Books that Changed My Life

I have lived alone for around thirty years, and yet I can honestly say that I have never been lonely. And I think that at least one of the reasons is that I live with a cast of characters in my head, depending on which book I am reading. 

Usually a novel, sometimes a biography or autobiography, but always something that stimulates my imagination so that I am no longer me lying in my bedroom in Wimbledon, propped up on pillows reading my Kindle, but (say) a sixty-six-year-old ex Detective Constable widower called Tom Kettle living in retirement in Dalkey, Ireland, whose life is about to implode as long buried secrets surface to destroy his equilibrium. Not very cheery you may think, but filled with enough beautifully lyrical passages and acute observations of the human condition by Sebastian Barry (‘Old God’s Time”) to keep me engaged and satisfied until I turn off my bedside light and seek oblivion in sleep.

I was listening to a podcast last week from a series by Rafael Behr called ‘Politics on the Couch’. I find his interviews fascinating as he seeks psychological insights into politics and politicians. This week’s podcast was with Celia Hammond who fronts the Radio 4 programme ‘All in the Mind’ and the title was ‘Kindness, a conversation about political empathy, its power and limits’. If that floats your boat then I can thoroughly recommend what was a fascinating hour-long discussion, but right at the end, one bit about how to develop empathy, leapt out at me:

“Best empathy training is reading fiction. There is good evidence that this really improves your ability to understand others' points of view because you are taken straight into the mind of another person with a different perspective to yours.”

All of which got me thinking about books which have had the most profound impact on me and the way that I see and make sense of the world. I read widely across many different genres: historical, classical, crime, biography and autobiography, family sagas, the odd bit of chick-lit and occasionally a bestseller that catches my eye and may either prove worthy of the hype, or profoundly disappointing. I have certain favourite authors all of whose output I have read and for whose latest publication I will be waiting impatiently. I read both male and female authors and my main criteria for persevering or abandoning a book are the quality of the writing and the interest (and empathy) I feel for the main protagonist(s). At the age of 75, I no longer persevere if a book doesn’t hook me fairly fast because, well, so many books left to read, so little time!

And of all those hundreds of books, thousands of pages and millions of words that I have read in my life, there are only a handful whose stories I can recall in real depth, possibly because they have resonated very profoundly with me, and perhaps because I have enjoyed reading them more than once. However ‘life-changing books’ is such a huge claim that I would restrict that category to just two. The first is a book I read as a teenager around 1965 and the other is a book I read when it was published in 1985. Both books concern dystopian worlds in which the sympathetic main characters are having a really shockingly bad time in imaginary societies in which they have lost all personal agency. The point for me is that they also contain prescient warnings which are becoming more rather than less apposite the longer I live.

My first life-changer is ‘1984’ by George Orwell which I read in my middle teens, having devoured all of Orwell’s writings after studying Animal Farm for O Level English. On the face of it, this book, which Orwell actually wrote in 1948, is a love story between Winston and Julia who attempt to kindle a relationship in a totalitarian state called Oceania in which all forms of emotional connection except with the all-powerful ‘Big Brother’ are seen as both dangerous and subversive.  People are subject to continuous surveillance both at home and at work via screens which also pump out meaningless production statistics and fabricated triumphs. Falsehoods and lies, in other words.

Winston works in the Ministry of Truth and his job involves the manipulation of the historical record so that people who have now ‘disappeared’ are systematically removed from photographs and other written evidence of their former existence. Needless to say that Winston and Julia’s secret love is doomed. Their subversive activities are being monitored from the beginning and Winston cannot withstand the terror he finds in Room 101, so that, somewhat inevitably, he denounces his love of Julia to save his own skin. 

My second life changing book is Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. The women’s liberation movement had been gathering pace for sometime when Attwood saw fit to write this warning about a possible backlash. The book is set in the near future in a place called Gilead, a large region of the USA which has been taken over by an authoritarian fundamentalist regime, entirely run by male Commanders. There is widespread infertility (possibly due to pollution) which justifies the ordering of all females into 3 categories: subservient wives, unmarried but fertile Handmaids and older ‘Marthas’ who are their servants.

June Osborne, is the Handmaid of the title. She is a known feminist who is arrested whilst trying to flee Gilead. Her husband Luke escapes to Canada, but she and her young child Hannah are captured. Hannah is taken from her and placed with another family. June is assigned to a very senior Commander, Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy. June becomes ‘Offred’ - quite literally Of Fred’, underlining the total control that her Commander now exercises over every aspect of her life, including her body and its reproductive functions.

Offred does indeed give birth whilst in the Waterford household, but the baby has been conceived via her consensual relationship with Nick, the chauffeur, not via the monthly sessions of enforced sex to which Fred subjects her. The ending of the book is ambiguous. Helped by Nick who is part of a resistance movement called ‘Mayday’, Offred runs away. Perhaps she makes it to join Luke in Canada, perhaps she is recaptured. We will never know.

It is perhaps significant that none of the women in Gilead are allowed books, whilst in Oceania ‘Newspeak’ has been invented to limit people’s vocabulary. Both are an acknowledgement of the power of words, especially the written word, to inform and educate or to console and entertain. ‘1984’ and The Handmaid’s Tale are stories about characters that I recognise and with whom I can empathise. In the hands of brilliant writers like Orwell and Atwood, these stories serve as warnings about the uses and abuses of power.

And that’s how they changed my life. As a teenager in 1965 and as a young woman in 1985, I read these books as a warning to stay interested in, engaged with, and informed about politics and what is happening both at home and abroad. Are there places in the world where people are subject to constant surveillance, or where all media is state-controlled, or where women are deprived of rights and choices over their own bodies or refused access to education and books….? Well, I’ll leave you to join the dots. As ever, I feel the need to remain vigilant and to keep reading books which I find unsettling. Because, let’s be frank, which one of us would ever want to wake up in either Gilead or Oceania?

Do leave a comment below! I read everyone and value your contribution. What books have had an impact on your life? Do share your thoughts and ideas.

Tricia x

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