The Books of Our Lives

I don't know about you lovely readers, but we're very fond of books in our family. Newspapers too. But we're really fond of books.

My parents, who were both schoolteachers, force-fed us books from birth. I'm so glad they did. My frugal mother encouraged us to borrow them from the library because they were free. We borrowed piles. Piles. They used to topple over each other around the house, their aged pages bent from borrowings over the years. I always received library fines because I forgot to return them. Or perhaps I didn't want to? I even loved the smell. Old books. They should bottle that scent.

I still miss those cardboard pockets in the front for the library cards. Remember those? The Browne System. Seems centuries ago. Even Wikipedia didn't have an entry for the Browne System until recently. I'm not sure if that's ironic or not?

Such is the love of literature in our family that it's no wonder I became an author. I couldn't get away from books. A new book is my idea of A Good Time. (Writing them is a different story, but I won't bother you with my personal issues.) Ironically, my partner hates books. I've been trying to get him to read Hemingway's Boat, but he looks as me as if I've offered him a dirty handkerchief. I explained that it's about fishing, and hunting, and manly pursuits, but he's not convinced. "It's quite thick?" he says, doubtfully. He's very clever, but he obviously didn't get it from books.

(On a little aside, I was chatting to a head librarian at a literary breakfast last week. She said they had 40 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, and 1200 people on the waiting list. Does anybody else think this is disturbing?)

At the moment, I'm writing a book about Picnic at Hanging Rock, the haunting Australian novel about the disappearance of a group Edwardian schoolgirls at the turn of the century. Hubster tries to be supportive by offering cynical helpful suggestions. "You could organise a bloggers' tour of Hanging Rock?" he says. "The Where-Is-Miranda Tour? People could be given the novel, and a GPS. Some of them may also disappear, of course. That might be awkward."

He's not read Picnic at Hanging Rock. But that doesn't stop his attempts at being a witty literary critic. Everyone's a critic now, it seems. Even those who don't read.

If, like some people, you have an aversion to anything with paper, a title and a spine, I'd like to help. Really. Let's call it therapy. Here are some beautiful books. Books that will make you think, and linger on pages, and even cry over lines. You may even read them twice. You may even get a library fine.

These are the books that have defined my life. Have you ever thought about the books that have defined yours?

John Steinbeck | Travels With Charley In Search of America

Half a century ago, John Steinbeck set off on The Great American Road Trip, travelling along the bumpy back roads in a nostalgic effort to find freedom, fulfilment and meaning. Heavy with the weariness and cynicism that comes with age and life, he was intent on searching for the America he remembered from his childhood, and perhaps also for his soul. Steinbeck’s expedition, which eventually became the book Travels With Charley in Search of America, would end up being one of his last. He was dying, and, according to his son Thom, he knew he was dying, and he went out to his country "to say goodbye".

Half a century later, Travels With Charley is still one of the most moving travel books I've ever read. It is the journey many of us wish we had the courage to take: the journey some of us find the courage to do, even if, like Steinbeck, we know at the outset our journey may not end the way we would like it to. I first read it when I travelled across America on my own road trip, to find my own soul. I now re-read it every year. And each time it resonates in an unexpectedly profound way. We are all on a lifelong pursuit to find happiness, quiet horizons, harmony and a place to feel at home. Sometimes we find them. Other times it takes a circuitous route to realize, like Steinbeck and his dog Charley, they might have been back where we started, all along.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
Few books move me to tears. This required an entire tissue box. It's an epistolary tale, a novel of letters between a book editor and the people she meets on the island of Guernsey after the war has destroyed their idyll. But it's more than just a collection of lovely lines. It's an ode to books. And to people who love them. That's why I cherish it. The truly tragic thing though is that its author, Mary Ann Shaffer, died before the book achieved success. She was an editor, a librarian, and a bookshop assistant. This was her first novel. I hope that, wherever she is, she knows how much her small novel has moved so many readers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Many years ago, I attended a girls' school, where I met a girl who became a close friend. One year, she invited me back to her family's beautiful house for Easter. While there, she told me that her great-grandmother had gone to a girl's school too – with the author Joan Lindsay. She also told me that her great-grandmother had once told her that Joan's novel was true. Or a surprisingly significant part of it, anyway. 

Since then, I've always been fascinated by this book, which has become one of Australia's most famous novels. 

A few years ago, I started researching the background behind it. Three years on, I've finished writing my own take on the tale. Some of it is indeed true. But what is really haunting is the story behind it all. It involves the history of Hanging Rock. And what happened there a century ago.

Last week, I met a girl at a literary breakfast. A spiritual soul. She took me aside and quietly told me she knew I'd been profoundly affected by the book. It's true. Our lives have been overshadowed by the things I've discovered. When I'm finished editing it, which will be soon, I want to go away and wash the ghosts off somewhere. Possibly on a remote beach. Far from the horrors of Hanging Rock. 

Despite this, it's still a beautiful book. And more brilliant than most people realise.

The Great Gatsby
It's a literary cliche, but for good reason. It's F.Scott Fitzgerald's best. Forget the crazy nonsense of his life. This book shows he did indeed have talent.

As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.

The tragedy of this story is almost unbearable. It's a study of much more than just class, and society. It's a study of dreams. They say you can have anything you want in life, as long as you're willing to sacrifice everything else for it. I've learned this in my quest to become a writer. Gatsby knew it, too. Sometimes, though, the things we sacrifice (children, family, a life) are more than we can bear. Reading the last page of this book gives me chills, every single time.

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