Influential Literature

Over the last few months there has been much discussion about the GCSE English 'set texts': what they are, what they should be, what they have been changed to, what has been removed etc. This got me to thinking about the books I studied at school, and about a few other books I read in my formative years which had an impact on me.

Here is every piece of literature I can remember studying in any great detail in English lessons at school (in no particular order):

Othello by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Collected works of Tennyson
Poetry from other cultures (an anthology)
Selected poems by both Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage

[No doubt it would warm Michael Gove's heart to see that I never studied Of Mice and Men. I've never actually read it at all, shhhhhhhhh...]

Of these books (plays, works, etc.) only a few have stuck with me in any real way, but there has always been literature in my life, and that has had a big influence on me, and I thought it could be fun to write about some of that here.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
An obvious choice, but undeniable. I first read this book when I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, having been recommended it by my then best friend Katie. I absolutely loved it then and I still do. It kind of blew my mind to read a 'grown-up' book written from the POV of someone around my age, and dealing with the kind of serious issues I couldn't possibly really understand. I'm sure this book contributed to my lifelong interest in American literature and history, especially that of the Deep South, but more than that, it taught me about empathy, kindness, justice and the incredible courage needed to exercise those values.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri
My mother used to read to me from her own childhood copies of these books when I was very little, and it was always something I looked forward to. I loved hearing about Heidi and the Alm Uncle and Peter the goatherd and their way of life in the Swiss mountains. It's just a lovely, lovely story and I totally wanted Peter to be my best friend too. I guess it influenced me to... love goats' cheese??

The Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I read this book when I was about 16 years old, on the recommendation of a boy I knew on the internet who I never met, but who I had, like, an intellectual crush on. He told me he was sad because he'd read this book about a person who totally got him, and it had been amazing, but then at the end of the book, there was a clearly-defined reason why the character felt the way he did, and he (the boy) didn't have a 'reason' and so he felt more alone than ever. Obviously this teen angst really appealed to me, because I bought the book too, and while it's been a long, long time since I have spoken to Internet Boy, Perks has stayed a major part of my life ever since. "We accept the love we think we deserve."
Side note: the film adaptation was damn near perfect too.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
This is the only school-mandated novel to make the list; I read it when I was doing A level English Literature. Studying this novel opened my eyes to the richness of language and symbolism to be found in all sorts of literature. I had previously read novels primarily for the plot and the characters, and reserved the idea of subtlety of language and meaning for poetry (don't ask me why!). The Great Gatsby felt like poetry in the form of a novel and it still has a cracking plot too! I pretty much just love this book.

The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (duh)
Who among those of us born between 1986 and 1996 doesn't love these and feel like they've had a huge influence on their lives? I received The Prisoner of Azkaban as a school prize in 1999, and The Goblet of Fire as a prize in 2000 (because they coincidentally came out around the same time as the prize-giving at my school). I won the prize again in 2001 - reaching, incidentally, the peak of my academic career - but had to wait a couple of years for the next book as I guess she was having a baby or something... Basically, my relationship with Harry is longer than with anyone I know outside of my family. Pretty much everyone I know - and an AWFUL LOT of people I don't - knows these books inside out, and it's so lovely to have something in common with so many people. I love them, I love the films, I love wizard rock, I love the communities associated with them, and it's so crazy awesome to think that we once lived in a world where we didn't know the ending?!

Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
I studied this - in the original Latin, don't you know - in my last year of university and it was the first time in the three years I spent reading ancient texts when I could genuinely and directly relate to a character. It is often described as the first autobiography, so it perhaps understandable that it was so relatable but reading about young Augustine and his relationship with his mother and his struggles to be his best self was surprisingly delightful. As a scholar of the Classics, obviously I believe that the ancients have lots of value to say to us, but before Augustine I had never thought it could be so direct and literal. As a struggling young Christian woman (at the time), I found in a text written over 1600 years ago an ally and someone I wish I could've hung out with. Unexpected.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
This book made me realise that I wanted to be a strident feminist and has had a profound impact on the development of my sense of self as a woman and person and member of the human race. And it's hilarious too!

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
This is another obvious choice and another book that lots of people read at school, but I never did. I can't actually remember when I first read this book, but it was definitely a solidly teenage experience and an early one at that because I spent years afterwards reading every book that described itself as 'the new Catcher In The Rye' (including The Perks Of Being A Wallflower actually). This, in some ways, was the forerunner of Confessions in that it taught me in a direct way that people in the 'olden days' had the same feelings as we do. I'm not saying I am or was in any way the same as Holden Caulfield, but, y'know, aren't we all a little bit? I've never studied this book, or even read it critically, so I'd love to reread it in the light of some analysis and probably enjoy it even more!

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
This was covered in my GCSE English course and stuck with me ever since. This play is scary. It's scary how much you can see the present world in it. But also, John Proctor is a wonderful, complex, confusing character. His final "because it is my name!" speech is one of the few quotations I keep in my head at all times, just in case, perhaps, I'm ever asked to sign a false confession. [I recently went to see the production of this currently at the Old Vic starring Richard Armitage and it was truly brilliantbrilliantbrilliant.]

Double Act  by Jacqueline Wilson
A book I haven't read in maybe 15 years, but if I had to name the literary character I could most relate to in anything I've even read, it would have to be Garnet from Double Act. The scene where she goes to an audition with her sister Ruby and she can see exactly what she's gong to do and how it's going to be great but then she just can't quite do it has been a scene in my life so many times. Like with Augustine and Holden, it's comforting to see yourself reflected in books - because it somehow means we feel less alone, and isn't that kind of why we read anyway? It's great, great to read and meet new people in books, and to gain new perspectives we would never have found on our own, but it's also truly wonderful sometimes to find ourselves.