Some books you read, and then you just sort of forget; they don’t make any difference in your life. Some you think about for a while after, but then they fade from your memory and you move on to the next thing. But there are some books that just get their hooks into you and stay with you, coming back to you throughout your life. They connect with something inside you, something unique to you, and deep enough so that you always remember it. The books I discuss in this post are ones that I simply cannot forget reading for the first time, books that had a real lasting impact on me – changing the way I thought about literature and the way I read, and affecting my choice of reading material even now. These books have made me the reader and writer I am today. I hope you enjoy them too.
(A small note – I do not have all my copies of these books to hand, so I have had to make do with pictures from GoodReads. I hope that doesn’t detract from the wonderfulness of the books!)
Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
I studied Lord of the Flies for GCSE English, and it was transformative for me. I would have been maybe 14 or 15 years old, and it was the first book I’d read that had such adult themes and that I looked at with real analysis and insight. I think the depth of the impact it had on me was partly due to my amazing teacher, who encouraged us to look at the text critically and then discuss it in class – which at that age was a completely new way of studying a book. We didn’t just talk about the story, we talked about the larger themes and philosophy, the use of language, the point the author was trying to make – the meaning of the word “allegory”. I still think about Lord of the Flies and how much I just loved and relished studying it. The whole process meant so much to me – it was like a window had opened and I could understand books in a whole new way. I’d always enjoyed reading up to that point, but I think this process was what made me really fall in love with literature and made me want to explore it and understand it. I have the yellow Faber educational edition from the 1990s, somewhere in a box, still with my handwritten notes from school inside.
Purchase Lord of the Flies from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s (affiliate links).
The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt
I also read this book in my mid teens when I was just discovering adult books and “literature”. I read about The Secret History in an issue of ELLEgirl (remember that?!) and it really intrigued me. The first time I read it, I loved it but I don’t think I really understood it, and I wasn’t used to that style of writing – really anything that wasn’t YA. I read it again a few years later and only then did I really get it, really appreciate it beyond just knowing I loved it. In the summer between AS and A2, our English teacher asked us to prepare a presentation on a book we loved outside of school, and I chose The Secret History. My teacher was impressed by my comments and insight, and this meant so much to me because she was someone I hugely respected and I so admired her passion for literature. And of course I went on to read Donna Tartt’s other books (all of them…!) and she remains my favourite author. I have the same paperback edition as the one pictured above (published by Penguin in 1993) except mine is scuffed and crumpled and full of sticky tabs. Well-loved.
If you are interested my original (very over-excited) review of The Goldfinch is here. I re-read it in 2021 but have yet to be able to put my feelings about this experience into words.
Purchase The Secret History from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s (affiliate links).
Persuasion (1817) by Jane Austen
This is another book I studied at school (sensing a theme here), but the reason I’ve included it – above all the other Jane Austen books I’ve read – is that it was the first time I really appreciated and understood her writing and what she was trying to do. We learned about free indirect speech and the ways in which Austen speaks to her readers through this. There are bits that are the omnipresent authorial voice and then there are bits that are just Jane. Persuasion was obviously a later novel, and it’s one where she really puts so much of herself into her heroine, and it really shows. It was the first time I appreciated the emotional depth of her writing, and the passion she had underneath that neat exterior. Not long after I read it, I watched the adaptation with Sally Hawkins and I cried a lot. Highly recommended.
Purchase Persuasion from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s (affiliate links).
Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada
When I read this book it was like nothing I had ever read before. I’d read several books about the Second World War, thanks to a course in my third year of university called Literatures of Genocide (catchy), but I’d never read any fiction about the period. I’d read about soldiers, guards, camps, military police, survivors, perpetrators – but nothing about the ordinary German people who were still trying to get on with ordinary life. Alone in Berlin was the first thing I’d read about the War that was by a German person that was not a testimony. Fallada’s writing was also like nothing I have read before (taking into account the translation) and it remains one of the most immersive novels I’ve ever read. I still can’t bring myself to watch the film adaptation – partly because of the casting for Otto and Anna, which I’m not sure about, but mainly because I know it will be completely devastating. One of the very few books I have read more than once – my copy of the Penguin paperback, the same as the one pictured above, is looking rather worse for wear.
My post about re-reading Alone in Berlin is here. I have also written about Fallada’s novel Little Man, What Now? and a biography of him (More Lives Than One by Jenny Williams), both of which were excellent.
Purchase Alone in Berlin from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s (affiliate links).
Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier
Like many of the books in this list, Rebecca was unlike anything I had read before. Du Maurier’s style is incredibly engaging right from the first sentence, and I was completely immersed. I loved the duality of Rebecca and the new Mrs De Winter, the strangeness of it all, the vivid settings and characterisations. It is a wonderful blend of the gothic, romantic, dramatic, and the literary, and it stuck in my brain for a long time after I’d finished reading. I’ve since read several other du Maurier novels and short stories, and while they have all been excellent (hello, My Cousin Rachel), it’s easy to see why Rebecca is her most famous story. Even though it’s very dramatic and specific, I think its themes are strangely universal and relatable – the duality of self, the unknowable nature of other people, the pull of the past, the sense of impostor syndrome and comparison. Part of its lasting impact on me is that it expanded the type of novels that I love, and highlighted the joy of a dramatic, romantic, and exciting novel that is also brilliantly written and not at all schmaltzy or melodramatic – something we find throughout du Maurier but also in Sarah Waters, whose books I also adore.
My post about My Cousin Rachel (in which I also compare the book and the recent film) is here. I also wrote about du Maurier’s novel Julius here. My review of Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests is here.
Purchase Rebecca from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s (affiliate links).
I hope you have enjoyed reading this little list, as it’s a format I like posting in and which I might do more often – let me know what you think. I’d love to hear about the books that had the most lasting impact on you too. As always, happy reading. x.
6 thoughts on “Five books that changed the way I read”
I am sorry to say that I do not seem to get on with Donna Tartt, but I like your other choices.
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That’s fair enough! I know she can be divisive. Thank you for the comment though 🙂
I’ve had Donna Tartt on my “to read” list ever since Brett Easton Ellis (who went to school with her) said she was a better writer than he was.
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That’s a strong recommendation! There’s a huge mutual respect between them. I’m biased but she is undoubtedly a master of her craft, and worth a try. The Secret History is a good place to start.
I was a bookseller when The Secret History was published, well used to publishing hype, but this was a book that lived up to it.
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Oh wow that must have been intense! But I suppose different to nowadays with social media etc. I’m often put off by something being a “bestseller” but as you say this is one that really deserved it. 🙂