I’ve always been a bit of a bookworm. More than a way to pass the time or learn things, reading has been a means by which I explore the world and discover humanity.
In my previous blog post, I shared how I recently digitised my reading history. This process reminded me of the books that left an impression on me. Here are five that I can safely say, with only a hint of hyperbole, changed my life.
The Journey Home – Alison Lester
This is a beautiful, magical story of the adventures of siblings Wild and Woolly, after they fall through a hole in their sandpit. It’s the first book I truly loved – so much so I used to be able to read (ie. narrate) the entire thing without looking at it. The flow of the book captures the thirst for travel, the magic of other places, that I was raised on. And, prophetically perhaps, it ends up back home.
The Obernewtyn Chronicles – Isobelle Carmody
I was obsessed with this dystopian fantasy. The first time I read it in Year 6 I thought it was good but not great, but when I went back to it the following year it resonated like a full orchestra.
I loved everything about it. The new vocabulary I picked up through it. The post-apocalyptic yet sort of medieval setting reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. The talented loner protagonist and her brooding love interest. The political undertones and social commentary.
I read the first four books multiple times, going to great lengths to get my hands on The Keeping Place (Book 4) when it was released. I was enough of a fan that I sent a letter to the author (and she wrote back – from Prague!). Twenty-nine of the books on my list are by Isobelle Carmody. I couldn’t get enough.
Then I grew up a bit and realised The Keeping Place and every book after it was far too long, terribly edited and the main character didn’t have a whole lot of personality. But this series – at least the first half of it – was formative for me and I can’t take that away from Carmody.
For some reason it feels like a cop-out if a Christian lists the Bible as a favourite or impactful book, yet I suspect it would be perceived as intellectual and open-minded if a non-Christian did the same. Go figure.
I do not include this as a token nod to my faith. This huge anthology of short and long books, letters, poetry, defined my faith then and continues to do so now.
Many people “come to faith” through a significant life event or a friend who ministered powerfully to them. I came to faith because this book confirmed the darkness and despair my teenage self observed in the world and in herself – and offered the most beautiful, powerful, unlikely, redemptive hope. Before there was COVID-19, there was Jesus. God became man, God with us, God on a cross: absolutely unprecedented.
Many books have left their mark on me, but notable pieces are Paul’s letter to the Romans for doctrinal framework on what it actually means to be a Christian and the Gospel of John because its poetic narrative captures something beyond the mere facts of Jesus’s life on earth.
Dos Mundos – Tracy D. Terrell, Magdalena Andrade, Jeanne Egasse, Elías Miguel Muñoz
Learning to speak Spanish was one of the most pivotal decisions of my life, although I’d never have guessed it at the time. I confess there weren’t any noble intentions in my choosing to major in this language for my high school certificate and yet if I hadn’t made this choice, I would not have spent three years living in South America, and I’m certain I would not be working for International Justice Mission today.
Dos Mundos was the prescribed textbook for our Spanish class in my final two years of high school. Being taught Spanish in Spanish in those first two years of learning the language was a point of distinction when other languages relied on translation and explanation in English. I firmly believe it gave my Spanish the strongest foundation possible. This in turn encouraged me to pursue it through university and abroad to Spain, Ecuador and Bolivia.
This was also the textbook I was given to teach Spanish. The confidence that head Spanish Studies professor Dr Daniel Martín showed me in handing me the reins to first-year tutorial groups was in itself life-changing. At the time, I was just in third-year uni and dubious about my own ability to master the language. Apart from boosting my own confidence speaking Spanish, I’ve realised with hindsight how much it instilled me a love of helping others to learn. It proved to me that you don’t need to be an expert to be a teacher, and that’s a principle I have applied to other endeavours through the years.
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
This novel was vaguely on my radar because it had won the Man Booker Prize and been turned into a film of some renown. So when I stumbled upon it at an op-shop, I didn’t hesitate to buy it. I was hooked by the bottom of page 1.
Light, beautiful and always, always, poignant, the prose immediately swept me away. And the cadences! This book made me start to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be, gave me something to aspire to. I realised I don’t just want to create an engaging story – I want the words to shine. I want any book I ever manage to write to be so evocative it feels like poetry.
This is a very small selection of books that shaped me in some way. There are others that come to mind: The Hunger Games trilogy, The Vintner’s Luck, On Writing Well, Fear and Trembling and Eve Green, all of which I read and briefly reviewed in 2016. And even last year, I can say that The Left Hand of Darkness, Sacred Rhythms, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Damascus were impactful reads.
It’s funny how a thing like a book can be not merely entertaining, educational, thought-provoking or influential, but life defining. What are your life-defining books? I’d love to hear about the books that changed your life!