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Ten books which have stayed with me

Very neatly, wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 4th, 2014 09:11 pm (UTC)
I really need to reread Dracula. It's been forever.

I'm glad you were able to figure out that childhood book! I'm still haunted by one I only have small memory fragments of (castle, monsters, adventure) and haven't been able to identify.
Sep. 4th, 2014 09:52 pm (UTC)
Well, there's a new (and pretty exciting-looking) Dracula movie coming out in a month, so now is a pretty good time to revisit the original.

And yeah, castle, monsters, adventure doesn't narrow things down very much where children's literature is concerned. :-/ That said, an LJ-friend of mine, steepholm, is an academic specialising in children's literature, while many other friends are avid readers of it. So if you're able to say anything more at all here about what you remember (e.g. what the monsters were like, what happened on the adventures), someone in these parts may be able to help you.
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:02 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I think there were children who were prisoners. I also have some image of the monsters being pink or purple (but I might have made that up). When I tried to look it up my brain was telling me it was called something like the prisoner of Zenda (which it obviously isn't!), so it might be something similar sounding. Also to complicate matters I think I read it in Swedish so I have no idea if it was translated or by a swedish author.

If someone can actually figure this out I will be amazed!
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:06 pm (UTC)
Well, that's definitely stumping me, but let's hope someone can help!

It's weird the way the memory distorts things. With my 'ghost book', I had some vague memory of something important in it to do with a cat, but was sufficiently unsure about that bit to leave it out of my description when I asked about the book on the children's lit forum I found.

It turned out, of course, that the main character is called Cat.
Sep. 4th, 2014 09:26 pm (UTC)
I like that you did the list in chronological order: I tried for that too in mine (a couple I'm not sure of the precise order I first read them, but it's pretty close) because I think it's the most interesting way to organize such a thing: it shows in some way the progression of a person's development.
Sep. 4th, 2014 09:55 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it seemed the most natural thing to do. I briefly started out with the books listed in their publication order, but because that's not actually very different from the order in which I read them for the first few, I quickly saw the potential for a different ordering which made much more sense for me.
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:13 pm (UTC)
I elected to construct an Ozma of Oz costume for my fourth grade Halloween, and none of the other children (or teachers) had any idea who that was.Then, when I explained, they felt that I'd been wrong to use a character who wasn't from the Garland/Hamilton movie.

I read Cart and Cwidder before I read Charmed Life, and it wasn't till the latter that I totally fell for Diana Wynne Jones. I continue to be really surprised how well her quality held up as she wrote so very muc. Ups and downs, of course, but.....
Sep. 4th, 2014 10:23 pm (UTC)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It's always odd for me when I see people talk about the book, as I listened to the radio series over and over on tape long before the book was published. To me, the book is more like a tie-in novel, and I'm always surprised how many lists of "Top X Sci Fi Novels Of All Time" it appears in.
Sep. 5th, 2014 12:53 am (UTC)
I certainly read A Traveller in Time, but I remember the television adaptation shown early in 1978 more, with Sophie Thompson as Penelope, which brought out the ambiguity of the Babington Plot well, and indirectly brought Simon Groom to Blue Peter.
Sep. 5th, 2014 09:08 am (UTC)
Oh I totally forgot about DWJ in my list! I first discovered a musty book by her in my school library when I was 10. (It wasn't just hers, all the books there were a bit sad and musty and in clear plastic sleeves that had gone a bit sticky from the sellotape glue spreading.) It was Cart and Cwidder, which is not, I believe, hailed among her best. I remember being shocked by the twists of the plot, which at some key point took a turn that just didn't fit the patterns of what I'd read so far. I quickly read all the others, and yes, Charmed Life is probably my favourite too.

I love the bit where Cat defiantly and disbelievingly lights the match! And again, the plot twist with his sister (and his OTHER sister) struck me as completely outside the normal expected plot space.
Sep. 5th, 2014 09:45 am (UTC)
I don't think I have read A Traveller In Time, but the Little Grey Rabbit books were a huge part of my early childhood!

Hitch Hiker's would be on my list, too. Really must do this one!
Sep. 5th, 2014 08:18 pm (UTC)
Thank you for responding :-)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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