(What is it with my family and it’s love affairs with assorted antiquated modes of transport? If it’s not steam trains, it is biplanes, or … Oh, you name it, there will be a member of the family obsessed with it. This post has been written whilst chugging down the Grand Union Canal (and chugging is the appropriate term) on our way to Little Venice for the weekend. Thankfully, whilst obsessed with travelling the old-fashioned way, my father still likes to keep up with the Jones’ and I’m using a laptop instead of pen and paper.)
I am not one to readily buy into, or trust, ‘self-help’ books. I find something mildly repellent about the idea that the secret to being a ‘better’ person can be bought and delivered to your door for Â£6.99 (+ P&P) from Amazon. I am not denying that some people do benefit from things they learn in books – after all, most modern civilizations comprise “people of the Book”, be that book the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an – I am simply stating my own personal preference for working things out for myself. Ascribing to a philosophy culled from a book, most likely written by a fraud (or at least someone who wouldn’t recognise good prose if they tripped over it in the street) is just not the way I like to operate.
All of which makes it doubly embarrassing when you realise you are reading a book and it is subtly, sometimes drastically, changing the way you view life, even more so when it has a direct impact on how you live your life.
For the purposes of this post I have tried to pick out the few main books that have substantially influenced my ways of thinking. Considering the amount I have read over the years, this was no easy task. None of the books mentioned below were read in isolation – take them merely as landmarks in a lifetime characterised by a love of the written word. (They are listed in chronological order, as at different points in my life each has been more or less important to me than others).
Number One would have to be the Bible.
I was brought up C. of E. and until the age of nine or ten went every Sunday to Sunday School and Church. I was baptised, my father did volunteer work for our local church (St. John’s in Glastonbury), and I said my prayers every night when I went to bed. More importantly, I genuinely believed that God was watching out for me – I had a genuine faith, albeit a child-like and innocent faith. Things started to change around the time I was eleven or twelve – people I loved were dying, often times after horrendous amounts of pain, and I had to question where was a God who could let this happen? There was incalculable amounts of suffering in the world and, again, trusting in God didn’t seem to be doing much good. Indeed, many attrocities were done in the name of God. When a child looses its innocence is never a good time, and for some reason, for me it bit particularly hard.
The first time I was conscious of my loss of belief in the system I had been brought up in was when, at the age of 13, I had to go in for some very major surgery. As a minor, my parents signed the consent forms, but I (always precocious) wanted to know what I was being let in for. One of the questions on the form was “what religion are you” – in case things went a bit Pete Tong, the hospital wanted to make sure the right minister was on hand. Without asking me, Dad had filled it in “C. of E.”. Well, as far as he was concerned, that’s what we were. Only, seeing it down in black and white like that made me realise that no, I wasn’t C. of E. I wasn’t sure what I was, but I was sure that everything I had unquestionably believed in up till then no longer worked for me. It just didn’t answer the questions I had. Despite this, despite whatever I believe now, the Bible undoubtedly shaped how I approach life. Everything, from the holidays I celebrate (Christmas, Easter), the need to do good deeds and be nice to my neighbour, to how I swear, to my concept of an afterlife (fluffy clouds, or burning pit), and to a palpable sense of the Holy I still feel when confronted by great beauty (I was in St. Paul’s at the weekend – say what you like about the Christians, they sure have some mighty fine architecture), are influenced by that early education.
Number Two would be “The Darkness Visible” by William Styron.
For a little book, this did a lot for me. From the age of fifteen, I have battled with severe and recurring depression. Until the age of twenty, I didn’t tell anyone this, not even my family. I just… pretended. My personality flipped from happy, bubbly fourteen year old to bitter, reclusive ninteen year old, and because it just kept on like that, everyone accepted that that was how I was now. Everyone changes during puberty, right? My change just wasn’t so pleasant. After hitting rock bottom one time too many, I finally pulled myself to a doctor and admitted that something wasn’t right. God knows how I lasted five years in the state I was in, or what made me finally say “enough is enough”, but say it I did. Telling the doctor that I just wasn’t happy was surprisingly hard. I had barely admitted it to myself, so saying it to another was tough. Thankfully, she didn’t laugh me out the room. She proscribed me anti-depressants, which gave me a much needed breathing space, and got me in to see a councilor, which helped me start to address some of what had been going on in my head.
Part of all this confronting things was to tell my family that I wasn’t happy. Phenomenally hard – it’s bad enough to tell your Mum and Dad that you’re not happy, but to tell them that you have been unhappy for five years? As I said, hard, but necessary and worth it. They were, still are, remarkably supportive, and understanding. My brother scoured bookstores in the States, looking for one particular book a friend had said had helped him, and finally found a copy in Chicago. It was “Darkness Visible”, and reading it was a revelation. Here was someone else experiencing exactly the same things I was experiencing, dealing with them, and writing about his life in a way that was touching, funny, and totally honest. When I reread the book now, I appreciate the writing more than I did at first, but I am still struck most by the honesty with which he admitted to what he was feeling. Not only was Styron brave enough to face up to what was going on in his head, he was brave enough to put his entire life out in public, warts and all, in an effort to further understanding of this disease. If he could face depression with such grace and strength, why couldn’t I?
Number Three – “The Skull Mantra” by Elliot Pattison.
As already mentioned, despite my early introduction to C.of E., by my early teens I was casting about for something else, some other belief system that made sense to me. Where I grew up, Glastonbury, is often called the New Age capital of Britain. There is a healthy New Age and Alternative population, and you can’t turn around on the High Street without bumping into someone wearing tie-dye or with their hair in dreadlocks. Every other shop, it seems, is an Alternative bookshop, or vegan cafe, or sells crystals. This certainly…shaped… my outlook on life, and made me more willing to try different things. Despite this, my first real introduction to Buddhism was in Pattison’s Tibetan murder mystery. His characters, while admittedly stereotypical and archetypal, dealt with situations in a way that struck a deep cord with me.
I wouldn’t say this book made me Buddhist, but it opened my eyes to a different way of living, and how it is possible to live with adverse situations and still maintain grace and dignity. It made me want to learn more about Buddhism, and introduced me to the words of the Dalai Lama. I’m not Buddhist, just as I’m not a Christian, a Jew, or anything else. I am a hodge-podge of different things that make sense to me – my own personal belief system that is impossible to verbalise, but shapes how I try to live my life. There are however, elements of Buddhism in the mix: an understanding that to take life, for whatever reason, is wrong; a reliance on yourself to get out of scrapes and situations, not an abdication of responsibility to a higher being. That isn’t to say that that higher being does not exist, just that he/she has better things to do than to scurry around after humanity clearing up the mess. “Be good to one another” is an easy thing to say (and brings me perilously close to quoting Bill & Ted) but it comes close to the core of things. Work hard to make things better in this life, and next time around, you might just get a pleasant surprise.
Which brings me to book Four, the book that spawned this mammoth bout of introspection in the first place:
“Yes Man” by Danny Wallace.
It is more than a little ashaming to say that a bespectacled, twenty-something chap, with a haircut perilously close to a mullet, is the guy who gives you a kick up the khyber and makes you change your life, but that’s pretty much what happened. You might have seen his “How to start a country” show on BBC2 last summer – if you didn’t, you missed one of the greatest shows on TV, it was hillarious! For my birthday (the real one) last year, Moose got me his book “Yes Man”, which is all about how Danny started to say “yes” to everything instead of “no”. The book is laugh out loud funny, and a must read, regardless, but it also made me think. I identified all to well with the Danny at the start of the book – the Danny who stayed at home every night with the TV and a mug of tea for company, the Danny who made pathetic excuses to get out of any and every invitation. This was me! I had settled into a rut and, perhaps most distressingly, was happy in this rut. If saying “yes” could work so well for Danny, why not for me? I wouldn’t go quite to the extremes that Danny did in the book – nothing would make me say “yes” to trying unidentified substances in Amsterdam, for example, or to fall for obvious Internet scams – but in my day to day life there were a miriad of things I could say “yes” to.
The last few months of 2005 saw me, once again, falling backwards into depression. This time, at least, I recognised what was happening and took myself off to seek a councellor before the GP had to stuff medication down my throat again. When returning to a (more or less) even keel co-insided with my finding a job with a group of wonderful people, I became determined that I would become “yes girl”! If someone asked me out, I would say “yes” before casting around for my customary “er, I have something else on, sorry…” If someone said something nice to me, I would say “thank you” and smile, instead of immediately going “no, no, you’re wrong. I don’t look nice in this top…” There have been times when I have lapsed (Neko’s birthday party for one), but “yes” got me an interview with the OUP (sadly, not the job, but I still got a nice day in Oxford and to see the Brainy Snail again), “yes” has got me some lovely new friends, and “yes” might even be taking me to salsa dancing lessons. It sounds such a ridiculously simple thing, but it really has helped me become a more positive, and happy, person. I still have bad days – who doesn’t? – but I enjoy even the bad days. I am, all things taken into consideration, happy, and to say that (and mean it) is an immense deal for me. I am enjoying my life and I wouldn’t change a single thing. Well, more money would be nice but I’m having to live in the real world here 😉
So there you have it, the four books that have, in one way or another, made me who I am today. Two of them, a murder mystery and the diary of a bespectacled radio producer are probably some of the odder self-help books out there, but that is the beauty of good writing – it makes you question and look at things anew, regardless. I frequently signpost my life with books – every book I have read has memories, connotations, and an impact – but some are bigger way-markers than others. With regards shaping the personality capable of sitting at a computer and typing these words? These are the biggest. What about you – what books would you say shaped you and made you who you are today?