I recently got into a conversation with some coworkers about the director of the Toronto International Film Festival watching three movies a day. They were enthralled by this, the idea that someone would get paid to sit and watch movies all day. I crinkled my nose at it. I’ve never been much of a movie-goer, never sought out films that weren’t fairly well known. Once in awhile I’ll put something on Netflix that I’ve never heard of before but it’s usually background noise to my other activities, of which I will find plenty.
Everyone has a thing, a creative thing that they’ve delved into in a serious way. For them, it is movies and television. For me, it is books.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love books and not just reading them; I love the look, the smell, the way a new spine cracks when you open it and how an old spine welcomes you like a comfortable chair. I love cover art and discovering after finishing reading (always once finished) what the hardcover looks like under the dust jacket. I love shelves of books and stacks of books and lists of books. I love books.
I must admit that I love some books more than others. Some books changed the way I saw the world or myself. Some books reached into me, to a place so deep, that it found things I didn’t know existed. I want to share some of those books with you:
1. She Came to Stay – Simone de Beauvoir
It has only been in the last few years that I have delved into both feminism and existential literature. Enter Simone de Beauvoir. While I have yet to read her ultimate text, The Second Sex, I did pick She Came to Stay up at a used bookstore before our trip to Paris and Amsterdam. The story is fictional but based on true events in which a young woman threatened to destroy the relationship de Beauvoir had with Jean-Paul Sartre. It is an emotional, raw account of what happens to a person when they feel their love is threatened by another. I recognized the feelings of jealousy, the internal dialogue attempting to rationalize what’s happening, and the conviction that you are being crazy rather than seeing something your loved one does not. It brought back moments where I knew I was not the only woman in someone’s life but ignored that sinking feeling. It made me feel proud and strong, knowing that when I stood up for myself I did the right thing. It made me feel not alone in those moments of betrayal, no matter how long ago they were. Plus, good old Simone also dedicated the novel to the woman who had tried to come between her and Sartre and I highly appreciate this quiet cattiness.
2. The Hour I First Believed – Wally Lamb
If you were ever wondering what book made me cry more than any other book in the history of the world, this is it, finally beating out The Bridge to Terabithia. Lamb is a master storyteller, an author who knows how to weave a tale from beginning to middle to end in a profound, artistic way. He grips you and takes you with him but still gives you time to yourself. I can’t even tell you exactly what about this reached me so deeply – perhaps the woman who was lost in her life, trying to make herself happy or maybe the man who was watching his wife get lost in her life and was trying to make her happy. Either way, it resonated and it resonated hard.
3. How to Be a Woman and How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
I suppose I could put these in two different spots but I feel that’s not fair to the other books. I told you, I’m crazy when it comes to books. How to Be a Woman was one of my first introductions to feminism in the form that I adopt today. It is funny, insightful, approachable and intelligent. It made me think about things I had never noticed and accept things that had always angered me. It caused a lot of growth and despite not reading it until I was twenty-four, it was formative. I can say the same thing about How to Build a Girl. If you want to know if there’s a book out there that made me wish I could go back in time, give teenage me a copy and write in the front, “You see, you’re not alone”, this is it. This is a very important book. It appears light and funny but it’s really saying many things most people are too afraid to say. One of the final chapters was read three times through teary eyes before I moved on from it, it gripped me so hard.
4. 1984 – George Orwell
I love me some Orwell and I love me some 1984. I didn’t have to read this in high school so I didn’t pick it up until I was in my early twenties. I’ve read it three times since then and will probably read it again. It was one of the first times I recognized the power of governments and society, as we all know the premise may be a little over the top but not as much as we’d like to believe. It made me feel queasy when I recognized similarities between the domineering, terrifying things that were happening in this book and what was happening in the real world. It opened my eyes to things I had previously chosen not to see.
5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
This is on here for one very simple reason: I absolutely adore Dave Eggers and this was the first book I ever read by him. I will forever be grateful for this introduction into his weird, intelligent world.
6. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
I always had a problem with the Jane Austen camp praising her novels for their feminist qualities. I read Pride and Prejudice and I finished it disappointed, feeling that it turned out to be another love story about some insolent girl who really just wanted to get married. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it really didn’t make me feel like I had learned anything new. One day I picked up my first foray into the Brontes, Jane Eyre, and I found what I had been looking for. Jane is a hero of mine. She almost killed herself to avoid abandoning her principles when it came to a marriage proposal. I’m serious. She might be a little high and mighty for some but I love her. She taught me that love isn’t everything if you don’t have love for yourself.
7. Chrysanthemums – John Steinbeck
This is actually a short story but it’s a fantastic one. I had chosen it for a project in my grade twelve literature class and therefore had to read it multiple times. Short stories generally say things without saying them and the entire point can be missed on the first go-around. These multiple readings gave me so much insight and I am grateful for them. It’s a story about missed chances, love, and accepting a life that you possibly didn’t want. Elisa is a woman I think many of us would recognize in some way. I remember during my presentation I asked the class if they thought she was a pathetic or heroic character and it was nearly split down the middle. I’m still not sure which one I would pick but maybe that’s because I saw some of myself in there and didn’t want to think I was pathetic.
There are many other books that made me feel things, that made me think, but these are the ones I recognized myself most in. They vary in style, length, and plot, but the common thread between them all is an accessible, at times unwanted, link between my world and the characters. I, obviously, recommend them all.