A couple of years ago a friend sent me a scan of a newspaper interview in which Lynda la Plante was talking about books that changed her life and said that the “book which had got [her] through a difficult time” was my very own Blame My Brain. I still can’t quite get my head round that but I’ve stored it as one of those surreal memories that reminds us that amazing stuff can happen.
It got me thinking about how books change us.
- Obviously, they can teach us all manner of things and any of those things could change our lives, give us new interests, spark new ideas
- They can support or reassure us, for example when we read about someone dealing with problems similar to (or worse than) our own
- They can take us away from the boring or awful or scary or stressful aspects of our own lives and give us respite
- They can inspire us
- Make us grateful
- Make us feel not alone
- Show us our humanity
- Allow us to relax, breathe, dream
- And help us sleep
I know all that. I even understand the science, since “the reading brain” is one of “my” topics and I give talks on the science and psychology of reading and reading for pleasure.
But actually answering the question “how have books changed me” and specifically what books and in what way? That’s harder.
I’d love to know how you would answer the question. Meanwhile I have two answers.
The books that influence my thinking
Any that help me understand human behaviour. Of those, the one I return to again and again and which first taught me about brain bandwidth, is The Organized Mind – Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin.
It will show you so much about how your brain works, why you often make mistakes, why multi-tasking doesn’t work, why some things require more concentration than others. Once you’ve read it, you’ll find countless examples of the processes in your daily life.
If you want to see a whole shelfload of other books that reveal the inner workings of your brain, you’ll find them here.
The books that take me into flow
One of the books you’ll see on the above list is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which describes the well researched concept of being “in flow”. You’re in flow when you are deeply and fully engaged on a task, often unaware of trivial things around you, such as time, temperature, other voices. Researchers, including, obviously, the author, believe that the experience of being in flow is an importa
nt ingredient of happiness and success. We do good work and feel better when we have enough time on tasks that allow us to experience flow.
Diving deep into an engaging book is one of the most satisfying ways, for me, of achieving that state of flow. But nowadays I find it harder to achieve that than I used to. It’s a combination of being too busy, too stressed, too distracted and too used to grazing on snippets of news or social media posts.
So, I try to make careful choices about my reading, to give myself the best chance of being carried quickly away and into the book. I’ve decided that historical fiction often does this for me, particularly when the central character is a woman or the themes feel female-focused and the story is told through a female lens. I recently returned to Tess of the d’Urbervilles and was quickly drawn to the fast paced heat and lust and the tragic direction of the story. But usually I need a novel written recently but set in the past. In the last year or two I have particularly enjoyed:
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, set in 1952
- Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller set in ancient Greek times
- The Children of Jocasta and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, also set in ancient Greek times
- The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy by Pat Barker – bit of a theme here…
- The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore, set in the English Civil War
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, set in 1875
- Hamnet by Maggie o’Farrell, set in Shakespeare’s life
- Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan, set in multiple eras
- At the Edge of the Orchard and The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier, set in mid 19th century America
- A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, set in and around World War II
Even just building that list has set me remembering the feeling of being carried away and deep into other stories. I wish it were bedtime now – or that I could find time to read during the day. One day perhaps!
I’d love to know what books have changed or moved you or engaged you so deeply that you were in flow.