The Books That Made Me

I was an avid reader as a child and remember the shelves at home being filled with all sorts of treasures – Helen Nicholl and Jan Pieńkowski’s Meg and Mog books, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Shirley Hughes. My most prized possession was a copy of The Jolly Postman, complete with all its accoutrements and moving parts, and I’d spend hours poring over the games and tiny letters inside.

Growing up, my dad would take my twin sister and I to the library every weekend. We’d come back with plastic bags bulging with books and huge grins on our faces (especially if we’d been able to bag the new Jacqueline Wilson). Or we’d scour charity shops and car boot sales for our favourites. Books didn’t have to be new or expensive to feel special.

This continued into my early teens, when I’d hoover up RL Stines’ Goosebumps series, Sweet Valley High or Point Horror. But at around the age of fourteen I fell out of love with reading completely and my shelves went bare for years.

It took a while to get back into the habit, but when I did more unconventional books came calling. I read a lot of Irvine Welsh at that time – books like Glue, The Acid House and Ecstasy, some of the scenes so graphic they’re seared into my mind’s eye even now. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood featured heavily, too, and there were other classics in the mix: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, both fuelled by my love of their film and TV adaptations. A couple of years later, The Secret History by Donna Tartt proved to be a lifeline. I picked it up off my mum’s bookshelf and became obsessed. It reignited my passion for storytelling.

I studied English Literature at university but found much of the material on the syllabus back then uninspiring (students are luckier now there’s been a shift towards more diverse books). I struggle to remember anything we covered in great detail, except Atonement by Ian McEwan, which I do recall wanting to hurl at the wall because of the infuriatingly adroit way in which he captured the unjustness of life. That is a powerful book.

I did my dissertation on serial killers in literature. True crime wasn’t really a ‘thing’ then, so my adviser was slightly concerned. But it meant I read everything from graphic novels about Jeffrey Dahmer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I still read a huge amount of true crime today.

Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is the book that made me want to become a journalist, and my love of his gonzo style set me off on a similar path during my career in magazines – I spent time riding motorbikes with feminist gangs in India and staying in squats in Paris with topless anti-Putin protestors. I then segued into travel writing and became drawn to books with strong sense of place. I’ll still always remember experiencing Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder for the first time, the giant Amazonian jungle bursting from the pages and curling around me as I read.

Since then, my adult reading life has been wildly varied and inconsistent. I’m not fussy with genre and flip constantly – I’m just as happy reading Emily Henry or Lianne Moriarty as I am Stuart Turton or Natasha Pulley. There are books that stand out, though, ones I’ll never forget reading. Life of Pi by Yann Martel is, I believe, proof that there’s wonder to be found in things that could initially be dismissed as ridiculous. Do No Harm, a memoir by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, reminds me that writing books is a privilege, not a life-or-death situation.

I consume a lot of historical fiction, leaning towards the more off-kilter. The North Water by Ian Maguire – about a doomed nineteenth century whaling expedition – and Little, a quirky fictionalised biography of Madame Tussaud by Edward Carey, are two of my favourites. But I also adored the freshness of Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton and the experimental nature of The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber.

But the last two books to really blow my mind were The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward – the most majestic sleight of hand you can ever imagine in a horror novel –and Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, a mind-bogglingly vivid bildungsroman following a young boy’s escape from slavery and his subsequent adventures, which takes the reader from the frozen Far North to Morocco. Just dazzling.

There are many books I ‘should’ have read but never got to – I haven’t read a huge amount of Dickens and have almost never owned anything that appears on the Booker shortlist. It used to make me feel incredibly ashamed, but I’ve come to learn that our reading histories are as unique as our fingerprints, and there should be no shame around what we have or haven’t read. Reading should be about joy, not competition.

  • Lizzie Pook