I’ve been loving reading all the lists of 10 favourite books that people have been posting on social media recently and find I can’t help but mentally compare them to my own list. I love reading and I always have at least one book on the go, so it’s been difficult trying to think back over all my reading years to find just 10 for my own list. The task says they should be books that have left a lasting impact for some reason. I think the idea is also to jot down the first list that comes to mind – but of course I couldn’t possibly do a task like this without thinking long and hard about it. So, two weeks after my first draft, here’s my list – and, surprise, surprise, it’s unchanged from the first list I wrote down.
Little House books: Laura Ingalls Wilder
One More River: Lynne Reid Banks
On the Beach: Nevil Shute
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Metamorphosis: Franz Kafka
Darkness at Noon: Arthur Koestler
Wild Swans: Jung Chang
Birdsong: Sebastian Faulks
The Siege: Helen Dunmore
If you Want to Walk on Water . . . John Ortberg
And here are a few reasons why it’s these books . . . They’re mostly in chronological order of when I first read them. The Little House books were far and away my childhood favourites. I just wanted to be Laura, on the exciting adventure of her life in all the new places they travelled to. If I had to choose just one to represent the series, it would probably be On the Banks of Plum Creek because I was so caught up in the drama of Pa being lost without food in the blizzard. Failing that, it would be By the Shores of Silver Lake with its dramatic opener about Mary being left blind after scarlet fever. Then, in my teen years, I read and re-read One More River – again, longing for the big life adventure of moving countries and an exciting new life (Israel at the time of the six day war). I sense a theme developing here which says a lot about me and my dreams – I hadn’t seen that connection before doing this task.
There are then three big books from my Sixth Form (High School) years: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was my holiday reading for my last ever family holiday as a child. We travelled by overnight ferry to Sweden and Norway and I read the book on the long sea crossing – I could scarcely get my head around the horrors humans could inflict on other human beings. I’d been fascinated by Russia from early in life and was about to start learning the Russian language, so this was a huge awakening into Soviet history some years before I studied it at university. Metamorphosis was an A level German set text and blew me away; On the Beach was a post-A level summer holiday read. The early 80s were a time when the threat of all-out nuclear attack or war seemed a horribly real possibility, so the book’s theme really tapped into that for me. One of the few English books I read during my gap year in Germany was Darkness at Noon. It seems that, as well as the adventurous travel theme, I was also hugely impacted back then by stories of human cruelty and suffering. What a joyful teenager I must have been!
I had to read so many German and Russian set books and extra stuff for my degree that I didn’t start reading “for fun” again until I left university. My first year after graduation was spent in Hong Kong when I read a lot of novels and non-fiction relating to life, history and politics in Hong Kong and China. Of all that I read, Wild Swans undoubtedly made the biggest and most long-lasting impression on me.
And the final two novels on the list both offer fictional, but historically fairly accurate, accounts of war experiences: Birdsong focused on WW1 and The Siege graphically portrays the WW2 siege of Leningrad in which the Germans cut off supply routes and hundreds of thousands of Leningraders starved to death.
And in tenth place I’ve included a John Ortberg book on Christian discipleship. It’s a book with a message that has always challenged me, but it’s written in Ortberg’s light, engaging, and often very funny, style. I found it a thought-provoking read on how God calls his people to step out into the dangerous and scary waters of real faith, and it’s a book I’ve gone back to many times when I’ve needed to be reminded to get out of the boat and be and do all that I’m called to.
I could of course write an even longer list of the books that didn’t quite make the final cut. The most obvious omission from a vicar’s list of top books is the Bible, but I left it out intentionally as it impacts me on pretty much a daily basis, so I wanted to focus on other books that have left a lasting impression. I was struck by not being able to keep any of the classics of world literature on the list – I think they were all just a bit too hard to read so never quite grabbed my imagination and stayed with me in quite the same way. But then again, many of them were compulsory reading at various stages of my education. Perhaps I should try them again now and see if some of them can make the top ten after all. Perhaps the most striking thing for me in doing this task is that, as someone who reads a huge amount of non-fiction, all but one of my top ten books are novels, covering a fairly narrow range of themes: travel, adventure, new life, historical fiction.
For now, I’m just finishing the brilliant Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie having recently enjoyed one of her other books, Purple Hibiscus. Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking is my current non-fiction read. And awaiting my attention is a choice between Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries and Vasily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate – more books set in other times and cultures, depicting human life with all its joys and struggles through the eyes of characters whose own cultural heritage and life experience are very different from my own – in other words, my kind of books!