Author of The Copper Promise and Folio Membership Secretary Jen Williams discusses the five books that have had the most impact on her.
A while ago on Twitter, looking to speed up a tedious bus journey, I asked people to tell me which books had meant the most to them. I stuck a hashtag on it (#meaningful5) and people took to it with gusto, partly, I think, because I wasn’t asking them to nominate the best books, or the ones they have on prominent display on their bookshelves to make them look clever, but the books that mean something to them personally. The hashtag filled up with lots of interesting, surprising entries, and I added a considerable number to
my 'books to read next' list. Being the sort of person who likes to start these conversations and then remain tight-lipped about my own difficult choices, I never quite got around to elaborating on what I would choose, so here are my own Meaningful Five, complete with rambling justifications:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I write fantasy books, so this might be a slightly obvious choice for me, but I suspect that most people have a watershed book – the book that made you fall in love with reading – and Tolkien’s sprawling epic of hobbits, orcs, and secrets in the deep was that book for me. Up until then I had always enjoyed reading, certainly, but I rated it about the same as other favourite activities – colouring in, running around the garden being a unicorn, eating fish fingers etc. When ten year old me picked up a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring it swiftly transported me to another world, and suddenly reading was the best thing ever. I read a large portion of it for the first time on a caravan holiday in Dymchurch; while the rest of my family took part in the traditional holiday activities of trying to put up windbreaks on the beach and losing all their money in the fruit machines, I went off with Frodo and Sam, and part of me never came back.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This was my second watershed book. I was a couple of years older by this point, slightly too young to have seen the TV series or to have heard the original radio version, and I happened to pick up an extremely dog-eared copy from a retirement home where my Auntie Pauline worked. I never gave it back (many apologies). If The Lord of the Rings gave me reading and adventure, Hitchhiker’s gave me humour and wit, and a glorious love of avoiding responsibility. I read the first book and the follow-ups over and over, finding something different each time I read them, and Ford Prefect became something of a lifelong hero of mine. There’s no other book quite like it, and I will forever be thankful to Douglas Adams for upgrading my sense of humour at exactly the right time.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson
Sometimes books mean a lot to you and you not even sure why. I read some of the Moomin books as a child, and remained very fond of Tove Jansson’s strange world throughout my adult life, buying more Moomin merchandise than I care to admit. Then just this Christmas my partner bought me a copy of Moominland Midwinter, one I hadn’t read before, and I sat and consumed it throughout most of Christmas Day. It instantly became one of my favourite books of all time. It’s melancholy, and beautiful, and laugh out loud funny in places. The descriptions of Moomintroll waking up too early and exploring the house in darkness, slightly frightened and deeply curious, were incredibly familiar; as children we’ve all woken in the middle of the night to find our cosy homes changed by the darkness, with even your toys and bedclothes edged with a mild sense of threat. Eventually Moomintroll finds friends in the strange land of winter and makes it through to the spring, although at great cost to Moominmamma’s jam cellar. Despite his frustration and fright and inability to ski, you know by the end of the book that Moomintroll has enjoyed his unexpected adventures, and is a better moomin for them.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Like a lot of small children, I was a big fan of everything pony-shaped as a child – particularly those ponies that came in unlikely colours and featured in lurid castle-shaped play sets. My mum, very sensibly, decided that the animated film of The Last Unicorn would be the perfect afternoon’s entertainment for me. I adored it, even though large sections of it scared me silly (just like my other favourite film at the time, Watership Down). There was the terrible harpy, and the Red Bull itself, relentlessly driving the unicorns forever into the sea, and worst of all, the talking skeleton with the red eyes (I was very small). To my shame, I only read the book for the first time last year, and I immediately fell in love. The book had everything the film had, because the film was actually quite a faithful adaptation, but it had more: wry humour, a sense of a world moving on, and probably my favourite love story ever. Schmendrick and Molly’s relationship never takes centre stage; instead, you see their initial dislike turn into respect, and then into devotion – all in the background as the other events play out. Reading The Last Unicorn was like being given a piece of my childhood back.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
It’s difficult to know what to say about this one. If I talk too long about We Have Always Lived in the Castle I will have to reveal how much empathy I feel for Merricat Blackwood, and given that she’s a potentially delusional and reclusive young woman with murderous overtones, I’m not sure what that says about me. Shirley Jackson’s more famous book, The Haunting of Hill House, asks whether Hill House is truly haunted or if Eleanor brings the ghosts with her. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is less ambiguous: it is not the long since murdered Blackwood family that haunts the house, but Merricat herself, with her instinctive magical rituals and fierce defence of her beloved sister Constance. This is a darkly funny and insidiously disturbing book, with the most delicious of unreliable narrators, and one I immediately knew I would read again and again – there’s something particularly special about a book that holds a mirror up to the reader and reveals things that perhaps you would rather not see.
So those are my Meaningful Five. As with all such lists, it can change frequently given my mood or the time of day, but I think these books will always be close to my heart. The big question is of course, what are your Meaningful Five? And can you narrow it down to just a handful?