Hmm. I struggle with the answer to what is my favourite book. I always do when anyone asks me what is my favourite …? And I’ve attempted to write this article several times. In the end, I’ve decided I have to par it down, and down, and down. As I can’t include all the books I would like to, I’ll choose some books randomly and give some reasons what they mean to me.
Books which informed my social conscience are Black Like Me (John Howard Griffen), Cry My Beloved Country (Alan Paton), Cry Freedom (Donald Woods) and includes Charles Dickens’ novels, especially A Tale of Two Cities and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There are many more but these are significant to me.
Books which gave me an interest in psychology include The Caine Mutiny (Herman Wouk), I cannot read it now due to his homophobia, Don Quixote (Miguel De Cervantes), Lord of the Flies (William Golding) and the play script Equus (Peter Shaffer).
Genre books I love include psychological thrillers such as written by Val McDermid, especially her Wire in the Blood books; fantasy includes books by Sara Douglass, especially her Axis trilogy, Terry Brooks especially his Shannara series and Knight of the Word trilogy and, so far, everything I’ve read by Robin Hobb.
Science fiction includes I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov and the books and short stories by Ray Bradbury and Anne McCaffrey, and the Lensmen series by EE Doc Smith – the latter were written in the 1920s and 30s so the social mores are quaint to say the least.
Autobiography includes Ruth Park’s Fence Around the Cuckoo and Fishing in the Styx; Alan Marshall’s I Can Jump Puddles, This is the Grass, In My Own Heart; and Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.
Some other books which have given me much and fired my imagination are A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Shakespeare, Rebecca by Daphe Du Maurier, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, The 39 Steps by John Buchan and Margaret Attwood’s The Blind Assassin. By no means the definitive list, just the first taxis off the rank of instant memory grab – which is probably the best way to go.
Philosophy and ethics include the ethicist Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita – these two are often aligned and just as often opposed, yet always calmly which is refreshing. I read many books on social issues and ethics and some on politics. I enjoy reading most of the philosophers from Kant to (Iris) Murdoch to Hughes to Plato and Socrates.
A few of my favourite Australian books include The Shiralee by Darcy Niland; A Poor Man’s Orange and The Harp in the South by Ruth Park; Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey; My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin and the Woody Creek books by Joy Dettman. One book I adore for its language and the visual tapestry it creates is The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood. I especially love my copy because my youngest son spent ages tracking it down to give it to me for Christmas some years back.
I’ve been reading some of the other articles on the subject Favourite Book (at Wrytestuff.com). Most of the writers can’t choose either and list books I’d like to list as well. Perhaps, instead, I’ll tell you about the first book I ever read Little Gray Donkey by Enid Blyton. It set me off on what has been a reading frenzy ever since.
I grew frustrated at never having enough willing people to read to me. I knew every word of this book by heart and it was the only thing I wanted the ‘giants’ I lived with to read to me. I bored them silly with it, but in fairness it wasn’t a very long book. However, most of the giants were in their teens and didn’t have much time for a four year old. They tried to skip words, paragraphs even pages. Of course, they couldn’t get away with it and I’d insist they go back and read it properly. Hmm, I hadn’t realised what a little martinet I was, but I suppose most four year olds are – aren’t they?
One dark night, Mum was working over steaming pots getting dinner ready for the table, and the giants had claimed homework as an excuse not to read to me. I pestered Mum but, feeling harried, she got ‘steamed’ and said, ‘Read it yourself.’
‘But I can’t read,’ I said.
‘You know every word in that book. Point to them and you’ll be reading it yourself.’
Well, that was an idea. I sat nearby, my back up against a kitchen cupboard and started pointing to the words. It was working. I was reading. Well, I was pointing to the appropriate word and saying it, with just a bit of intermittent help from Mum. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, but this was a gift she gave me I’ll always be grateful for.
I’ve been reading non-stop ever since but I had limited access to books in childhood so spent quite a bit of time with my nose in a dictionary, an encyclopaedic dictionary and an encyclopaedia, and my father’s art and poetry books, unless he was in a grumpy mood. When no-one was looking, which was reasonably often since I was surrounded by giants and they lived up there somewhere, I spirited away whatever anyone else was reading and pored through it. This meant I didn’t always get to finish but I did get to read something and I’m sure not finishing actually helped my own imagination for writing.
Aladdin’s Cave came to my little home town when I was 14 in the form of a bus, a bus filled with books. And I was old enough to choose any book I wanted. No single shelf like at school. No gender demarcation like at school. No forbidden access to older grade books like at school. No sneaking a book to a corner when the giants weren’t looking. Complete access. Four books at a time! And I could read them from first word to last.
Whatever the weather, every Tuesday night I set out for the walk from my bush nestled home, up to the main road and along the dust track beside it into the village. Then, climb the steps of the bus, grin at the driver and pass into the treasure trove of beckoning titles. I spent several hours reading, viewing and selecting the magic I would take home. Next, check them out, and carry them home wishing it was daylight so I could read while I walked.
My heart beat echoed against the warm covers of the books I carried tight to my chest, knowing I was now part of the land of giants and, from that lofty height, I could fly – anywhere.