I’ve talked about books I reread, and authors for whom I will read anything they produce, which must go some way towards helping even the casual reader get to know me. But when I was thinking about possible posts for this blog, I wandered off into thinking about books that I’d give people to help them understand me — not non-fiction books, which would be too easy, but the fiction books which have shaped me or given a voice to something in me.
So I’ve come up with a little list of five and some explanations; you may also see these as recommendations.
- There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, Hazel Edwards. If there’s a book that defines my whole childhood, I guess this is it. As far as I was concerned, there was a hippo on my roof too, and if there wasn’t, there should be. (And a giraffe in the garden.) My life is still filled with teddies, many of them hippos, and I keep a copy of this book in sight of my desk. And there’s still a hippopotamus on my roof, although sometimes now he worries about his weight, and trades in the cake for a diet of mushrooms. (Why mushrooms? That’s another story.)
- The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I probably love The Lord of the Rings more than The Hobbit, but this is the book that enchanted me when I was a bit too old for Cat and Mouse or hippos on the roof. I could’ve read this endlessly, and often did. I remember one night when my parents were particularly determined to make me go to sleep, and I was equally determined not to, I read this book by the light of the streetlights down past the end of our garden, shining in just a little through my window. My imagination became full of dragons and trolls, and dwarves and gold, and wizards. And they’ve never left me either.
- The Positronic Man, Isaac Asimov. Once upon a time, my mother got me some Asimov books out of the library on her account, because they wouldn’t let me into that section and I’d read everything they didn’t drag out of my clutching little hands. I have no idea what the library fine was when I finally allowed her to take this one back, but it’s fair to say it was probably the most epic fine I’ve ever wracked up — and I did manage some epic ones in university. I loved Andrew and his struggle to become human, and still do, even if I’d happily move the other way. Also, Andrew’s struggle for his rights, for the respect of the people around him, certainly speak to me now on a level I wasn’t aware of back then. I had no idea at that age that civil rights would become an issue for me, or that they were an issue for people like me.
- The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. I didn’t read this until I was about fifteen, sixteen, despite what everyone expects when they see my battered to death copy. I reread it just about every year, around this time; it seriously got under my skin. It’s magic with consequences: Will is an adult and more than an adult in a child’s body; Bran is isolated, motherless, starving for love; the Drews grow up over the course of the books; John Rowlands loses the love of his life, learning that she’s not the woman he thought she was… Things don’t really come alright at the end. And, of course, it draws on some of my heritage, Welsh legends, and deals with some of the tensions between Welsh and English. And there are themes about racism and bigotry, and some amazing passages about all sorts of things from justice to Englishness to responsibility.
- Among Others, Jo Walton. I read this and thought, this is me. Of all these books, if you want to get to know me, this is the most important. Sure, there are ways in which I’m very unlike Mori, but her love affair with books, her thirst for them, some of the Welsh/English issues going on, many of the things she’s dealing with… I recognise them. For Christmas, I gave each of my ex-housemates a copy of this book. On reading the back, they all mentioned the immediate parallels between me and Mori…
Honourable mentions go to Enid Blyton’s Tales of Brave Adventure (I owned two much-loved, faded copies: one my father’s, one my mother’s), C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth.
And, perhaps surprisingly even to my mother, the old chapter-a-day retelling of the Bible for children which I had. I’m not a Christian, but I still think that a lot of the goodness in me, I learnt there.