A Novel Calling: Danielle Simpson’s Books That Were Written Just For Me

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“A handful of books that have been really important in your life.” So, that was the brief. For someone who loves reading, loves books and stories . . . how to choose the most significant out of a lifetime of reading. Thinking about this question since Victoria posed it to me has been challenging. I mean it’s almost like choosing a favorite child. How can you possibly do so? Well, perhaps not quite the same, right? The thing is, ask me this question in a year and the list will likely have changed. As a reader you always bring something different to a book each time–new experiences, weird baggage, deeper knowledge . . . The beauty of books is that no matter how many times you read a favorite the experience will be different than the last time. Books take on importance and value at different times in your life. For me, who is an eclectic reader and one who can find something to like or take away from nearly every book I read, sometimes it is the book that isn’t a “classic” or “literary” that can be the most significant at the moment.

So here we come to that question again. Which books that have been really important in your life? I’ve decided to choose those books based on how they made me feel. Books that made me feel something–either good or bad. Books that I still carry with me in memory. They may not be the best known, or most widely read books for many readers, but they have been important to me at various points in my life for different reasons.

So, here is a handful of books that feel as if they were written just for me:

Just thinking about May Sarton’s Journal of Solitude makes me want to reach for my dog eared copy and begin reading it all over again. I’m not sure I would have appreciated this book as a young woman, but now with a little living and experience under my belt I find much to admire both in the writer and this journal. She had a long writing career which was prolific and varied. She is known for her introspection on a life that was creative and unconventional. As the book’s title implies she lived a life of isolation and solitude, mostly by choice. As someone who is also drawn to a solitary lifestyle it is sometimes difficult to find contentment in solitude without it being a lonely existence as well. I have found a lot of truths in the pages of this book and reassurance as well.

I think I will always carry with me the reading experience I had of Anne-Marie MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies. Not only was it a pitch perfect story told in great detail and complexity, literally a page turner for me, but it carries significance, too, as I read it in tandem with a good friend. You know how a job shared can be halved with someone’s help? In this case, the pleasure was doubled, since we discussed and deliberated and prodded each other along. It is a chunky book with difficult family issues at its heart, but I never once felt any sort of reading fatigue. The experience then made me feel tingly with the impressive feat the author pulled off, and even now I can recall that feeling and the way in which it was shared with a friend.

I adore E.M. Forster’s writing and went through a phase where I read whatever by him I could get my hands on. Thinking about A Room with a View with its beautiful Italian setting even now fills me with light and sunshine and happiness. In many ways this is a young woman’s story since Lucy Honeychurch is just at the cusp of adulthood, getting her feet wet in life and love. She thinks of beauty and art and when all the signs point to her choosing a life of convention, of stodgy but acceptable middle class marriage, she takes the less easy path and reaches for a life of passion and the risk of forging her own path in life and love. For me this story is a reminder of how fully a life can be lived if only you take a chance.

It matters nought that I can tell you the plot in great detail and know the the ending (and every twist and turn along the way) to Clare Chambers’s Learning to Swim. I can unapologetically say this is one of my all time favorite books. It is pure, unadulterated comfort reading. Escapism at its best. I have read it over and over and with great pleasure each and every time. And I will read it again. Probably sooner than later. I hate rationalizing reading a much-enjoyed book by labeling it a “guilty pleasure”. Clare Chambers’s writing is smart and funny and it does not take long to become immersed in the lives of her characters. Yes, there is a love story here, yes there is a happy ending (which takes a while to arrive at). When life becomes stressful or I feel a reading rut coming on, I know I can turn to this story and feel a happy sigh of contentment in the experience. Everybody needs a few of these sorts of books close at hand.

Can Sarah Waters write a bad book? I don’t think so, but then I am biased since Fingersmith is another book that ranks up there as one of the most memorable reading experiences I have had. You know how sometimes you are reading and the rest of the world falls away. You might be on the bus going home and you look up and realize you missed your stop? That’s what Fingersmith is for me. Sometimes (maybe more often than I like to admit) I want to step out of my life and into another world and Sarah Waters does Victorian England just about as good as any Victorian writer. She’s slippery, but fairly so. If it is intelligent entertainment and the desire to live in the shoes of someone else I want from a book I know I can reach for something by Sarah Waters. And Fingersmith tops the list.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to take a university class in Israeli Literature. It was interesting and eye opening and stimulating in ways I never quite expected. My Michael by Amos Oz was an exceptional read and one of the best out of an already ‘stand-out-good list’ of books. It’s dark and dreamlike and felt more than slightly foreign. It’s a complex novel that demands something from its reader as well as being provocative and thought-provoking. Aside from the class opening a window onto a part of the world I knew (and still don’t know as much as I should) little about, the class was an amazing experience. I think it could only take a good book like this to draw an introvert like me out of my shell to discuss a decidedly literary work in a room full of strangers with as much enthusiasm as I did.

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Danielle Simpson blogs A Work in Progress.