A Novel Calling: Karen Langley’s Books That Were Written Just For Me

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Written by Karen Langley

If you’re reading Shiny New Books, there’s a good chance that you’re a person who loves books and regards them as having a significant place in your life. I certainly do, and so when Victoria asked me to contribute some thoughts on “books that were specifically written for me” I was fascinated – but also maybe a little daunted. As someone who’s past their mid-life crisis (!), I’ve read an awful lot of books, so actually picking out the ones that have really made a difference to my life or spoken directly to me seemed potentially a little difficult. But when I thought about this more, I realised that there have been real stand-out volumes over the years which have seemed to be “my” books and which still resonate.

I was a child who always liked to escape into a story, and read my way through piles of Enid Blyton books when young. Books were (and still are) a coping mechanism, and I could pick out several Blytons that stood out. However, the childhood book that I think I responded to most strongly was, oddly enough, Dr. Seuss’s I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew. I used to visit the old library in the small town I grew up in with my Dad; we had moved from Edinburgh to Hampshire and the transition was difficult, so the library was something of a refuge. Solla Sollew, with its rhyming story and colourful, surreal illustrations really captured my imagination; I can recall sitting on a window seat in the library which looked out over the river next to it and dreaming my way through the book. I loved the strange, larger than life landscape it portrayed, the odd creatures and the wonderfully weird setting; but thinking back maybe the moral of the story (that the grass may seem greener on the other side, but in fact troubles are the same the world over and you should face up to them) spoke to me on a more subtle level. Later on, when I had disposable income for books, I picked up my own copy and I still have it…

Reading my way through my teens, I made the transition to adult books with my Mum’s romance stories, and plenty of Agatha Christie. But as I hit late teens I started to look for more from my reading, and when I was at college and in the middle of a rather out of date hippie phase, a fellow student recommended I read a book by an author who was a member of the Beat Generation, who she told me were the inspiration for the hippie movement of the 1960s. The author was Jack Kerouac and the book was The Dharma Bums. I responded instantly to this tale of bohemian living in 1950s California – why, I don’t know, because I was living in 1970s small town suburbia. It may be that I felt constrained by my surroundings and saw the freedom portrayed as something to which I aspired. Kerouac’s bop prose, almost poetic in places, was captivating, and transported me to another time and place. Also, I’d been lucky enough to have a month-long holiday in California in 1975 with my family, so I was probably still yearning for the wonderful life I’d seen over there. I related to the book so strongly that it set off a life-long love of the Beats, and I’ve read them ever since.

My late teens was another time of change as I left home to work in Cheltenham and live in an unheated bedsit which in all honesty was a bit grim. I had discovered feminism, joined a local feminist group and was making good use of a local bookstore called Paperback Parade (part of a chain, now sadly gone). They had only paperback books, shelved by publisher, and I spent many a happy hour browsing. My Richard Brautigans came from there in lovely Picador editions, but the book that spoke to me most strongly at the time was Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Having had a pretty up-and-down teenage time, I responded instantly to the troubled voice of the narrator; in many ways she was articulating the issues I was feeling, the difficulty I felt with everyday life and the struggles I had to hold down the job and cope away from home. Although our backgrounds and settings were very different, Plath’s narrator expressed so much of what I felt. Gladly, I still feel the same about this powerful book and I think it will always have a special place on my shelves.

It seems that many of the books that had a profound effect on me came from suggestions or gifts, and one such – actually a set of three – was the Gormenghast books by Melvyn Peake, given to me at Christmas 1978. I spent the whole of the festive period transported into their wonderful setting. Peake was a genius in my view; a polymath, taking in painting, book illustration poetry and novels, but his Gormenghast stories were his crowning achievement. They took me away from a grey, dull, suburban Christmas into a world of larger than life characters, a crumbling castle, strange ritual and dramatic action. Peake’s work had such an effect on me that I later joined the Mervyn Peake Society and ended up spending some years helping to run it!

Heading into my twenties, I had a slightly more stable life and a new job, and a lovely local bookshop called The Ancient House. I was continuing to explore books more widely, and a chance read of an excellent feminist book on women writers (Literary Women by Ellen Moers) sent me off in search of a whole list of writers given in the back of that book. One of those was Virginia Woolf, and the local book shop had Mrs. Dalloway – so by pure chance that turned out to be the first Woolf I read, and it engendered a life-long love of her work. I can still recall the exhilaration I felt reading her prose for the first time; I’d never encountered anything like it, and it had a radical effect on my attitude towards writing.  Woolf used words like no-one else I’d read, getting you inside the mind of her characters and carrying you across London with them. I was so deeply affected by the book that I instantly had to read everything Woolf had written….

As I continued to read more widely, a colleague of my then boyfriend (now OH…) recommended a title, saying that if I liked books about books this would be for me. That book was Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler and reading it was revelatory. I guess this was the first book I read that could be described as post-modern, though I wouldn’t have understood that at the time. I was hooked from the very start, when Calvino described the words of the page you were reading as being obscured by the smoke of the train in the story. Here was another writer who played with words and structures, twisting and bending the idea of what a book could be; as someone who now loved the power of words and what could be done with them, this was made just for me, and as with Woolf, I had to go on to read everything Calvino wrote.

I could go on and on listing books that spoke to me over the years – The Plague  by Camus, for example, which I read in a day and loved so much I sent everyone I knew a postcard saying how marvellous it was and how they should read it – but that would end up making a very long piece! Looking over these books, it seems to me that the common thread is one of a kind of escape from the quotidian; each one took me to somewhere else, somewhere new and exciting and different. And I think that’s what I still look for in books, whether to travel to the past, another country, a different world – really, you can go anywhere in a book!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings.