The book that made me

On World Book Day this week, I was reflecting on the books that I have read and which one I would choose as the most significant – the book which made me. There is really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath.

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My copy of the Collected Poems

I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem like it was yesterday. In actual fact, it was upstairs in a sixth form classroom when I was in Year 12, in the summer of 1992. One of my English teachers, Mr Rattue, presented us with two poems called “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, writing about her personal trauma with almost clinical precision, without sacrificing any of the emotional content. The fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying voice of the poems mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Plath’s collection Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.

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My copy of The Bell Jar

I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews. I still carry it with me, tattered now after many years, but intact.

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Inside my copy of The Collected Poems

My copy of  The Collected Poems came later, in a really important week of milestones. After taking part in every school play and production going, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy a book to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon of 19th December 1992, I got my acceptance letter from Oxford University.

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Analysing Ariel: my university notes inside The Collected Poems

I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year and returning to it for my finals. In my teaching career I have taught The Bell Jar and Ariel as part of A-level English Literature. Whenever I return to the poems, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.

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Tattered but intact – my copy of The Moon and the Yew Tree hand-typed over 25 years ago

The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.

Sharing a book

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Jim Hildrew at Grasmere School (date unknown)

This photograph hangs on my office wall. It’s a photograph of my grandfather, Jim Hildrew, when he was Headteacher of Grasmere primary school. Although it’s undated, we think it was taken at some point in the early 1960s.

I love this photograph for lots of reasons. Firstly, my grandad was a huge inspiration for me. He taught at Percy Main School in North Shields in the 1930s, before serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War on minesweepers and as part of the D-Day landings. He came back to teaching after the war, settling into the school house in Grasmere that came as part of the job of Headteacher. His passion for teaching and learning was clearly infectious as his eldest son became a teacher and Head of House at Sedbergh School, and his youngest – my father – a Headteacher himself. As the third generation Headteacher in my family, this photograph reminds me of the legacy that I try to uphold every day.

Secondly, I love the story the photograph tells. The mobile library wound its way through the Lake District lanes, visiting schools so that children could feed their appetite for reading. The girl on the left of the picture is already lost in her latest story, whilst the children leaning against the side of the van are so excited to share the books they’ve chosen. I especially like the young lad who has just realised there is a camera watching him!

But above all, I love the fact that this photograph captures my grandfather sharing in the children’s joy and love of reading. The girl he is talking to can’t wait to show him her book, and he’s frozen there in the moment of discovery with her. She knows that he loves books too, and sharing that love has brought them together in a common purpose. The relationships you can forge in sharing a story is one of the main reasons I got into teaching, and teaching English in particular, in the first place, and it’s still one of the most unalloyed pleasures that teaching brings.

Reading a book – getting lost in a story, involved in the characters, thrilled by twists and turns – is joyous. But sharing a book is even better. Seeing someone’s eyes light up when you ask them: “have you got to the bit when…” or “just you wait till you get to the end!” is one of the real privileges of teaching. Whenever I see a student stuck in a book around the site, I’ll always ask them what they’re reading, and how they’re finding it, because sharing your reading is often even better than the reading itself. It’s clear that my grandad knew that all those years ago, and I’m proud to carry on that tradition today.

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#LoveToRead: My Desert Island Books

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This weekend (5-6th November) is “Love to Read” weekend, a campaign run by BookTrust and the BBC. There’s a wealth of programming across the BBC (read about it here) and as part of the campaign, Simon Mayo has been asking authors to share their six “Desert Island Books” on his Radio Two show (you can hear Marian Keyes’ choices here). Our wonderful LRC co-manager Mrs McGilloway suggested I share mine here…and I don’t need asking twice! You can read the LRC’s #LovetoRead blog post here.

Firstly, I’ve always loved to read. I used to read by torchlight under the covers at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I have always got a book on the go (it’s pretty much all I put on my Instagram!) and I don’t think there’s much to beat the feeling of being completely absorbed in the imagined world of a story. If I was really on a desert island I’d want to clear some of my “currently unread” pile, but here are the six books that had the biggest effect on me, or mean the most to me, in alphabetical order (author’s surname) because I can’t rank them!

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen famously described her novels as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after so much labour.” In this novel the art of nuance, delicacy, and meticulously crafted language is unparalleled. It tells the story of Fanny Price, a low-born girl, adopted into the rich Bertram family. Fanny has a rock-solid moral compass, and always knows right from wrong. When her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, goes away to Antigua to look after the plantation full of slaves his wealth is built upon, the elder and supposedly better Bertram children begin to drift away from the straight and narrow, flirting with unsuitable people and generally getting out of hand –  but Fanny stays strong. I love the fact the Austen, in 1814, was showing that those born with privilege don’t necessarily deserve it, but that being true to what you know is right will be rewarded. The novel is also notable for the fabulously awful aunt character, Mrs Norris, a horrendous snob and busybody – and the character that J.K. Rowling named Filch’s cat after in the Harry Potter series.

The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson is a fascinating character. She spent most of her life as a hermit, shut up alone inside her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. After her death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, found stockpiles of poetry, hand-written and hand-bound, locked in trunks. They were breathtakingly modern, often very short, dense, and compact, using dashes as punctuation and meditating on death and immortality. She is now widely regarded as one of the most important American poets of all time. This book contains all 1775 separate poems, and I read it cover-to-cover for a final year university assignment. I’d love to have the time to do it again! As an aside, you can now see all of the original handwritten manuscripts at the open access Emily Dickinson Archive – a real treasure trove.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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This novel had a profound impact on me when I first read it in Year 12. I’d read some of Plath’s poems in class, and my English teacher recommended this novel as further reading. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of her depression and breakdown in 1950s America, told through a character called Esther Greenwood. Esther is a thinly-veiled version of Plath herself, and the novel deals with her treatment by electric shock following a suicide attempt. It is harrowing and horrific, but it is a story which has a strong thread of hope running through it. It is also brilliantly written, with metaphors and images so striking they remain with me still. Published in 1963, its unflinching first-person portrayal of mental illness is as important and relevant today as ever.

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman

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I may be slightly cheating here by cramming a trilogy in as one book, but it has been published in one volume and it’s my list, so I’ll do what I like! The opening novel, Northern Lights, tells the story of Lyra Belaqua, living in a parallel world where people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animal companions or dæmons. In the second part, The Subtle Knife, Lyra’s story intertwines with that of Will Parry, a boy from our own world, as the two of them try to find the secret of the mysterious Dust that is swirling through the universe. Supposedly a children’s book, the trilogy’s ambition and scale is huge: it takes in the nature of religion, creation, adulthood, life, death and the self within a gripping and thrilling narrative. It has to be read to be believed.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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Sarah Waters is a brilliant writer of historical fiction, often exploring the experience of women in different time periods. This perspective always makes for fascinating reading, but in Fingersmith she fashions a plot so fiendishly complex and so full of twists and turns that I remember gasping aloud as I read it. It’s definitely one for older readers, but the exploration of love, trust, betrayal, madness and deceit in Victorian Britain is simply stunning.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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When I was at university, I got really interested in whether it was possible to express thoughts in writing – dreams, unconscious thoughts, the inner workings of the mind. Woolf’s attempt at that The Waves reads almost like a poem, with six characters speaking in the first person in a series of interlinked inner monologues. It’s an experimental, beautiful book.

Over to you!

What are your Desert Island Books? Let me know in the comments, or have a chat about it with your teachers. Even better, let the LRC managers know so they can add you to the #LoveToRead list!