A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
OK, so this is a thought exercise, an attempt to funnel life’s complexity into a bookish article, because – surely – no one work deserves the title of The Book That Changed My Life.
That was certainly my conclusion when I tried to shoehorn Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own into the box labelled The Book That Changed My Life for the sake of ticking this blog off my to-do list.
Ms Woolf inspired me, yes. She influenced me, certainly. But in the end I didn’t retreat to a Bloomsbury apartment, with the modern equivalent of 3% net return on capital, to write great literature as a result of reading her oeuvre.
Putting her back on the shelf, I wondered if there was an approximation to be found, a book whose influence was sufficiently profound that I’d be happy to have it quoted back at me.
At first, my hand hovered over Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Yes, it is my all-time favourite novel. No, it didn’t change my life, except in that small, incremental way that every historical novel I’ve ever read presumably influenced me in the genre I eventually decided to write.
George Elliott’s Mill on the Floss might – just – make the grade, not because of the subject, though I loved it, but because reading it returned to me a gift which I thought I’d lost in my teens: that immersive experience when the page is invisible and the world of the book is just as real as reality.
When I bought it, I’d recently returned to England after a harrowing trip to the AIDS heartland in Uganda, and I still couldn’t imagine any other life than being journalist, writing with passion about the here and now. But there I was, on a Devon beach, utterly lost in an imagined world.
So, yes, George Elliot did open my eyes to new possibilities. But life changing? Nah. Stuck for an answer, I set the whole project aside, trusting that the approaching deadline for publication would ignite that creative panic which comes to the rescue of many fiction writers as well as journalists.
The weeks went by. The days accelerated. Could Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy be ‘it’ or Laurence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet? Both had felt more real than the dull, suburban reality that surrounded me when I read them in my late teens; both fuelled the wanderlust that would soon take me off around the world, first as a university student and later in my job as a Reuter’s foreign correspondent. Other travel books sprang to mind, then the crusader adventures I devoured as a child…
At last I spotted a pattern. Apart from A Room of One’s Own, which I read in my twenties, I was going backwards in time, from a current favourite to earlier loves. And that gave me the spark of an idea.
I decided could name The Book That Changed My Life. Better still, I could explain it rationally.
Probably, so can you.
How? Well, when I was drafting The Goose Road, my debut novel, I used chaos theory as a metaphor for the accidental consequences of my protagonist’s actions. The idea rather got lost in the edits, but I still see it in there.
The gist of chaos theory goes like this: in apparently unpredictable systems such as weather, the tiniest alteration in the initial conditions create – when repeated – huge but predictable variations at the end-stage. The image I hold in my mind’s eye to make sense of this (taken from Dorling Kindersley’s brilliant, illustrated encyclopaedia, Science) is the plume of smoke left when you snuff out the flame of a candle. Initially the smoke rises in a regular column, but then suddenly breaks into disordered, fantastical patterns. The shapes of these patterns are determined by the smallest, invisible variations within the initial column.
And the relevance to books?
For the sake of this blog, I’m going to suggest that books nurture miniscule variations in our natures, and, when that influence is repeated, create the fantastical variations in our lives that result from our life choices.
Thus to find The Book That Changed Your Life, look at where you are now and (if it’s where you want to be) how you got there, all the way back to the earliest ideas that inspired your life’s journey, including childhood books that nurtured that potential within your nature.
For me, that imagined road leads to a quiet country lane, on a late summer’s afternoon, and a discontented Rat, consumed by a primitive urge to migrate with the season, irritable with envy at the swallows who’ve feasted above English meadows all summer long, but now are preparing to fly south.
A lean, keen-featured seafaring rat is also travelling along that byway, heading south, urged on by the insistent, migratory call of autumn. He stops at our Rat’s invitation to picnic on garlic sausage, cheese and wine, and while they dine he talks about his adventures.
Under the spell of his voice, “The quiet world outside … receded far away and ceased to be. And the talk, the wonderful talk flowed on. Or was it speech entirely? Or did it pass into song: chanty of the sailors weighing dripping anchor, sonorous hum of the shrouds in a tearing North-Easter, ballad of the fisherman hauling his nets at sundown against an apricot sky, chords of guitar and mandolin from gondola or caique?
“All these sounds the spellbound listener seemed to hear, and with them the hungry complaint of the gulls and the sea-mews, the soft thunder of breaking waves, the cry of protesting shingle.”
The call of the sea, the call of the south: unlike Kenneth Grahame’s Rat I heeded them both, and lived under African skies, and sailed into Venice, and married a seafarer, and still live within the sound of salt waves, roaring in a Southerly gale.
But the idea that any of these choices had anything to do with reading The Wind in the Willows when I was eight is pure fabrication.
Rowena House is an historical author for teens and a creative writing mentor as well as a journalist. Her debut novel, THE GOOSE ROAD, is out with Walker Books in April, 2018. A graduate of the Bath Spa MA in Writing for Young People, she won the Andersen Press-Bath Spa WW1 short story competition, with her winning entry published in WAR GIRLS (2014). She also trained as a children’s fiction editor with the Golden Egg Academy. As a Reuters’ foreign correspondent, Rowena lived and worked in Europe & Africa. She has also broadcast for Visnews TV and BBC Radio 4’s Natural History Programme. She currently lives in rural Devon with her husband, son and their much loved dog, with whom she shares inspiring daily walks along the magnificent local coastline.