Today I want to share with you six books that hold some deep significance in my life. These are books that are not just great reads, or beautiful to look at, they also represent a part of me, or they enlightened me in some way.
For me reading a great book is the ultimate luxury. Losing myself in a spellbinding book is the ultimate escapism. I can lose myself in a book in a way that I don’t find possible with any other medium. But there are some books that do even more than this. They exemplify a key time in your life, or change what or how you think. As a result hold a special power over you thereafter.
The reason I decided to share these books with today is because I recently retrieved several boxes of my stuff that have been stored in my mum’s garden shed for the last seven years. I packed them up when I moved to Sydney in 2008 and I’d forgotten they were there to be honest.
Two of these boxes, the largest ones, contained all my favourite books. Rediscovering these books has been like finding old friends. Stretching from my teens to my mid-thirties these are the literary works that meant enough to me to hang onto for posterity. The books I decided I would always want on my books shelf. A few of these, the ones I’ve detailed below, represent key times of my life, or what I now see as moments of enlightenment.
I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe when I was a teenager. I collected pictures of her and read book after book about the screen idol who had an incredibly sad life and a mysterious death. This book enchanted me with its images of as a glowing and naturally beautiful Norma Jeane Baker before she became the gilded goddess we all know. Looking at those images I saw the hope in her eyes, her youthful optimism, that was later replaced my cynicism, fear and loathing for those felt trapped her into being Marilyn Monroe. Looking at these images was the first time I realised that the reality of even the most glittering of lives is often very far from what it seems to be.
I travelled across the US when I was 19. What I thought I was going there for – New York, LA, the American dream – were not the things that made the biggest impression on me. I bought this book after standing with tears streaming down my face reading the poem that will one day be part of the finished Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. I didn’t read it until 15 years later and found it so harrowing I had to stop reading half way through. But I persevered. It is an incredible account of the destruction of an entire culture through the eyes of the victims. This this book exemplifies what struck me most about that trip – the horrific plight of the native Americans. When I look back now I know that trip was the awakening of my social conscience. I left the US with the painful awareness that the culture I was part of was not necessarily a force for good.
OK, this books has never been left in the box in my mum’s shed. I’ve kept this book with me everywhere I’ve been because it is my favourite book of all time. You can see how well-thumbed it is. It is the unbelievable quality of Nabokov’s use of language to tell an engrossing story that lure me in every time (I’ve read it at least four times).
I have never been so moved by the story of anyone’s life as I have by Nelson Mandela’s. I lived through part of his imprisonment, watched transfixed when he was released, and cheered him on as he lead South Africa to its first democratic elections and became president, but I didn’t read this book until I was in Africa in 2002. I saw it in a book shop in Windhoek, Namibia and remember thinking, ‘Why haven’t I read that?’ and I bought it on the spot. I’ve read it twice. The enormity of what he did is incredible. All the power, strength and possibility of humanity is all there is one man’s story. If only I had even an ounce of his strength, integrity, selflessness and forgiveness.
I borrowed this book from someone I met on a meditation retreat in 2006 and never gave it back. It started a long-term obsession with books about psychotherapy and psychology, and with Irvin Yalom in particular. I nearly embarked on a career as a counsellor because of him. I’ve read most of his other books and they are all gripping, moving and enlightening. It must be karma because I too lent this book to a friend and never got it back, but my other copies of his books that I found in my boxes reminded that it was this one that kicked off the ‘Yalom years’ for me.
I had already taken a few tentative steps down the path to becoming a single mother by choice when this book was recommended to me, but a inner fight I was having with myself was stopping me from taking any decisive action. This book helped me give a name to what I was wrestling with, I was grieving the dream. Having a baby by myself wasn’t the life I had planned for myself, it wasn’t ideally what I wanted for me or my child. I wanted the perfect partner and the perfect life, but what this book showed me was that I had to accept that by going it alone I was making the best of the circumstances life had thrown my way. It also helped me realise that everyone, single or partnered, decides to become a parent for ultimately selfish reasons, but that parenting itself is intrinsically selfless (or it should be). As a result I feel proud of myself for taking the path less travelled, and I know my life is far richer because I did.
There are no books I’ve read recently in this list for the simple reason that since Poppet was born I don’t read as much as I used to. What I do read tends to be lighter, and unenlightening. Nothing I’ve read lately has rocked my world, but they haven’t taken much commitment either, which is what I need right now. My world rocking book days will return one day, I am sure.
What books represent moments of enlightenment or key times of your life? Do books hold this meaning for you? I’d be interested to know.
This my fifth post in Blog Every Day in May with Rosalilium. Follow the conversation at #BEDM on Twitter. I’m not on topic today but what the hell, rules are there to be broken right?