I know you've all got one – that one book that totally changed your life, your world view, or just (just!) sucked you so completely into its world and characters that you haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Because I've been a bit low on inspiration for what to read next, I asked some of our lovely xoJane writers to give me their favourites, and got a huge – and instant - response. A much quicker response than when I’m asking them to send in their invoices in - which is a pretty good indicator of where everyone's priorities lie round this way, if you ask me...
The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
I’d been a low-level Graham Greene fan for a few years before I read The Heart Of The Matter, and the characters, setting and storytelling were classic Greene. But one of the final chapters, where the protagonist is trying to decide whether to commit suicide, despite his Catholic faith, to free everyone from his actions, is one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever read. The book charts one man’s struggle with his faith, infidelity, and what it means to be a ‘Good Man’ so eloquently, that it never fails to utterly move and absorb me.
Sex Tips For Girls, Cynthia Heimel
I read this when I was about 13 and it was a total game changer for me. Cynthia Heimel is an American journalist, she wrote for Cosmo, and she was bad-ass and funny about sex and love and life - all the important shit - in a way that I had no idea was even possible. She wrote about sex and drugs and rock and roll, about how utterly essential your girlfriends are; she wrote that women should have adventures, shun fear and boredom and cultivate a deviant attitude. I think it's fair to say that this book has been my How To manual. I read this hundreds of times. Looking back - I realise that I wanted to BE her when I grew up; I wanted to racket around the world, interviewing people, writing about everything from cocktails to cock rings... and calling on the advice of my aces gal pals, getting in and out of crazy love affairs and never knowing what the hell was around the corner. And well, it kinda happened. I'm a journalist. I'm writing this from my, um, 17th hotel room in 23 days... I have NO CLUE what I am doing next week - and if it wasn't for Skyping my girl friends about my absurd love life, who knows what I would do? But this book? It's the best.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
I think I was 14 or 15 when I read ‘Tess’ for the first time and fell madly, desperately in love with it. The gorgeousness of the bucolic setting was the dreamiest escapism from my then subsistence in a mock-Tudor 4-bed on a new-build estate – I could pretend in my head I was picking crops in a white smock in the sunshine when I was actually eating egg and chips with Blind Date blaring. I rejoiced and shuddered at the wickedness of men – the dastardly love interest and the hints at bonking were teasingly good. And it was the first book that really made me really cry, out loud – and rage – at the unfairness of the world. Someone else knew just how I was feeling. I read it in my bedroom, with a joss stick smoking for atmosphere and sobbed until my mascara ran. The terrible, unjust, horrorshow bad luck of the wistful heroine chimed in exactly with how I felt at the time, skulking around Windsor town centre in surplus army boots, inwardly bemoaning the fact literally no one understood that I had the sensitive soul of a poet. 'Tess' was the ultimate goth text for a teenager like me - it affirmed my Romantic, fatalistic feelings. I felt for the first time that questioning the existence of god might be a normal thing (I was at Catholic convent school at the time, so it was pertinent). Mostly, it made me realise the true power a writer can have, a really good one, whot can reach down, through a hundred years and make someone feel something. I decided to become a writer because of that book.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
The book that changed my life is Lolita. Before I read it, I always saw things as very black and white in literature. You had good guys and bad guys. In Lolita it's a lot harder to decide. Humbert Humbert is the best example of an unreliable narrator that I have ever come across. It's terrifying to realise mid-way through reading the book that you are rooting for a man who is a kidnapper, paedophile and perhaps even murderer. The way that Nabokov tells the story draws you into Humbert's world, seeing everything through his eyes, without sparing a second thought for Lolita's fate. There are only clever glimpses into her side of the story which reveal the truth - such as her crying herself to sleep at night - that show the reader that you cannot take everything at face value. Humbert's honeyed tones, plus the highly poetic, beautiful nature of Nabokov's (and therefore Humbert's) prose, draws you into a terrifying world of moral ambiguity.
My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell.
...which is not to say that I've upped sticks to Greece and become an entomologist, but there's something about this childhood tale that never fails to lift my spirits. I've returned to it in many a miserable March, as Durrell's stories of growing up with flora, fauna and family on the island of Corfu are colourful, charming and unfailingly heart-warming. Through his pragmatic prose, I revisit hours spent plucking fresh worms from compost and volunteering my forearms as racetracks for snails; of fruitlessly wielding a butterfly net and manufacturing rose petal perfume in the gloom of my cellar laboratory. It's witty, wistful and (I believe) tirelessly enjoyable.
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
I read The Things They Carried for the first time in an English class when I was 13-years-old and keep on getting drawn back to it every few years. A collection of short stories based on the Vietnam War, it's the book that opened my eyes to so many things: how war dehumanises people, how certain experiences will dictate how the rest of your life is played out and how emotional baggage can weigh far heavier than any physical burden ever will.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
I read this at 18 and everything changed. I felt both understood and in awe. A female protagonist living an independent life, novel-writing, taking in and booting out lovers, recording in detail her inner emotional life and the female condition. And it was the first time I'd ever read a novelist write about periods. Sounds silly, but at the time, for me, it was a revelation – it resonated with, inspired and motivated my teenage self. A novel well ahead of its time.
Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis
Put your hands up if you're Bret Easton Ellis' #1 fangirl? Oh yeah, that would be me. This is the most complex and original novel my eyes have ever had the pleasure of reading - it's a book, within a book, with characters from another book, masquerading as an autobiography. The literary equivalent of when you look into a mirror with another mirror behind you and the reflections go on for infinity (that used to blow my tiny mind as a child). Every sentence of Lunar Park made me want to write, if only so I could attempt to be about 5% as good a sentence-constructor as BEE. Never gonna happen.
Anna Marie Fitzgerald
A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
Bit cliched but true - Mrs Brown the head of English at my school gave a group of us each a copy of the Penguin classics edition of Virginia Woolf's brilliant essay when we were preparing for our university interviews in sixth form. Even though I attended an academic institution for (mostly) poor catholic girls, feminism was never explicitly referred to or mentioned during my 7 years there, which is a shame because it would have been a rather useful concept for us know about. I like to think that the giving of the Virginia Woolfs was a small subversive seed she was trying to plant in our exam-addled, unenlightened brains. Thank you Mrs Brown!
How do you feel about our choices? And of course, what are the books that changed your lives? I really, really, really want to know - mainly because I've run out of things to read...