World Book Day: Five Books Which Made Me

It’s World Book Day, the annual event organised by UNESCO in which every child in the UK is given a voucher to spend on books. It’s a celebration and defence of literacy as a vital part of human development – and so, what better way to mark the occasion than by diving into five books which expanded my conception of literature, and of the world entire.

 

 

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D Salinger

Illustration of J.D Salinger on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1961
Image: Wikimedia Commons

I know, I know, it’s a cliché among self-consciously academic white boys to claim this book changed your life as a teenager – but some clichés persist because they’re true. At age thirteen, I was struck by the candid, sardonic voice with which Salinger invested seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, by the naïve but complex emotions pulsing from every page. I was a sceptic of most books about and aimed at my own age group – I found them too neat, too trite, too sentimental. But the original teen novel showed me that there could be literature on adolescence that was as bleak, as funny, and as unresolved as life itself.

 

 

Persuasion by Jane Austen

 

Portrait of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen, 1870

Certainly Austen’s most underappreciated novel, and on a given day I might argue it’s in fact her best. Her final completed novel, Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot and her reunion with Frederick Wentworth, the naval officer with whom she once broke off an engagement on grounds of class due to pressure from her family, and explores Austen’s signature themes of manners, marriage, and status with a newfound melancholy and mournfulness. I was moved by the tender, reserved exploration of characters reflecting on the inequities of their fate and contemplating the roads not travelled, and aghast at how the pop-culture image of Austen erased such emotional complexity. Persuasion is a great book in itself, but I further appreciate it for teaching me that the popular consensus on even the most esteemed authors doesn’t reveal the full scope of their work, and that the only way to fathom the multitudes contained by the finest writers is to experience their work.

 

 

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay at Georgetown University
Image: Wikimedia Commons

It can at times become easy to feel like all the mystery, all the madness, all the complexity has gone out of literature today; that all is obvious, didactic, surface. But Trumpet, the 1998 work of Scottish author Jackie Kay — now Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate) —  shook me out of that belief. Running through time periods and narrative voices at breakneck speed, Kay’s novel explores the life of transgender jazz musician Joss Moody, outed after his death, and his relationships with and impacts upon his wife Milly and son Colman. The result is a novel as politically charged, unpredictable, and sensually overpowering as jazz itself – its polyphony of voices exploring the limits of race, gender, language, memory, identity, and point-of-view itself. This fiery novel woke me up to the vital, ambitious work going on in the present — and taught me where to look for it.

 

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

‘Fyodor Dostoevsky’ (1872) by Vasily Perov
Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.’

 

It was with these lines — still so striking more than 150 years after they first appeared — that I began in earnest my immersion in the great Russian novels. They set the tone for what was to follow; a work of poetry both visceral and lyrical, blackly ironic and deadly sincere. Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator, a retired, disgraced civil servant wandering the streets of St Petersburg is a Hamlet without status or mission; a restless existential clown ceased by fits of heroic grandeur and self-loathing despair. Immersing myself in the disordered mind of this brilliantly realised anti-hero was like seeing the following century-and-a-half of Western literature anew; the unreliable narrators, the head-spinning density of prose, the rapid shifts in time and place ­­— they all started here.

 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov, 1960s
Image: Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed that a few of the books I have listed here involved distortions of reality, narrators whose accounts of events isn’t necessarily to be taken as read. But I have yet to find another novel that employs such techniques with the boldness and sophistication of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece. The novel has proven continuously controversial for its exploration of the inner monologue of literature professor and Europhile Humbert Humbert as his recounts his sexual obsession with and grooming of twelve-year-old Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze. Nabokov imbues his predatory narrator with extraordinary depth of expression, allowing him to seduce us with lavish poetic imagery, wry humour, and clever allusions; we are not allowed to keep our distance or sit in judgement, but instead sucked into the mind of a monster, sharing his exhilaration or thrilling to his eloquence one moment, then shuddering as we remember just what kind of man he is. No book has ever so thoroughly forced me to think about how I read, identify, and react, to approach the question of evil not with superior revulsion, but with a shuddering acknowledgement of its recognisable humanity – and my own potential for complicity. More than anything else, Lolita strengthened my conviction that art has the right to explore taboo subject matter and ‘unacceptable’ points of view, to make us understand that which we do not want to, and that to treat the exploration of a disturbing act or mind-set as tantamount to glorification of such is to shut down truly challenging art.

 

 

Those are five books which I would point as milestones in my development as a reader and a person. But the fact is, we all have books like these in our lives — on this World Book Day, I ask you to think back on yours.