A few weeks ago I read this anonymous letter to JK Rowling, written by someone who wanted to tell the author that, as a child, the Harry Potter books were the only thing that gave him a sense of home. (I’m saying “him.” I don’t know if the writer of the letter was male or female, so I spun a coin :) )
The writer went on to describe a pretty horrific and miserable childhood, and said that, as an eight-year-old, ” I was carrying my whole life in a backpack: clothes, school books, a few pens, two pictures, my dead grandfather’s pocket-watch – and Harry Potter. Your books, your words and my imagination were then the only things to provide me with some enduring sense of home. I could return to them, knowing for sure that the fantasy world you had created was somehow waiting for me, wherever I was. I could carry a whole universe within me and escape, for a time, from this small and unsatisfying world of mine, which I couldn’t prevent from falling apart.”
When I read those heartfelt words I was reminded of the power writers have to change the lives of their readers. When I was a child, I went through the upheaval of moving continents, from Uganda to a miserable and grey north of England. I’d never been to school before – I don’t remember even seeing a school for young children until I came to England – and to increase my disorientation I had no idea what the other children in the playground were saying, with their weird Yorkshire accents. I’ve written before about the first time I recognised the power of stories. My mum gave me a copy of Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, by Rumer Godden. I started reading the story and found to my utter astonishment that here was a little girl in a book who felt exactly as I did. Nona is forced to move from India to England, and she hates it and is lonely and miserable, and none of the grown-ups around her understand what she is experiencing. I carried that book around with me for months (as you can see from the battered copy in my photo). That story helped me not to feel alone, but it also taught me a lesson that I only really understood later in life, which is that authors can reflect people’s lives back to them in a way that can help them understand the world around them, and change their way of thinking.
Since then I’ve read many other works of fiction that have changed the way I view the world. Another one I’m thinking of – and perhaps you might think a strange choice for a romance writer – is Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut. I first read this cult classic as a student, and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I’m ashamed to say that with all the talk of aliens I thought it was a pretty silly story. It wasn’t until much later that I realised just how deep this book is, and it really did change my way of thinking. If you don’t know the story, it’s about an ordinary guy who meets aliens from outer space who show him that the way humans think about time – that it starts in the past, moves to the now, and goes on to a future we can’t see – is two-dimensional and restricts us in how we view the real world. The aliens come from a planet where time is three-dimensional. All moments in time exist at once – which means moments we’ve lived in the past are still there, and the aliens can access them, and moments to come in the future are equally there, only we humans can’t see it. To the aliens, there is no such thing as past, present and future. All is equally now.
Now, I’m no physicist, believe me. Ask me about words, language and writing, and I’ll talk for England, but a scrape through Biology ‘O’ Level is about the limit of my scientific prowess. It took a work of fiction to teach me a lesson in physics that Albert Einstein himself believed. When a good friend of Einstein’s died, he famously wrote to the family:
“Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Time is just an illusion! I remember being completely struck with this way of thinking when I finally worked out what the theme running through Slaughterhouse 5 really meant. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire-bombed by the allies. His book also deals with the horror and stupidity of war, and I wondered if writing this book, and adopting Einstein’s philosophy, was his way of coming to terms with the horrific aftermath that he witnessed. Reading what I once thought a “silly story” taught me a theory of physics and made me question all the ways we limited humans look at the world around us.
There are lots more “silly stories” that have changed my way of thinking. Too many to mention here. Whenever I hear a reader describe how a book has changed their life, I feel really heartened that an author has managed to speak so nearly to someone they have never met, their words moving people even long after the author has died.
Which books first got you hooked on reading as a child? Are there any books that resonated with you in later life, or changed your way of thinking? If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!