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.

Book Review: Such a Fun Age

It has been a while since I’ve posted, but after spending lots of time trying to eek this out for as long as possible, I’m back with a review of Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was the only book on the list that I liked the sound of – and it by far exceeded my expectations.

Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid (2019)

Coming of Age/Fiction

Synopsis (Goodreads)

“In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”

The Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that feels so close to our current moment. 

Kiley Reid provides, “a beautiful tale of how we live now” (Elizabeth Day). The story is nestled in the city of Philadelphia, and draws upon the social and racial injustices at the heart of modern, American society, through the young, black protagonist, Emria.  

The story alternates between the perspective of Emira and Alix, a white middle-class blogger. They are worlds apart but are brought together by Alix’s employment of Emira as a babysitter for her daughter, Briar. This dual perspective Reid uses allows the two polar experiences of class and race to be played off against each other, which illustrates the existence of Alix’s inherent privilege and mistreatment of Emira. 

Alix struggles to see why her treatment of Emira is problematic, despite making her wear a uniform and her history of only employing black childminders. It’s almost as if she thinks by having a black babysitter, she is doing her bit. Emira is half aware of all this, and it is her boyfriend, Kelley that exposes it more blatantly. But Emira loves looking after Briar and doesn’t want to break that bond between them. And also, the job is a lifeline, in just keeping her above the water. It takes her a while to confront these microaggressions – but the best thing of all, is that she eventually triumphs. 

The novel also looks at the influence of race in relationships. Emira meets Kelley during the incident with the police and then once again on the subway, and they hit it off immediately. But there are many differences between them, and these are explored by drawing upon their relationship,

“Emira had dated one white guy before, and repeatedly hooked up with another during the summer after college. They both loved bringing her to parties, and they told her she should try wearing her hair naturally. And suddenly, in a way they hadn’t in the first few interactions, these white men had a lot to say about government-funded housing, minimum wage, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.”

Reid eloquently raises the potential fetishisation of race in relationships through the perspective of Emira and her group of friends. Emira and Kelley’s relationship is topsy turvy but explored in such a human and real way, that it’s hard not to be drawn in by it. Additionally, through their relationship Reid explores the issue of microaggressions – forms of indirect or subtle forms of racism that can often go unnoticed. There’s a performative element to the type of equality Kelley tries to portray in his social standing and worldview, that doesn’t go unrecognized by Emria,

“Like… I get it, you have a weirdly large amount of black friends, you saw Kendrick Lamar in concert, and now you have a black girlfriend…great.”

Emira

As a white, privileged person, this strikes a chord and left a profound effect on the way I perceive race, and how it influences class and relationships. It is written in a way that makes it embody the current moment. It illustrates the simmering and overt racism that exists within American society, and the small acts of unintentional racism that can go unnoticed. 

Reading this made me laugh, cringe, feel angry, and annoyed all at the same time, but one thing for sure – it touched me completely. I fell in love with Emria’s ballsy personality and sense of determination. Reid provides the reader with characters who come alive through the pages and makes you feel something, and that is the greatest gift a writer can have – I can’t believe this is a debut novel and feel excited at the prospect of Reid writing more in the future. 

This is sharp, witty, well-executed and grips you right from the start – there’s simply no messing about. I would describe it as a millennial coming of age story that combines the important, intertwining messages of class, race, privilege and how to navigate this within families and relationships.


Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

Book Haul #1 ~Ali Smith, Ottessa Moshfegh, Zadie Smith & More

It’s been a while since I have purchased physical books and enough to make a whole post out of, but I thought I would give you a quick round-up of the books I have brought in the last few months. Most of these I got this month, as I treated myself to some books for my birthday.

I love physical books as much as the next person, but that said, I am trying to consciously limit my consumption this year because I have very little space and am on somewhat of a budget. Also, with the pandemic, I’m not going out of my way to browse in bookshops at the moment.

That said, I have splurged a little this month and this is what I’ve bought.


Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid

Coming of Age, Fiction

I brought this because it was the only book listed on the Booker prize nominees that I had heard of and wanted to read.

It opens with an incident following a young black woman who is interrogated by the police for appearing to kidnap a young, white child. This all takes place in Philadelphia, in an affluent neighborhood. Emira, the babysitter and one of two main protagonists, looks after the child of Alix, a well known white blogger. Their lives are inextricably linked but divided along the lines of social and racial inequality.

I am currently reading this at the moment and am about seventy pages in – I’m enjoying it and can’t wait to read the rest of it. I also love the cover and design!

Autumn, Winter, Spring, Ali Smith (Seasonal Quartet)

Fiction, literary fiction

I first read Autumn a while ago but had it on loan from my local library. In love with the cover designs by David Hockney, I decided to purchase that and the rest of the books that are out in paperback. Although Summer came out a month or so ago, I’ve decided to wait until that comes out in paperback so I can have the whole collection.

This Seasonal Quartet is made up of four stand-alone novels which are all connected in some way. Having only read the first one, I don’t know how or why, but I’m guessing like the seasons, they have some similarities and stark differences. With Autumn, I feel in love with Ali Smith’s remarkable prose and sense of starkness and political commentary, so I can’t wait to read the rest of them. As a concept and physical book, they are all so appealing.

English Pastoral, James Rebanks

Nature writing, Non-fiction

James Rebanks, a farmer whose family has farmed the same land in the Lake District through generations, has published his fourth book which looks at what lands means to us and how it is owned, regulated and enjoyed in England.

I read The Shepherd’s Life last year and was taken aback by how beautifully it was written. It dealt with issues such as tourism and our respect for places of great beauty, but also his struggles with continuing the generation of farming in his family. I am very much looking forward to reading his next book as it deals with the wider political questions over land ownership, and how we can make farming into a more sustainable endeavour for the future.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh

Psychological fiction

Image: Violet Daniels

I have heard great things about this book and seen it everywhere, so I thought I’d pick it up.

Telling the story of a young woman, living in New York and struggling to figure her life out – I was naturally drawn to the premise of this novel. Being a regular insomniac myself, I am also drawn to her struggles with sleep and hopes at self-medication. From what I’ve read about this book, it combines dark humour with some heavy topics so I’m looking forward to seeing how the author navigates this contrast.

Intimations, Zadie Smith

Non-fiction, personal essays

After having a roaring success with Alone Together, I decided to give another Covid memoir a go. Although a lot shorter I figured I would enjoy this one too. Written by the highly accredited author Zadie Smith, this collection of essays documents her experience of lockdown and the emotional and personal difficulties it involved.

I know Smith is a profound and talented writer, so I am interested in reading about her perception of recent events and how it affected her life. I’m sure it won’t take too long to read either, in being such a small book.


That’s it for now! You can keep up to date with any new books I buy over on my new Instagram account. I’m trying to learn how to take nice photos but I am still new to the whole thing, so please be kind!

Happy reading, as usual!

Violet

Please note – this post does contain Amazon affiliate links and if you choose to use them, I will earn a small fee but this doesn’t impact my review in anyway.