Books, for me, have never just been printed words on pages between two covers. They have always somehow become linked to my life. Almost every book I’ve read, even the terrible ones, usually connects me to something beyond just the tome in my hands – a person, a place, an event, a memory, or even just an emotion.
With certain books, though, that connection grows and strengthens until I find it almost impossible to disassociate the two.
Reading Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved recently provided one such experience. I am currently going through a rather big change in career – which for me, also means in life – and as I’ve marched through the last few weeks with Beloved firmly in hand, it has started to become an intrinsic part of this phase. While its unflinching examination of slavery after the American civil war can often weigh on the mind, it has also been a source of strength and provoked much thought as I work through my own uncertainties.
Several other books have also become indelibly linked in my mind to specific periods of my life, often times of change or turmoil. Here are some of them.
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: June 26 was the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first book in this series, and I couldn’t help but reflect on how the books came into my life almost by accident but exactly when I needed them.
I actually only began reading the books in 2000, after the fourth in the series (Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire) was published. I was 17 and my father had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year, going in and out of treatments (he passed away later the same year). My aunt, who was visiting from Canada, had bought the first four Harry Potter books as a gift for a younger cousin.
I read the first two out of mild curiosity, but Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban was the one that really stole my heart. And from there on, I was a true fan.
At a time when I struggled to hold on to any hope I could in real life, these books were everything. They were filled with magic and adventure yes, but more importantly, they reminded me of the joy, love, and kindness I could find in the world.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Like for most young people, moving from secondary school to college was a rather momentous time in my life. Along with the thrill of impending adulthood and new freedoms, though, came the fears and insecurities of having to meet new people and make friends.
It was The Little Prince that showed me things weren’t going to be so bad. Specifically, when my classmate Mei Li told me it was one of her favourite books and that I should try reading it. A few pages in, I was in love with the book. And I also knew I had found a kindred spirit. And 16 years later, Mei Li and I are still friends.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: It was 2007 and I had just moved to Melbourne to do my masters. I had yet to make any new friends so, feeling rather lonely and forlorn, I wandered into a bookstore opposite my university.
Neverwhere was the first book that caught my eye, and I suddenly remembered that my friend and current colleague Shiow Chin had always raved about Gaiman’s writing.
I picked it up on a whim, began reading it on the train ride home, and was immediately reminded of how I never felt alone when I had a good book to read. A few days later, I went back to buy every Gaiman book the shop had.
The Jeeves series by P.G. Wodehouse: I had dipped in and out of Wodehouse’s brilliant stories of Jeeves and his employer Bertie Wooster before, but never did they help me as much as when I was going through my divorce in 2012.
With my life in general upheaval, I found it very difficult to lose myself in most books or movies – they seemed to require too much emotional investment from me. But something about Wodehouse’s sly stories and witty prose proved to be exactly what I needed.
Perhaps it was in the way the stories engaged the mind without necessarily having to dive too deep, or perhaps I just needed to learn to smile when I was on my own. Whichever it was, those nights I whiled away with a Jeeves book and a glass (or two) of wine was when I slowly learnt to put my life back together.
Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I took a break from my job in 2015 to take up a one-year fellowship in Washington DC. As I moved into an apartment with my two other fellows – Anubha from India and Ioana from Romania – I was filled with not a small amount of anxiety over how we would get along.
One day, I casually mentioned to them that I was reading Half Of A Yellow Sun, which sparked a lively conversation about Adichie, her writing, and her brand of feminism. In many ways, this became emblematic of the tight bond we forged during the rest of the year – a relationship built around common interests, shared experiences, discussions, and above all, a sense of sisterhood.
Now, whenever I come across anything by or about Adichie, these two women are the first that come to mind.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.