Last month, Mental Multivitamin issued a challenge to bloggers to compile “a list of ten books that reveals something about you […] ten books above all others that have shaped or even defined you.” Several have taken up the challenge, or offered their own twist on it, and I have read their lists with interest while thinking about what to include on my own (see: So Many Books, Book World, This Space, and Beggars of Azure).
It’s been an interesting exercise to ponder the books that have shaped me, and a great challenge to narrow the list down to ten. I’ve rambled on at some length about when and why I read each one and about their enduring influence on me. This makes for a rather unwieldy post, so I’m breaking it up into two: part one today, and part two shortly thereafter. I’ve listed the books chronologically, that is, in the order that I encountered and embraced them. The first five books take me up to the age of eighteen.
1. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery:
I was ten-years-old and living in Edinburgh. My dad was on sabbatical and we had decamped to Scotland for the duration. I loved Edinburgh but I was homesick. I chose Anne of Green Gables from the library shelf because it was a Canadian book. In fact, the book’s Prince Edward Island setting has more in common with the Scottish landscape I then inhabited than with the prairies that I had left behind. Nevertheless, if I didn’t recognize Prince Edward Island, I recognized Anne. Here was a girl with an imagination, who loved words, who had academic aspirations, and who wrote stories. Over time, I came to regard Anne as a bit too saccharine for me, and I never quite recovered from her adult abandonment of her literary aspirations. Emily Byrd Starr (from Montgomery’s Emily series) proved a more enduring writer role model. But it began with Anne.
2. Betsy and the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace:
I love every instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace’s ten book Betsy-Tacy series so it was difficult to pick just one for this list. There’s Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in which 12-year-old Betsy makes her first visit to her town's brand new Carnegie library and learns that she has to read good books if she wants to write them. There’s Heaven to Betsy at the end of which 14-year-old Betsy concludes that if she abandons her writing altogether for the social whirl of her new high school friends, her talent might wither. And there’s Betsy in Spite of Herself in which the recurring theme is “to thine own self be true.” But I’ve settled on Betsy and the Great World in which 21-year-old Betsy leaves behind her Minnesota home to spend a year alone in Europe. By this stage in the series, she’s sold a few stories and she’s beginning to find her voice as a writer. She sets off from Boston harbour in January of 1914 in search of adventure and story material. Betsy’s journey in this book, both literal and emotional, was a great source of inspiration to me. As a world traveller, an independent woman, and a writer increasingly dedicated to her craft, Betsy was a heroine to emulate.
3. Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe:
Man Descending was the first book of short stories I ever read. It was my final year of high school, and in the years leading up to it I’d read the odd short story from the literary anthologies that served as texts for English class. But Man Descending was my first sustained exposure and what a great place it was to begin. Vanderhaeghe is a brilliant writer and reading his stories sparked my lifelong love of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there gave his work added impact for me. It was a clear demonstration that world-class writing could and did happen right there at home. I was inspired and encouraged.
4. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy:
Immediately after high school graduation, I spent a month in Britain. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was my constant companion throughout the trip. I read very quickly so I must have read it several times over the course of that month. I was a very nervous traveller when I was young, but on that trip, as we moved from place to place, from the home of one set of relatives to another in disorienting fashion, my regular retreats into Tess’s world anchored me. I’m not sure that I can recall entering into a book as fully as I did into that one either before or since. There was also something extraordinary about viewing the English landscape through Hardy’s lens. We started off in southwest England, in the heart of Hardy country, and while the landscape made the book more authentic, the book somehow simultaneously made the landscape more authentic.
5. The Comforters by Muriel Spark:
I stole this book from my brother. It was required reading for a class he was taking on “The Modern British Novel.” I don’t think I made off with it until after he’d written the final exam; I hope not. I was immediately drawn into The Comforters by Spark’s wit and the sharpness of her use of language. But it was the meta-fictional aspect of the book that really dazzled me. The protagonist, Caroline Rose, suspects that she is a character in a novel. She hears voices narrating her experience accompanied by the clacking of a typewriter. She begins to copy it all down in a notebook. Is she the author of a novel or a character in one? The Comforters provoked me to think more deeply than I ever had before about how a novel is constructed.
To be continued…
I’ll list the final five in my next post.