Jessica Bakkers, after reading Mae Clair’s post at Story Empire, posted about five books that had, as she put it, made her, ‘her’. There is no way on this earth that I could pick just five books… not unless it was five per decade… Or five for every facet of life…
There were always books. Hundreds of them…everywhere. I was free to read any of them as soon as I could master the words… even if understanding the concepts would only come much later. That childhood access to books creates something special on the pages of imagination, and I would find it impossible to choose just a few to span a lifetime. Impossible too to select just a few that defined and shaped the person I know as ‘me’. But there are a few that stand out, way above the rest, as hugely influential… and of those, I would say the most important ones were those I met in the earlier years of my life.
By the time I came across Tolkien, for example, I was already hooked on books. Miss Bedford, our teacher, read The Hobbit to a class of rapt nine-year olds. I remember it well, mainly for Smaug, and at the barest hint of something ‘other’ that it held… a ‘something’ I would only begin to understand in later years, when I read Lord of the Rings as a teen, but which only really began to reveal itself when I read The Silmarillion.
I will never cease to be astonished by the vastness of Tolkien’s creation. Not only are his books masterpieces of storytelling and world-building, the sheer attention to detail is stunning. Everything links back to the history of Middle Earth, to the languages he created, the cosmology, myth and legend that were the foundation of his world. No matter how many learned papers are written about his work, it is that depth and grandeur that got to me. Through fantasy, he laid bare a good deal of human nature, and, in spite of the battles and high adventure, what I learned most about, reading his books, were the many faces of love.
The very first books, though, the ones that made me fall in love with the printed page, were not ones I read at all. They were read to me, mostly by my mother and grandfather. The best ones were never in print either… they were handwritten in exercise books, just for me. While I have some of my mother’s manuscripts and am slowly editing and typing them up to get them printed, my grandfather’s stories are no more than ghosts in memory.
He wove myth, folk tales and magic into a fabulous playground for a child’s imagination. The best one was about a griffin. I can remember no details about the story at all… but I can picture the book in which it was written. I can see the dogeared amber cover, his distinctive script crawling across the pages… and I can see the images that arose in my mind as I listened to his voice. Not clearly, and not if I try to focus on them, but as amorphous pictures in my mind, complete with that delicious childish mixture of terror and delight. I don’t even know if they are entirely ‘my’ images, because he was an artist and sculptor and he had illustrated the story for me with pen and ink drawings. Even today, griffins… and that can be spelled no other way for me… always look like they did in his book. And they always live in caves.
It is to these very early tales that I attribute my love of the written word. It is a love that has never let me down and I have spent the majority of my life with my nose in a book whenever possible. Even the speed with which I can do housework and cooking can be attributed to my desire to free up some reading time.
Looking back, it was probably those tattered notebooks, full of Grandad’s stories and my mother’s poems, that first taught me that writing was something people do. Ordinary people… ‘my’ people… just picked up a pen and wrote. It was that simple. At that early age, I didn’t even think about it, but had I done so, would just have assumed that everyone’s family wrote stories.
Then there was my introduction to Dr Seuss. I was given The Sleep Book as a Sunday School prize when I was five. I still have it… I can still recite it almost in its entirety for my granddaughters, who now have their own copy. I wouldn’t part with it, even were it in pristine condition…which it is not by any means. My name is written inside, along with my baby brother’s ‘signature’ on every page. Decades of brittle Sellotape hold together the pages of a book that has been loved now by three generations.
Dr Seuss, along with the Marriott Edgar monologues my Great Grandad used to recite, followed by Spike Milligan, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear, are definitely to blame for my penchant for writing rhyming verse.
Then, I found Narnia and spent an awful lot of time tapping the back of wardrobes…especially as Great Granny had fur coats in there, complete with mothballs in the pockets. Grandad had a study, too, even more fascinating as that of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, the first book of the Narnian chronicles. Our attic held treasures, just like the attic in the story…and not only was Grandad a magician like Uncle Andrew, he gave me a Guinea pig too, which as every would-be Narnian will realise, made my childhood very interesting. Thanks, to C. S. Lewis, I believed in magic and possibility and his books not only taught me to have faith in a higher purpose, but they probably turned me into an optimist too.
Measles gave me another gift. Perhaps because she was unable to leave me for long, my mother picked up a book from her own shelves. The Third Eye was a curious choice of book to read to a child, and it may be that my mother wanted to read it herself. It tells the story of a small Tibetan boy who enters a lamasery and is taught by his Guide, the Lama Mingyar Dondup. He learns the art of astral projection, learns to access his gifts of telepathy and clairvoyance… and as he grows, the reader learns another way of looking at the world.
After that, we read every book my mother could get hold of and the author, T. Lobsang Rampa, played a big part in shaping my own beliefs. It mattered not at all that both the veracity and authenticity of his story were later brought into question, what I learned from his books made sense… and made sense of the world. Except, it did not feel as if I were learning something new, just rediscovering something forgotten.
Between all of those books and an unusually eclectic family, it was no surprise that I delved into old tales and explored ancient wisdom. I learned about ancient civilistaions, fell in love with Egyptian and Arthurian mythology, and picked Grandad’s brains on magic. He gave me the last book on my list when I was fifteen. As I read Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabalah, where the workings of the Cosmos were shown as a simple glyph, everything fell into place in a way I could not have described.
I still have that copy with its plain blue cover, annotated by my grandfather. It still took me decades, several bookshelves and any number of re-reads to really begin to understand what Dion and Grandad had really written in those pages, but the ‘lights went on’ with that first wide-eyed read.
That wasn’t so very bad… I did manage to find just five for the first fifteen years… and only mentioned a few others in passing…
While Mae Clair and Jessica were writing principally about books that had shaped them as writers, it is impossible to separate the writer from their inner life. Even if, as authors, we master the art of becoming invisible on the page, we still have a voice that is coloured by who we are, what we believe and what we have lived.
I will be forever grateful that I had access to so wide and varied a library from the earliest age. The books we read in childhood shape us more than we realise. Looking back, I can trace the beginnings of my ‘today’ to the influence of those books, all of which still sit on my bookshelves, and all of them are still taken down to be read once again. I just wish I had Grandad’s notebooks…