Sunday, September 19, 2004

Watershed fiction

It's been a week since Lisa Jardine's article about women from academia, the arts, and publishing nominating life-changing books was published in The Guardian, and I've been meaning to mention it, but I've been thinking about it instead.

The idea behind "watershed women's fiction" was to create a list of 30 books – by women and men – that had been in some way inspirational for women readers. We defined a "watershed" book as one that had made a crucial difference during some transitional period in life. It might have sustained someone in adversity, matched her joy at moving on in some significant way, or helped her make an emotional choice through emulation or analogy. It would be a book that made a memorable intervention – not a favourite book or one that got you reading in the first place.


Has any one book actually changed my life?

Sad to say, my first reaction is that the answer is "no." Of all the hundreds (thousands?) of books I've read in my lifetime, very few have left any lasting impact at all. Perhaps I'm not very good at this reading business after all.

Regarding the usual girly mentions: Jane Austen books I never particularly liked (I prefer the movies). As for the Bront√ęs, Wuthering Heights I never finished; Jane Eyre I loved, but it was hardly an earth-shattering revelation or life-changing inspiration.

Contemporary fiction also made a strong appearance. We were surprised to find that it was the mature women who tended to pick Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx, Doris Lessing, Maya Angelou and Jeanette Winterson.


I'd like to share company with the mature women. Atwood and Lessing are favourites of mine.

Atwood is smart, and funny when you least expect it. If I had to single out one of her books, it would be The Blind Assassin, but it did not change my life.

As for Lessing, I haven't read many of her books, but I feel she's important. The Fifth Child articulated some deep fears within me about the children mothers raise, long before I ever considered entering into motherhood. And I happened to be reading The Good Terrorist when the events of September 11 transpired, which gave me a perverse window onto (say, however simplistically) the misguided lives, the intentions and motivations of the perpetrators.

These books had an impact, but they did not change my life, no more than after the reading of any book you are different person from when you started.

I will again sing the virtues The First Century after Beatrice by Amin Maalouf. It is the book I most often recommend. To everyone. It has opened my eyes a little to the issue of gender selection and associated distasteful practices. I follow news stories I might otherwise not have noticed. But it has not made me an activist, apart from encouraging others to read this book.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster. Changed my life. There. I knew I would find one. Thing is, I can't quite pinpoint how. Something to do with that time in my life, fumbling about at university, identity, my obsession with the myth of the Tower of Babel, why I finally chose to study linguistics, and my generally roundabout approach to life.

(A.S. Byatt's Babel Tower also scores points, pushing all my buttons but not moving me to a life-changing degree.)

If I search back, way back, there's A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett). Not because it introduced me to the world of books — I was already immersed in it. I read it when I was 8 or 9 — it couldn't've been long after my father died. I felt something like empathy with poor orphaned Sara (our princess), and so a whole new level of reading was opened up to me, some place Nancy Drew could not take me. I learned something about mastery of one's inner life even when completely at odds with one's surroundings.

The results of the survey were summarized the following day, but I only just stumbled upon the article today.

(I'm delighted to see A Little Princess made the list, but infuriated that they got the article wrong — it's "A," not "The.")

My watersheds to date: the loss of innocence of childhood and the brink of adulthood. I anticipate more to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Middlemarch. Seeing it on the list was like a punch in the stomach (er... in a GOOD way...). That was THE book, in so many ways, that made me want to build whole universes.

--rachel