A Lifetime of Reading
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Eleven large boxes are sitting in the corridor of my flat. In them are hundreds of books: childhood favourites – lovingly scuffed, their pages yellowing, stained and slightly battered – modern classics, books I’ve not yet read, and new books I’ve been buzzing about. Comfort reads, books I read at university, their margins scribbled with cringey comments, books I’ve been gifted, books I’ve loved, those I’ve given up on before reaching the end, stories that have kept me up into the small hours.
I hadn’t expected packing them to be hard. But books are my biggest comfort, solace, and educator. Every book in those boxes once furnished my flat with pride. They’ve evoked discussion, and made my dingey London flat feel like home for four and half years. Most importantly, each book has its own memory, connected with a part of my life, a place, or a person. Packing them induced the first wave of sadness I’ve felt since I found out I was moving to the Maldives. For the last month, I’ve been looking towards the future, thinking about what I ought to pack, getting excited about a whole new culture and pace of life, gearing myself up for the adventure of a lifetime. But packing my book collection made me confront what I’m leaving behind.
So here are some of the books that were the hardest to pack away, those books that shouldn’t be hidden in storage, the ones that I love not only for their stories, but because they hold a deeper significance to me as a person. I wish I could take them all with me, but alas my luggage allowance doesn’t include 220kg of books – although maybe for this position it should. On the upside, there’s a whole new collection of books awaiting me, and memories to make, at the Barefoot Bookshop in the Maldives where I’ll be heading next week.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ The opening line of Min Jin Lee’s masterpiece sets the tone for the whole novel. Following four generations of a Korean family living in Japan across eight decades of the twentieth century, its central theme is the way that marginalised voices are misrepresented and mistreated not only in their own time, but by future generations. Pachinko is a book that changed the way I read. It introduced me to the way that books can teach you about other cultures, places and periods of history, simply through wonderful story-telling and authentic characters. Pachinko is an important and immersive read.
A Little Life by Hanya Yangihara
I bought this in a bookshop in Sydney when I was travelling on my own for work, and its characters – Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm – couldn’t have been better travelling companions. A moving and often excruciating story of four male friends in New York, A Little Life explores the power and failings of friendship and meditates on how those we love can restore and redeem us only when we let them. It’s an astounding piece of writing that kept me in very good company for the duration of its 800 pages and several long haul flights.
Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
I was given this for my eighteenth birthday by my closest friends and it was the beginning of my relationship with Hardy. Like the friends who bought me the book, it’s a relationship that has endured throughout my adult life thus far. I’d encountered his ghost story, The Withered Arm, at school a few years before, but Tess was my first introduction to Hardy's novels. Combining gripping story-telling with beautiful nature writing, Hardy is now one of my favourite writers, and one that I turn to for comfort at the darkest of times.
The Gathering by Anne Enright
One of my favourite modules at university was on Irish Literature, taught by a lively, kind and brilliant professor, who famously advised us to take an academic approach to James Joyce by reading Ulysses ‘in bed, with a bottle of whiskey’. She also had impeccable literary taste. On her course I discovered, among others, Eavan Boland, Joseph O’Connor, Edna O’Brien, Colm Toibin, John McGahern, Roddy Doyle, and Anne Enright. The Gathering is Enright’s most famous novel, due to the fact it won the Booker Prize in 2007, but it is also a fine example of her incredibly beautiful, humane, empathetic, heart-felt writing. It’s an exemplary piece of fiction, unpicking family relationships and modern Irish history with superb poise.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Any family that reads has a favourite book. In my family, it was The Hobbit. We listened to it on CD during long car journeys, and my brothers and I would take turns to read it to one another late at night. We’d act out the riddle scene regularly, putting on our best rasping voices for Gollum, and our best disgruntled grumpy-old-man voices for Bilbo. It’s magical, poetic, and full of adventure. It’s also a novel about a stubborn creature of habit taking a brave decision to change life as they know it and go on an adventure, which for some reason has some resonance here…