Game-changers: 5 books that changed my life
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I read at least three or four books a week and sometimes that many in a day. I read pretty much anything, as long as nobody had told me it was a ‘classic’ and that reading it would be ‘good’ for me. I read books that made me laugh, or were exciting, or were supposed to be for girls, or were set in the past, or in space – but occasionally I came across a book that didn’t just amuse me, but did something else as well. It made me stop and think. These were the books that, once you’d read them, meant the world you saw was never quite the same. They were game-changers.
Everyone’s list of books that were game-changers is different but, because I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, the books I’m talking about were either published at that time or before. I only came much later to the game-changing genius of writers like Anne Fine, or Hilary McKay, or Alan Garner, or Terry Pratchett so, sadly, you won’t find any of them on my list.
1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I remember thinking, as I first read it, that this book was bit girly for my taste. There was a lot of talk about flowers and a little robin, and neither flowers nor robins had ever really done it for me. One of the main characters, Dickon, has an affinity for all animals, and I didn’t like that much either. I had two brothers who were both obsessed with that sort of thing and it just taught me never to lift the lid of a cardboard box to see what was inside.
But then, half way through this most elegantly constructed story, the real centre of the narrative appears. Young Colin, constantly ill and stuck in a wheelchair, begins his healing. You could argue that being out in the fresh air and the magic of the ‘secret’ garden is what did it, but the book is very definite that the ‘magic’ comes from somewhere else. That the real magic is that Colin finds he can change his life by thinking something different.
The idea that what you think can profoundly affect your health – for good or ill – is a belief that I have since thoroughly absorbed.
2. Emma by Jane Austen
When young, as I said, I was careful not to read anything that could be defined as a classic. The word did not equate in my head with ‘quality’ or ‘a good read’ – it simply meant ‘almost certainly dull and boring’. So I avoided the likes of Jane Austen until… I drifted into the sitting room one evening when my parents were watching an adaptation of Emma on our recently acquired black and white television. I happened in on that famous scene where the main characters are having a picnic on Box Hill, and Emma joins in the teasing of the garrulous old Miss Bates. I saw nothing wrong with the teasing myself – there were plenty of tedious Miss Bateses in my own life who thoroughly deserved teasing – but then comes the scene where Mr Knightley takes Emma to task. He points out that Miss Bates is a lonely old woman whose poverty has left her reliant on the generosity of others and that to humiliate her in such a fashion is both ignoble and unkind. ‘It was badly done, Emma,’ he says, in a quietly devastating voice. ‘Badly done…’
And I felt a stab of remorse and shame as keenly as Emma herself. Jane Austen had somehow, in a single scene, presented an overwhelming argument that kindness, good manners, and consideration for the people around you are of vital importance. It was a pretty revolutionary concept for a teenage boy in the 1960s.
I got hold of a copy of the book the next day.
3. Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling
I think this must be the original ‘coming of age’ story. It’s about a spoilt, rich youth who falls off the back of an Atlantic passenger ship and is picked up by a schooner, fishing for cod off the Grand Banks. He is then made to actually work until the boat gets back to port at the end of the season.
I was lucky that no one told me this was a ‘classic’ or I’d never have picked it up. Even so, I’m astonished that I got through the difficult dialogue of the first chapter, and gradually found myself drawn in to a story in which Harvey learns to live in a world where the respect of your peers depends on your capacity to contribute, rather than the status and wealth of your parents. Events, and the harsh reality of the North Atlantic, slowly teach Harvey the value of things like hard work, pulling your weight, self-discipline.
Goodness…! Hard work mattered…? Now there was a thought…
4. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
On holiday with my parents, my Dad would always want to stop at churches or castles or look round a museum and… I could never see the point of it. Who cared? Why did I have to traipse around and look at these things, when I could be doing something interesting like reading a comic or riding a bike.
I suddenly ‘got’ that the country I lived in had been filled for some thousands of years with people who, like me, had grown up, worried, worked, struggled, believed some extraordinary things… and then died
This was the book that changed my mind. It’s an historical novel, set in Roman Britain, where the fabled ninth legion has gone north and disappeared. Years later, the son of its commander decides to find out what happened and to retrieve, if possible, the lost eagle.
And for the first time, I suddenly ‘got’ that the country I lived in had been filled for some thousands of years with people who, like me, had grown up, worried, worked, struggled, believed some extraordinary things… and then died. For the first time, I felt that curious connection with the past that turns you into the sort of person who walks around old castles and churches, and goes to museums…
5. The Last Battle by C S Lewis
I had read all seven of the Narnia chronicles at least twice before I realised they had anything to do with Christianity. Somehow, even when I did, I found Aslan a much more convincing figure than the Jesus I encountered in church services or in lessons at school. The Last Battle is the seventh of the series and is filled with extraordinary images. Like those dwarfs, surrounded by a feast they cannot see, who think they are still stuck in prison. Or the animals charging towards the Great Door at the End of Time. Or Aslan telling the children that it’s all right, because they’re dead and they can stay in His country forever…
Who else has ever written a children’s book which says dying leaves you free to get to the really good stuff? Blew me away.
Explore our book lists section for book recommendations galore.