I have a noticeboard next to my desk. It holds favourite quotes and cards from favourite authors and events. One particular card that I picked up at the Edinburgh International Book Festival years ago poses this very question.
Books and reading have been part of my life for longer than I can remember; it always fills me with a strange sort of happiness to know that my mum and dad read to be even when I was still in the womb. So it’s no real surprise that today I spend my life writing whenever I can (well whenever my writer’s block allows me to) and reading everything I can.
Yes, I’ve had times where I’ve read less, and read more. I remember being very proud that despite my inbuilt clumsiness I mastered the skill of walking through the school corridors during break with my nose shoved in a book.
But I like to be reminded of this question. It has always been incredibly difficult to answer, however. How can I narrow down to just one book? So how about we change it just slightly. Instead of just one book let’s ask the question:
Do you remember the books that changed your life?
Let’s start at the beginning. I could name so many books I read and loved before I turned 12. From any of Roald Dahl’s books to The Worst Witch series I remember how much I loved going to library sales in Edinburgh or spending hours treating book shops as libraries.
Harry Potter hit the shelves in 1997. Suddenly reading was cool.
I’d be lying if I tried to do this list without mentioning Harry Potter. For many people my age Harry Potter was a series that grew with us; that took us from childhood through our teens. The books ended in 2007, when I was 17 and had made the decision to leave school early. (Note the end of Harry Potter and the end of my school career were not in fact related.)
Of course there were amazing fantasy books out there for kids before this. Of course, kids my age loved reading before J.K. Rowling hit the shelves. But suddenly reading was everywhere – we swapped stickers based on the books, we discussed which school houses we’d be sorted into and we found dressing up cool for pre-teens.
But we also now had characters we loved and stories we cared about – more than 11 year old me could explain.
Until the fourth book, we had a new Harry adventure every year. Meaning when he was struggling with balancing the increased importance of school work and the increased importance of a social life as a preteen; so were we.
I’m not going to say Harry Potter didn’t change my life. Maybe at times I admit it begrudgingly but I always admit it. I made new incredibly important friends through our shared love of this book. I had such an amazingly successful first year on Etsy, thanks to starting my business by selling HP inspired costumes for the release of the final film in 2011.
But Harry Potter was only the start.
It may have reignited a love a reading in me – and helped to increase my love of dressing up and the theatrical. But I grew older, and my tastes changed.
I found new books and new worlds to inhabit. By the time I was 15; just reading things wasn’t enough. I wanted to change the world by telling me own stories too.
As much as I was always reading; I was also always writing. But it wasn’t until my 15th year, and my first summer out of Europe that I finally realised that writing as a career could be a valid option.
We spent a month in the summer of 2003 with family in America and I found the author Meg Cabot (then sometimes writing as Jenny Carroll). I absolutely fell in love with the protagonist Suze Simon and The Mediator series.
I bought and read the first four books of this series in the 4 weeks we spent in Philadelphia. And now even 16 years they’re still one of my go-to comfort reads. I have now re-read them so much that the original books are falling apart. I’ve bought the e-book versions, the audiobook versions and even invested in new paperback copies of the entire series so that my beloved, dog-eared originals can be kept ‘for good’ well, for display purposes anyway.
There is a reason that one of my tattoos is a key with the roman numerals nine on it. The Ninth Key is the second book in the series but it also serves as a reminder and memorial of what writing can do. What I can do as a writer. What I could do and what I will do.
I’ll let you into a little secret.
I’ve been working on my first novel since I was 17. It was all thanks to Meg Cabot and Suze Simon. I remember sitting in Higher English, I think it was a revision day; or maybe just a self-directed study class but I suddenly had the idea for a novel which has stayed with me until this very day. Some would say that 14 years is too long to work on the same project but it sat in paper format, then on my computer in digital format for so many years, untouched but never unloved. Then as my reading matured, and my understanding of how to write grew this baby novel flourished and changed.
While at college in my late teens I was praised for my writing and in-depth research projects. Then in university in my 20s I grew to love documentary films and screenwriting. I read (obviously) and read more books on how to write. I started researching; then changing my mind and researching again.
When I left college in 2007, and went to live in Edinburgh by myself for the first time (well the first time without my parents) reading became something of a solace. For the first time I was working for a living – in a terrible job that still barely covered my food costs. I spent a lot of my free time both reading or hunting libraries and second-hand book shops. And so my next all-time favourite book was found for just 25p in a random charity shop of Morningside.
Lazy Ways To Make A Living
By Abigail Bosanko, pulled me out of my isolation and funk. For the first time I really understood just how powerful books could be depending on when they found you. It wasn’t until years later, when I finally read Jane Eyre that I realised that aside from being the protagonist, Rose’s favourite book it acted as inspiration for Bosanko. Lazy Ways To Make A Living was in fact a modern retelling of Jane Eyre, building on the amazing foundation of feminist literature of the Brontës; Austen and Shelley. It didn’t perhaps change how I felt about books but it encouraged me to keep reading, to keep writing and to keep believing in the power of the written word.
But Ninth Key wasn’t my first book tattoo
That honour went to one inspired by the wonderful Vampire Academy books by Richelle Mead. Again this book found me at a specific time in my life, and made that time easier to bear. The main character, Rose was strong but frustrated. She was conflicted and determined. I saw in her what I could be; how I could be – if I just believed in myself again. In Mead’s vampire universe the half mortal guardian of the pure-blood vampires would make a promise, to their charges and to themselves: to keep fighting; to keep protecting; to keep going.
In addition to this promise; which was shown to the world in the form of a neck tattoo; each defeat of an enemy was celebrated with another tattoo.
So finally on my 27th birthday I got my first tattoo: A promise mark and two molnija marks (to celebrate victories) the mark was a promise to myself that I would always keep fighting. Each molnija mark represented an enemy that I would keep fighting: my mental health battles and my physical health battles.
Time to become a ‘Writer’
So it was 2015 after 27 years of reading and writing I finally got the courage to publish my own work. For the first time it was my words online. It wasn’t the fanfiction rambling I’d posted on livejournal. It wasn’t simply book reviews. It was something that came out of my head – all by itself. Something that meant something real to me. She and Him: Valedictory was released onto the world. It was also that year that I found my MA. The MA that sent me on the path I’m on today: a Masters in Creative Writing at Edinburgh’s Napier University. I learned so much on this course and found so many awesome friends. And started, with a zeal and passion often considered by others to be geekish on what will now hopefully be my first completed (and hopefully) published novel.
While my first novel is still somewhere half-written on my computer (and still much loved) it is this current project I hope will lead to me becoming a ‘professional successful writer’ someday (whatever that means.)
There are so many books that I read during the one year course that changed how I viewed things; so many conversations I had that changed how I viewed beloved books and authors. Even ones that led to my third and most recent book inspired tattoo. (The amazing Flawed by Cecelia Ahern)
Do you remember the book that changed your life?
I can’t say I remember every single book I’ve ever read. But I do remember the ones that changed me, forced me to question things and moulded me into the person I am today. My answer to this question then I guess is: no but I do remember that books – all books and reading; just reading as much as I can have and will continue to change me for the better.
So here’s to another 31 years of books that will change my life.