams, the romances and friendships.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – although, to be fair, only really the first part set in Oxford, which is heady and youthful and captures some aspect of the magic to be found there.

Lolita by Nabokov – quite simply the cleverest book ever written in the English language, darkly humorous, hectic and absurd.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner – the crowning glory of all that is Southern Gothic, and profoundly impactful to a sixteen-year-old discovering stream of consciousness for the first time.

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake – it seems somehow wrong to even call this a book. It is the most weird, wonderful, creative, bizarre, beautiful story ever written. I can hardly even describe it because there is absolutely nothing else like it. It’s more like a place you become very lost in – at times frightening and sinister, at times sweet and lovely, always haunting and always astounding.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – my mother read this every summer, and now my sister and I read it every summer. It is subtle and moving, encapsulating everything that is a childhood summer, from excitement and potential, to fear and melancholy, to love of all kinds and a very real, scintillating magic.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – peculiar, wonderful, and the perfect Christmas story.

Moby Dick – I think the first few pages are the very finest beginning to any book I’ve ever read, but I even, for whatever reason, enjoy the long, academic chapters about the mechanics of whaling.

Which books have shaped you?

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