I’d like to tell you about some my favourite books. Or I could talk like a lot of readers do when being interviewed by an imaginary journalist, answering the following hyperbolic question: “What books have changed your life?”
To be fair, as much as I am an avid reader and believer in the fact that words can change the world, that’s still not a question to be scoffed at. How can one answer it accurately, when our own opinions of ourselves can often be false?
Personally, I think other people can be better judges of whether someone has “actually changed.” Objectively speaking, it’s possible that sometimes we think we have “changed” when perhaps we really haven’t, or sometimes we wouldn’t think two hoots about the subject in question, when in actuality something in us has changed – transformed since the thing which happened – and everyone can see it but ourselves.
That philosophical tangent aside, let me tell you about the books which have changed my life. First of all, there is one book – above others – which I believe has changed my life. It’s the Bible, which sneakily comprises more than one “book” but over 40. (Nice deal) I read that often and am struck by the stories in there but another disclaimer: stories are stories whether they are true or false.
From the creation of the world, to a young boy defeating a giant with a slingshot a la Bart Simpson style, to Job’s constant wishing to confront God and then the “meeting” which is much more than he bargained for, to a carpenter who turns out to be God surf-walking along the water to house water turning into ruby red wine goodness and, of course, the story of a guy who literally lives in a fish for three days. All these stories stir my imagination and creativity.
And then there’s a book called A Moveable Feast by Hemingway, which I stumbled across a few years ago. It was around the time when I – pretty much – decided to become a writer.
For me, that moment was when I enrolled in a master’s degree at university. I had just broken up with a boyfriend (which was good, the right thing) and I was still “finding” myself. All I knew was that I loved writing and loved Paris. Somehow, this book came to my attention and I searched high and low for it. It was surprisingly hard to find until an Ebay power seller sent me a 1960s edition for $11.
The book arrived and I was suddenly secretly scared. SHemingway scared me because he was such a famous and infamously-disparagingly-to-adjectives writer – a reasonably modern one at that – and I lived in the world of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and Keats.
Hemingway. His name intimidated me and I had heard that his style was sharp and concise: the opposite of my rambling pen.
Then I opened the first page and instantly fell in love.
His simple prose: clear as a glacial lake and resonating deeply through his pared back writing, was like drinking a glass of water on a hot day. It refreshed me. It inspired me. It set me free from some burden of style which subliminally told me that writing had to be lengthy and elaborate. Like French baroque interior design: ornate with gold.
His words were more simple, plain but by gosh they pierced into my soul in a way I wasn’t expecting to happen. It happened all the more because of that reason.
“We ate well and cheaply and we drank well and cheaply and we slept well and warm together and loved each other.”
It was that quote which struck me. Hemingway was talking about his early days in Paris: full of poverty, love and writing.
When I read that quote, I remember putting the book down and I think walking across my bedroom in amazement. It sounds dramatic – whimsical – but truly, I was struck! I had a strong reaction to that sentence which resulted in my gently “book-earing” the page (my own copy! I was a lot younger! Hope that doesn’t offend my fellow bibliophiles) and writing out the quote in texta, above my desk.
That year, as I began my studies and wrote essays and did mundane things like my Internet banking, I saw these words. I was reminded of this quote.
The simplicity, the romance, the idealism and the truth of it wouldn’t leave my head. And even now – after occasionally boring my friends with how much I love it – it still means so much to me.
Hemingway taught me so much about writing and life and how it can be blissful to live a simple but happy life writing. He didn’t just write, he loved: he hung out with his buddies (I wish Scott F. Fitzgerald and co were my ‘homies’) and openly would prioritise good food and wine.
His words – even in just this one book – revealed to me that sometimes the best prose is energetically concise; that lucidity is kinder to the reader than verbosity. The story – and his style – was like writing medicine, filling me with hope for some reason.
Next time I’ll tell you more about the books I have loved, which have gently and beneficially left their footsteps on my soul.
Once, I remember a teacher reading us inspiring stories from a book called “Chicken Soup for the Soul” when I was in grade six but, to me, these books have been my own version of a nourishing broth.
But – because I love and want to be inclusive to my vegetarian friends – let me call it “Vegetable Soup for The Soul.” And whilst I am taking such liberties, let’s make sure there’s no nasty MSG in it and it’s served with delicious croutons, too.
But oh dear, that’s nothing to do with books is it? Garçon, give them a book when you come back with the cracked pepper. That one you cherish and makes you feel nourished and sharpened and hopeful, for some reason.
Dinner is served.