6 Books that Changed me For the Better

Here’s to the books that taught me more than I could ever learn at school.


How much of what you were taught in school do you remember? I bet it’s very little. Learning how to add up, write sentences, locate countries, and spell is necessary, but just the start of our education. School sets us up for life and future learning, but we shouldn’t stop there. That’s where reading comes in.

I was lucky enough to enjoy school and did well. Alongside this, I was always a prolific reader. I marched through titles that were probably beyond my age range and emotional maturity at the time, but they certainly left their impact. They challenged me and taught me new ways of thinking that weren’t featured in the textbooks I read in the classroom.

School teaches you facts, knowledge and gives you a skillset, but books have the power to change the way you think. When I say these books changed my life, it refers to how much of an impact they had on me and how I came to think about the world as a result.

Many of these books were read in my early teens when I was discovering my views on social and political issues. Since they have been re-read many times over, but that doesn’t stop them from having a significant impact on shaping me as a person.


One Day, David Nicholls

Fiction

At its core, One Day is a romance novel told over the course of a few decades. It begins in July 1988 when Emma and Dexter have just graduated and documents their friendship through letters. Emma is the perfect narrator; she’s funny, thoughtful and pays attention to every detail. Dexter is her opposite, arrogant, thoughtless in some instances, and forgetful.

As Emma struggles to get her teaching career and writing ambitions off the ground, Dexter swans around the world, living the high life. Their lives couldn’t be more different. However, their friendship, and the letters, remain. It’s a typical ‘will they won’t they’ romance story, but told with a poignancy that stole my heart.

How it impacted me

Emma is portrayed as being incredibly bookish, a little dorky, unfashionable and clumsy, but she is so loveable. I saw a lot of myself in her, and it was the first time I connected with a narrator in a novel and realised it was okay to be all of the above. In fact, it was actually quite likeable. It taught me to embrace my bookish nature, and for that, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Without revealing too much of the ending, this book taught me the value of time and how much difference a single day can make during the course of our lives. It hones in on the importance of decisions, their impact and how our lives can be shaped forever.

“Whatever happens tomorrow, we had today; and I’ll always remember it.” — David Nicholls, One Day


1984, George Orwell

Dystopian fiction

In an imagined totalitarian future, Winston Smith is a low ranking member of ‘the Party’, and he demonstrates his frustration with its surveillance and intrusion into normal life. This is a police state, bound by authoritarian rule and a warning for the nations of Europe at the time of writing, who were descending into totalitarianism and fascism in the midst of World War Two.

At its core is Big Brother, who is watching everybody’s move, but also a state that perpetuates a type of truth founded on lies. 1984 has become associated with the modern trope ‘that’s a bit Orwellian’ as political discourse in the West has fed into post-truth and dangerous narratives. But its impact on our social, political and cultural lives is still significant.

How it impacted me

I read this when I was about 14, and I can still remember when I finished the book and spent several moments after thinking about what I had just read and how much it had blown my mind. I distinctly remember focusing on the idea of “two plus two equals five” (2 + 2 = 5),” as I contemplated the idea that everything I had learned at school could be questioned.

From that moment, I started to question everything more and not just accept things. Obviously, facts are facts, but we should always scrutinise opinion and point of view. In short, it changed my mindset and approach to life.


Jo Cox: More in Common, Brendan Cox

Biography

Jo Cox was an MP (Member of Parliament) who campaigned for togetherness, inclusion and fairness in the face of the rather toxic, Brexit referendum campaign in 2016. The news of her murder by Thomas Mair, who held far-right views, shocked the world.

More in Common tells the story of Jo’s life written by her husband, who survives Jo alongside their children. It reveals a woman who was passionate about politics at all costs but tried to add a human element into everything she did. She held ideas for a better world: less division and more coming together, and this book documents the beginning of her political career. Above all, it reminds us of so much that was lost.

How it impacted me

Voting against Brexit was the second legal vote I cast at the age of 18, and it was the period of time in my life where I was becoming politically aware. The news of Jo Cox’s murder shook me to the core, as it did the world. I remember watching the news roll in that day and not quite believing what I was hearing.

After reading this several years later and realising how much politics in this country lost that day when Jo was murdered, it profoundly impacted me. Jo strove for a less divisive society and believed in hearing all sides of the debate, which shaped how I came to approach politics. Reading this inspired me in many ways, and I will always strive to be more like Jo.

“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” — Jo Cox, maiden speech in Parliament (2016)


The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Classic fiction

As classics come, this is a pretty popular one across the board. Set during the jazz age in the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby tells the story of Jay Gatsby, an outlandishly rich man who is trying to win back the heart of his childhood sweetheart — Daisy Buchanan. Caught between it all is our narrator, Nick Carraway, who moves to Long Island and finds himself as Gatsby’s neighbour, soon frequenting his lavish parties.

It’s a story of love, friendship, excess, wealth, loneliness and revealing all the holes in the promised American Dream.

How it impacted me

I’ve read this more times than I can count. At one point in my life, I would re-read The Great Gatsby every year and marvel at how I would find something new to take note of each time. When I first read it, I was moved by Fitzgerald’s prose, description and symbolism, and it made me realise the possibilities of literature and what words can do.

It’s a work of art, and it made me believe in the power of books to move, inspire and captivate us all. Call me dramatic, but I would never look at any work of literature in the same way again after reading this.


Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid

Fiction

Emira is a young, black woman accused of kidnapping two-year-old Briar — the white daughter of the person she babysits for. It is clearly a racially charged accusation, filmed by a few onlookers who upload the footage to social media. This opening act sets the theme for the rest of the novel.

Alix Chamberlain — the mother of Briar and Emira’s employer — continuously boasts that she understands racism and is in the know because she has a handful of black friends. However, her privilege and intolerance towards people of colour are revealed as the story progresses.

This is a tale of race and privilege and how they intertwine with gender and social class. Set in modern-day Philadelphia, it shines a light on our present world and the casual forms of racism that infiltrate every level of society.

How it impacted me

As a white person, I can only understand so much in terms of racism because I am privileged enough never to experience it. I can recognise it and call it out, but I am not subjected to the microaggressions that can happen throughout a person of colour’s everyday life.

This book changed the way I viewed racism by exposing just how subtle it can be. It was useful and enlightening for me to witness a black woman’s perspective on the world and realise how not having to be subject to casual racism daily is a massive privilege.


I could include many more books in this list, but for now, these are the most impactful ones I have read so far. They have either shaped my understanding of the world, my political outlook, or how I understand the social and cultural undercurrents of the world. And for all those reasons, I am immensely grateful for coming across them.

Books have power, and there are certain ones we read during the course of a lifetime that stay with us forever. These are some of mine. What are some of yours?


This was initially published in Books Are Our Superpower 19 April, 2021.

My top 3 Classics to get you through isolation

As our lives suddenly become filled with more empty hours it is the perfect time to read! Reading the classics can seem long and arduous compared to a quick page turner, however, now is the time. These are my top three classics I think are well worth reading! Let me know if you end up trying them.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane was never plain! Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a determined young woman who has had all the odds thrust against her. Published in 1847, the book immediately portrayed a new type of heroine. One that rose beyond her ranks and respectability, to try and pursue the man she loved..

Jane grows up in an orphanage and is exposed to endless childhood cruelty. However, she doesn’t let this shatter her pride or spirit. As a young adult she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester’s residence. Jane spends her time looking after the children there, all the while gradually falling in love with the mysterious Mr Rochester – she knows this is a type of forbidden love, due to her social standing. However, Jane naturally has an air of independent spirit thanks to her upbringing – this soon leads her into uncharted territory.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…”

Secrets start to haunt Thornfield Hall and all the while Jane is torn between staying there to be close to Mr Rochester, or leaving to pursue her own safety. Will she get to be with the man she loves?

A remarkable novel for its times, and one I loved reading very much. It is on the one hand, your classic, Victorian Gothic novel, but on the other hand, a complete re-working of its traditions. It’s a tale of an ordinary woman’s search for love and companionship and attempt to break down those traditional barriers. Never take for granted Charlotte Bronte’s use of a strong, female protagonist, it was way ahead of its times, and her execution is breathtaking.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

This may well be the ultimate American novel. Set during the disastrous American dust bowl phenomena, this novel follows the Joad family, in their struggle to make a living and stay afloat in troubled times.

The Dust Bowl refers to a series of storms that severely damaged the ecology of the Great American plains in the 1930s. Happening during the aftermath of The Great Depression (1929), it had long-lasting disastrous economic and social affects. Most importantly, it was not just an environmental disaster, but one that impacted the lives of many Americans who lost their agricultural lands and livelihood. Many Americans had to leave their homes in the search of a better life – and this was a promise that was more often than not, never fulfilled.

Told in blisteringly beautiful prose, Steinbeck outlines the many implications of the Dust Bowl and its influence on your average American family. The Joad family are forced from their homes to travel West in search of jobs and an income to feed themselves. Taking it day by day, the Joad family struggle to find enough to eat and make ends meet. The prose unreservedly describes the obliterated landscape as the family travels West, making it a reading joy, despite the troubled circumstances.

What becomes obvious throughout, is the falsehood of the American Dream and that great promise that if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. Steinbeck critiques this very ideal and thrusts to the forefront the very real struggles experienced by many American families during the 1930s, as they made their journey West in the hope of a promised future.

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Beautiful and harrowing, this is a must read and one that will stay with me forever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

A timeless classic which I’m sure is on many people’s favourite lists. Again, this novel does not shy away from critiquing the false promises of the American dream and that importance of wealth that has been emphasized throughout American history and culture. Wealth has often been heralded as the one marker of success and ultimate happiness, but this novel exposes the human realities of pursuing this dream with a blind capacity. Endless wealth for Jay Gatsby, can never equate to a lifetime of pure happiness.

Told in myriads of beautiful prose containing metaphors, genius symbolism and expert crafting of character, this is the one novel that made me fall in love with literature. Its timeless message is one that makes it so significant and enduring, but it is in the crafting of the novel whereby it is so special.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Gatsby appears to have it all. He lives in the biggest mansion known to man, right next to Nick Carraway, who has arrived to New York in search of his own American Dream. Nick meets Gatsby and is naturally entranced by his persuasive and endearing persona. Through Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy, Nick soon gets involved within the millionaire lifestyle that thrived in the 1920s. Lavish parties, fast cars, and an abundance of alcohol soon appears to be the norm.

But Nick knows this is never sustainable. Known as the unreliable narrator to Gatsby’s pursuits, Carraway uncovers the falsehood of the American Dream to readers, in his subtle critique of this lifestyle and the events he experienced with Gatsby.

In the end, Gatsby realises it too. But too late. It is a tale of impossible dreams, love, and an unsustainable lifestyle that is more corrupting than it is fulfilling. It is a novel I unashamedly go back to again and again, each time finding something new I love and admire.