On Tuesday I turned thirty. Happy birthday to me.
I’m making up for never talking about or celebrating my birthday in the past by themeing a few posts around the number 30 this week. Also because it’s easy to come up with post titles that way, and I’m feeling lazy.
(Seriously lazy. I’m writing this from bed. See?)
So, here are thirty books that have influenced my life in some way.
The Book of British Birds was probably the book that sparked my love of reading. When I was very young, the health visitor came over and my mother told her I could read. “She can’t possibly read already!” the health visitor replied “She can’t even walk yet!” That last fact had more to do with me being a
lazy baby late walker rather than an early reader: it’s not like I was reading before I was a year old. Wait, how old are babies when they walk? I don’t know. Anyway.
The health visitor asked me to read something, assuming it’d be some kind of book for babies. Instead my mother picked up The Book of British Birds and I read it to her. She then said I couldn’t possibly be reading it, I must have memorised what it said (because that wouldn’t be weird at all), so she took it away and replaced it with another book, which I apparently read as well, and then she freaked out because I was some kind of super reader.
This sparked a love of reading and a love of birds. I’m still an avid reader, but at some point during my childhood I gave up my ornithology hobby and I’m not really sure why. Perhaps I’ll revive it someday.
I started primary school late, because we were homeless for a bit and then living in a tent and then in a burnt-out caravan. By the time we were installed in a more habitable caravan, I was six years old and I went to school for the first time. They expected me to be behind the other kids, and in many things I was, but not in reading. In reading I was ridiculously far ahead, so they put me in the P7 reading class (year six, to those of you in England, and for the Americans… I dunno). The first book I read for school was therefore The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden. I loved it, even though the other kids thought I was weird. I mean, I already lived in a caravan and my mother was in the process of joining a cult, so I was pretty comfortable with being a bit odd.
Aliens Ate My Homework by Bruce Coville was the first book I remember re-reading because I loved it so much. I read it twenty-four times.
Red Sky In The Morning by Elizabeth Laird was the next one I read on repeat. I don’t remember how many times exactly, only that I kept going back to it because it was just so good. Both of these solidified my love of reading and made me want to become a writer someday.
Although I’d love to forget about them altogether, the books I had to read when my mother became a Jehovah’s Witness and we left the caravan to become cult members instead have to be included on the list of influential books. The Bible was the biggest one – specifically, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ special version of the Bible. It’s actually pretty much the same as any other version, but with slightly more up-to-date language than, for example, the King James.
Another influential one was called Revelation! Its Grand Climax At Hand. It’s about the apocalypse, and how god is going to kill everyone who’s not a Jehovah’s Witness by turning the rivers into blood and various other fun things.
It’s based on the final book of the Bible, which is called Revelation and is basically John going on a long drug trip and hallucinating all sorts of weird shit. Unfortunately in those days when you hallucinated stuff it meant you were inspired by god, rather than that you were overtired or about to have a migraine.
This is the bit where god throws the devil (the giant snakey thing) down to earth with all his demons (the fiery angel-looking creatures). Humankind is cursed!
The book also featured ‘Babylon The Great’, a woman who rode in on the back of a wild beast to do something Armageddony, I forget what. It’s all a bit fuzzy twenty years on. Essentially she was an embodiment of evil, but when I looked at pictures of her I always thought she seemed kinda fun.
Honestly she looks like a badass who’s having a fantastic time. I secretly decided I wanted to be like her when I grew up, and I started plotting how I was going to leave the religion.
At some point when I was still at primary school I read The Boggart by Susan Cooper. I went home and asked my mother what a boggart was. Unfortunately, a boggart is a sort of mischievous Scottish demon, and also unfortunately, my mother believes demons are real. Rather than assuming I’d seen something about a boggart in a book at school, she instead decided I must have been inhabited by one, and the next few hours were gruelling. But once it was all over I thought, hmm. Interesting. Maybe there’s something in all this magicky-demony stuff, if it can freak my mother out that much. Thus she accidentally planted a seed that grew into a fascination with supernatural phenomena, until I discovered science and reason and grew out of it.
When I moved to England I read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and my best friend and I became absolutely obsessed with it. Everyone thought we were sisters anyway since we looked a bit alike, and then we started dressing in these huge Laura Ashley ballgowns and big straw hats. Yes, that was the kind of thing I wore on non-uniform days. Remarkably, I wasn’t bullied. I think perhaps if you’re that brazen about being a weirdo people can see there’s no point trying to pick on you.
Oh yeah, we were super cool.
Shortly after this phase started Jerry Spinelli released Stargirl, about a girl who’s weird and kooky and doesn’t really give a shit, except she also kinda does. It’s about how hard it is to be completely, unapologetically yourself at high school (and indeed at any stage of life), but how it’s worth it in the end. I related to it a lot.
I read Les Misérables at about the same age, and that made me want to listen to the musical, which I did, and then I was hooked. That sparked my ongoing obsession with musicals as a teenager, and led to me fighting to be allowed to take part in extra-curricular activities (my mother’s cult forbade it), and then to joining the drama club and having a wonderful time singing on stage.
I then read Notre-Dame de Paris, the original French version of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and I realised people saw Gypsies weirdly. Not as proper fellow humans, but as some kind of mythical otherworldly subset of humanity. I decided not to tell anyone at high school I was Romani – we lived in a flat by then and had nothing to do with the local Romani community since my mother had shunned all things Romani when she joined the cult, so it wasn’t like it was difficult to hide.
I read Sophie’s World when I was twelve, and over the next few years several more of Jostein Gaarder’s books became influential in my life: The Solitaire Mystery being the main other one. Sophie’s World turned me on to philosophy, a life-long love, and The Solitaire Mystery showed me that a novel could be weird and excellent and philosophical all at once.
At this stage I was trying to read as much classical literature as possible, since I knew there were holes in my reading and I wanted to fill them. I went to the library and took out Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre, both of which I loved.
Sense and Sensibility gave me the bright idea of copying Marianne and wandering around in the fields in the rain, which is still one of my favourite pastimes.
Reading Jane Eyre, I realised I could visualise how to turn it into songs, like they did for Les Misérables. Obviously my musical attempts were much less accomplished, but bashing out chords on the piano and working out songs and stories to go with them was something I started to do because of Jane Eyre, and it’s something I still do today.
Harry Potter came out while I was a teenager, but it was banned by my mother’s cult and it didn’t sound like the kind of thing I was into anyway: too much fantasy, not enough realism. Later, in my twenties, I read the books and realised there was so much more to them than I’d expected. Plus Hermione is life, obviously.
All was not lost, though. Despite my life being Potterless, I did discover Philip Pullman’s books. The elders in my mother’s cult hadn’t heard of him, so technically he wasn’t banned. The first one I read was Ruby in the Smoke, which I loved so much that I read the His Dark Materials trilogy. These were very intriguing, and I wanted to know if there was anything behind some of the fantastic things he’d written about, so I read The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials by John & Mary Gribbin.
This was fascinating! Somehow physics had become cool! So I went to the library in search of more books about this weird and wonderful world of dark matter and quarks and quanta, and I found a book by one of the same authors. It had an interesting title and an intriguing picture on the front, and it was called In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat.
Once I’d read this I simply couldn’t get enough of quantum physics books. I read Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe and James Gleick’s Chaos. Then I found Theories of Everything by John Barrow, and after that I read The Book of Nothing, and that book led me on to The Mathematical Experience by Davis & Hersh, which is the first book I remember making me cry.
I was sixteen and drunk on science. My mother would have been very unhappy if she’d found out, being a young earth creationist, so I had to do my science reading in secret. This of course just made it even more delicious to my teenage mind. I read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in the bath, feeling a frisson of excitement just from having snuck the book into the house, let alone opening it.
All of these books about science led me to an obsession with physics, which in turn led me to write a rambling essay about whether it’s possible for artificial intelligences to be actually intelligent, which eventually got me onto an MSc course even though I didn’t have an undergraduate degree.
By the time I was seventeen I knew my best chance for getting out of my home life was to go to uni. I applied to a few, and a lecturer at one of them, who knew a little about my home life, sent me some quotes from Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death to encourage me to keep going. I loved the quotes but I couldn’t find the book in the library, so instead I took out Fear and Trembling, which immediately shot to the top of my favourite books list and there it has remained ever since.
Once I’d done the whole uni thing I accidentally ended up working in advertising, which I knew I didn’t want to do long-term. Or even short-term, really, but a girl’s gotta make rent. But what did I want to do with my life? I wasn’t sure.
I’d been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series for a long time, and I re-read them and thought, y’know, people are private investigators. That’s an actual job. And then The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out and everyone kept telling me I was Lisbeth Salander, and I kind of thought… well, why not actually become her? So I did.
After working in digital forensics for a few years I was asked to write a book about it, and my own book, Windows Forensics Cookbook, was born. I can’t write a post about books that have influenced my life without including my own in the list, can I?
And now we’re at thirty. What a perfect place to end.
Tell me about some of the influential books in your life.