Many people have payed me the compliment of calling me thoughtful, especially after I’ve spent some time in recent weeks articulating the political beliefs that tend to get lost in the never-ending struggling between us and them that is daily politics. I may have been given the seed of thoughtfulness (in both meanings of the word), but my tendency to be a thinker has grown over the years, thanks to being a prolific reader. I grew from a girl who read too many books on the living room floor into a woman who hides in a library looking all intellectual in glasses behind a pile of books. I thought I would share the novels that shaped me into the person I am today, and maybe inspire you to pick one or two up for yourself.
The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
This book is so popular it’s been translated in a lot of languages including Latin. It’s the type of book you read as a child and keep going back to over and over and learn something from it, usually about yourself, or the world around you. I owe the person I am to this book, but saying why would need to give away the entire story.
I also find Saint-Exupéry an extremely fascinating, if not dreamy, figure. Born into an aristocratic family, he was a child with great imagination who never lost it, and nobody knows what happened of him after he disappeared during a flying mission in Occupied France. He is the Little Prince.
Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks)
Sebastian Faulks’ war novel which is likely thought of already as a classic. Like all war stories, it keeps impressed on my mind the great privileges that I have for which many lost their lives, but its tale of friendship in the midst of such hardship really shows the best in humanity. Knowing the amount of research gone into writing this book, I see it as a universal tale of life during the war as much as an individual fictional story, like it’s made of many stories that are being told in many families or that have gone lost in an archive in a museum. I think this is what is really beautiful about this book.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
I’ve spent a great deal of academic effort on the issue of the dandy. It’s probably my favourite topic that doesn’t fall into the domain of religion or politics. This novel has something philosophical about it even in the parts where it just looks like Oscar Wilde is wasting a lot of paper describing things. It’s an aesthetic reflection on life and art and it contains some very witty bits, including one of my favourite lines (“The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that a caprice lasts a little longer”). I’ve always felt I’m a sort of elective heir to Oscar Wilde, who was described by his wife as being someone who liked to go to Benediction at the Brompton Oratory every now and then. Sounds familiar?
The Harry Potter Series (J.K. Rowling)
If I had to pick only one of the 7 it would probably be the 6th, followed shortly by the 7th. They’re the mature ones, those I’ve read as a grown up the same age as the characters in the book. I’ve literally grown with them.
I think besides the magic and all the dreamy stuff that attracts imaginative children like me, there were many lessons to be learnt in those books.
One that I find particularly dear is that of never stopping at our prejudices and judge people too quickly. That’s evident in the way many characters related to each other, and how the lines of good and bad along the house divisions were blurred. We’ve been spoon-fed the idea that Gryffindor = good and Slytherin = bad but some Gryffindors were outright bullies, some Slytherins died heroes. People have more than two dimensions, and don’t fit neatly into boxes.
The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of The Rings (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien)
There is more than just a pedantic need to round off at 5 behind putting these two series of books together. It’s also not just about the fact they were friends in their days, and arguably one influenced the other.
Both these series use the tropes of fantasy literature to wrestle with the big questions of life that religion wrestles with. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian without them. They are very different, one more child-friendly and the other more mature, but ultimately they are about the same themes. I’m particularly fond of Edmund Pevensie and Samwise Gangee. They’re not what we think of as heroes, but I really think heroes are overrated anyway. They are heroes in their own way, as they show the power of forgiveness, loyalty and love.