My Couldn’t Live Without List

Susan Hill did a top forty of her favourite, can’t live without books at the end of Howard’s End is on the Landing.

Some of them I had never heard of, some of them I had heard of but had never read, and some of them I had read but didn’t think much of. Susan Hill’s list made me realise just how very different people’s reading preferences and experiences can be, and made me wonder at the mystery of how a book can speak so powerfully to one person, and yet leave another completely cold. There is magic inside the pages of some books for me. Magic; gold dust, if you will, that settles upon me as soon as I start to read, enchanting me, entrancing me, pulling me into another world so completely that I become wholly absorbed in the story, immersed in the world the words have created, at one with the characters who have come alive on the pages, and totally oblivious to the real world around me. It is like I have fallen into the pages, and actually become a character myself, watching the events as they unfold, powerless to intervene, a silent, enthralled onlooker.

However, these books that have managed to cast a spell over me may most likely mean nothing to others. They may have never read them; or, worse, they may have read them, and hated every word. How can words that I treasure so much, stories that have become part of the fabric of my being, be boring or uninteresting or just not all that special to somebody else? I have absolutely no idea, but this is, for so many, the delight and the adventure of reading; everyone’s experience is such a personal endeavour, and everyone’s soul is made up of the memories, inspiration, encouragement and emotion of different stories that have combined to mould us into the people we are. The stories we love, and hate, are a window, I think, into the truest nature of our hearts. And that is why I am so fascinated by the books people read.

I have been thinking about my favourite books, the ones I truly couldn’t live without. I’ve decided to limit them to ten, or things could get ridiculous. Making the list as concise as possible has forced me to distil my reading experience down to the bare essentials, those few books that have formed me, that never cease to delight and move me, and that have inspired me to become the woman I am today. The books I could quite happily read exclusively for the rest of my life; the books I would save if all my other books had to be sold, or given away, or disposed of, for some awful reason; the books that would sustain me through all of life’s joys and trials. Quite an undertaking. But I have done it. And here they are, in no particular order. I wonder what they say about me:

  1. The Bible (NLT translation is my preferred version – the link is to my exact copy!)
  2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  5. Persuasion by Jane Austen
  6. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  7. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  8. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
  9. Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge
  10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Of course this list can only contain the books I have read so far in my twenty three years, and is subject to change as I read more, and my life experiences widen, but as of today, if someone packed me off to foreign climes with no more than one suitcase to contain my belongings, and no opportunity to ever lay my hands on a book again, these would be the ten I’d be taking with me; my greatest treasures, all of them.

I wonder; what would yours be?

23 comments

  1. Rachel – you really write wonderfully. You've expressed exactly what I feel about my favourite books. From the books you listed, the only one I've read is Jane Eyre and it is a personal favourite and in my top ten too. I'm going to try to look up some of the other books you've listed. I truly trust your taste in books!

  2. I have been wanting to read Illyrian Spring for some time, and want to more now that I have seen that it is one of your books that you couldn't live without. A tree grows in Brooklyn was recommended to me this morning.

  3. Jane Eyre is the only one I've read too. I have heard of all of them excpet Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge. I've just looked it up and it does sound really good. I'm going to try to find a copy now – the cheapest on Amazon is £20+ Wish me luck!

  4. I've had my list of desert island books for a while now, but it's only five – bumping it up to ten would mean I could stick Jane Eyre and Little Women back on. 😛 I love your choices! Could you really live without Shakespeare forever?

  5. I wrote a post about my favourite fifteen novels over the summer:http://paperbackreader2.blogspot.com/2009/07/fifteen-books.htmlIt was very hard to whittle them down, I purposely excluded beloved Children's classics and suspect that I would write a slightly different one now.I have read the first seven on your list (excluding The Bible cover to cover), have #8 and #10 on my TBR list and #9 on my wishlist since reading your review.Love the new shabby-chic wallpaper!

  6. Mrs B – Thank you so much! You are very kind. I hope some of the others might one day come to mean as much to you as they do to me.Verity – Illyrian Spring is marvellous. I hope you manage to get hold of a copy – is it not in the library system somewhere? And A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been a favourite of mine since I was 11 or 12 – it's a wonderful coming of age story. You'd love it, I'm certain.Jackie – Illyrian Spring as I said to Verity is brilliant. It's been a recent read but I loved it so much it rocketed straight into the top 10. I managed to get two copies cheaply – a Virago paperback from amazon and a gorgeous old hardback one from a charity shop – if I hadn't have given my duplicate away to a friend already I'd happily send it out. So copies are not impossible to find, and if I find another, I will buy it and send it on to you and Verity to read!Jenny – Only FIVE?! I couldn't manage that! I'm glad you love my choices; I'd love to see yours! As for Shakespeare – I could happily live forever without reading another word. I got Shakespeared out at university and a life without Shakespeare holds no disadvantages for me! Controversial, perhaps, but that's the way I feel!

  7. Claire – I loved looking at your list! I haven't read hardly any of them and hadn't heard of some – I will definitely be looking into those! I hope you manage to find Illyrian Spring too!It's hard to get them down to such a small number and probably tomorrow I'd do a different list but that's the fun of reading…you never know when you'll come across that new book that will stay with you forever.Glad you like the wallpaper!!!

  8. I think it is much more challenging to choose 10 than 40…concentrates the mind and somehow seems to carry more weight. I find this type of list fascinating but have not put one of my own down on paper. I just have an idea of not being able to survive without the two books I reread regularly and I would probably have to include The Book Thief by Zusak. After reading Hill's list, I surprised myself by admitting I wouldn't include the bible nor Shakespeare on mine.

  9. The Bible is definitely the number one most important book to me too (my preferred version is HCSB). I also couldn't live without Little Women. Though it's been years since I've read it last, it was a big part of my and my sisters' childhood and a big influence in all our reading lives.I liked Jane Eyre and Persuasion, but you already know my can't-live-without Bronte is Wuthering Heights, and my can't-live-without Austen is Sense and Sensibility.The rest on your list I have yet to read. Thanks for sharing.🙂

  10. Working at a library, the most popular question is 'Can you recommend a good book?' I've learned to ask back 'What was the last book that you read and loved?' I could tell a man in his sixties all about Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski but he really wants something by Patterson. As you pointed out, what makes a good book is such a subjective thing but makes for terrific conversation. If fire broke out in my house I would grab my Persephone collection and my Austen books, A Christmas Carol and Jane Eyre. I admire your list, it contains some of my favourite reads but the Ann Bridge is not one that I'm familiar with. Off to see what it's about!

  11. What a wonderful post, I have a page on my blog called The Readers Table whereI pop all of my fav reads though it needs a bit of a sort out as I need to change some around. Thats the thing though, my favs do change based on moods and what I am reading. What I am reading now could easily be a fav as it has everything but then the last page could change it all.Another beauty of books… all the suprises each new page can hold, or all the terrors.

  12. I just discovered Ann Bridge through the Virago Book of Ghost stories and now must track down Illyrian Spring. The Diary of a Provincial Lady is the only other one I haven't read…but maybe I shouldn't count Dr. Zhivago as read. Despite two attempts, I just can't get past page 150!

  13. That is a fabulous list with some of my all-time favorite books. That would be a very happy island library that you'd have!

  14. Book PSmith – Yes, getting down to 10 takes real sacrifice! Just TWO?! I don't know if I could do that! Is The Book Thief really that good? I've had it sitting on the TBR pile for well over a year…perhaps I should get around to it!!! Shakespeare would never appear on my list, either – I've read all of his plays and have no desire to reread them!Claire – I've never heard of that translation – I shall have to look it up. Little Women was a big part of my childhood too, and the memories it brings are just as important as the story for me. Darlene – Yes, book choices are SO subjective, aren't they? When I worked at a library my temptation was to recommend by favourite books but of course what I love other people could most likely hate, so checking their own preferences first is essential! Glad we share some similar favourites – I think I'd find room for my Persephones in my suitcase too if I'm honest!!Do seek out the Ann Bridge – I KNOW you'd love it.Simon – Thank you! I have checked out that page of yours and have written down a few titles I want to get hold of! Exactly, favourites change all the time depending on what you read next and where you are in your life, how you feel, what you're going through, etc. So true about the surprises…and terrors…of books. Each page is a new adventure!JoAnn – Illyrian Spring is a must find! And Diary of a Provincial Lady is superb and lovely and wonderful. Only 150 pages of Dr Z?! You MUST try again!Makedo – Thank you! I'm glad many of my favourites are yours too!

  15. Ok I think I've got it down to 12 now (although if I could see my book notebook right now it would probably be a very different list). Jane Eyre and Persuasion make the cut for me as well. I'm impressed to meet someone who has read Zhivago. I expect if I could get past the first twenty pages there is a lovely book waiting to be found.

  16. Another thoughtful post Rachel. I've read 5 of your 10 and think I'd agree on putting The Hours by Michael Cunningham on that list. Hmmm, as for the others…Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Wintering by Kate Moses, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros, and An Interrupted Life: the diaries of Etty Hillesum. But of course, now that I have procured two copies, that's right, two, of Illyrian Spring—one in hardcover and one virago (greedy pig) I will have to read it and see if something gets bumped from my list. They are all pretty steadfast long term favorites, apart from the persephone (etty hillesum) but I was so struck by her amazing account and I had to choose at least one persephone…

  17. I have to agree with your choice of Persuasion – my favourite book by my favourite author. I manage to get something different out of every reading of it.

  18. I have only read two of the books on that list, and loved them both. The Secret Garden is one of my all-time favourites, and Little Women was my introduction to reading classics. I'm trying to figure out if I'd actually be able to do this….. PS : Hopefully, after I finish Mrs. Dalloway, I'll read The Hours.

  19. Jodie – Dr Zhivago is SO worth persevering with, and it's a perfect winter book. Try it!Heather – thank you. What wonderful books you have chosen! I've only read the Von Arnim, which I also adore, and have several of the others on my TBR list…I have a feeling that when I read it I Capture the Castle is going to be a strong contender to bump someone off the top ten list. I hope you get around to reading Illyrian Spring soon!Karen – So true. Persuasion has so many facets and I can't understand people who don't enjoy it. It's more of a muted read than the others but all the more powerful because of it.Anothercookie – The Secret Garden is so enchanting, isn't it?! READ THE HOURS – you will be blown away!!!

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