My Three Favourite… Books That Changed My Life

4th Nov 2011


The Book That Made Me a Feminist – The Woman’s Room by Marilyn French

Normally my mum just let me get on with my reading, her shelves being always open, but The Woman’s Room was one of the few books she told me I had to read. This book gave my mum her maxim of ‘I shall never clean up a man’s piss for no money’, something I follow to this day.

I read this for the first time in bits when I was about fourteen, and then again when I was nineteen all the way through.

The story of Mira Ward and her friends shocked and horrified me in places; why the hell would these people allow themselves to be treated so appallingly by their husbands and children?

What French does so well is illustrate the complete lack of agency and choice available to women, all women, and the limited choices available to men, because of differences in how gender roles are perceived.

The idea of worshipping men within heterosexual relationships and families founded on them as ‘Great Gods’ is something that, the older I get, the more I see of, and the angrier I become.

This book is also the reason I get so upset by the ‘I heart the 50s’ movement that wishes things could be brought back to a ‘simpler’ time. The time when your husband could have you sectioned for masturbating and you had no rights within marriage? What a truly spiffing and craze-worthy time that was, we should definitely emulate that.

The book also contains one of the greatest “love” scenes in literature; the newly liberated Mira and Ben’s first night together is just so incredibly perfect and beautiful it puts Feminist Ryan Gosling to shame.

Yes, there are parts of the book that grate massively; the racism exhibited in particular. In a rather selfish way, I wish an edited version of this book could be published without the racial slurs, just so I could feel more comfortable about the sheer amount of times I’ve recommended this book to someone (I buy every secondhand copy I can find and stick them in the Travelling Suitcase Library).

But it is important I think to recognise that the feminist movement gets it wrong, and got it very very wrong in the past, and needs to recognise various privileges and learn from this accordingly.

Therefore I always say that I do not in any way condone her racism when recommending the book. It is very hard to think that someone who has shaped what I believe is important so much could also hold such abhorrent views.

The Book That Made Me Question My Life – The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I read this for a dare last spring, after a couple of friends thought it might be amusing to see the fallout. I don’t think any other book has made me angrier, or more inward looking.

The story of Howard Roark is more than fiction, this is an exposé of altruism, and a love letter to modernism. Roark is an architect that doesn’t need anything but his work to be completed in the way that he originally designs it.

His brilliance, combined with his steady refusal to adapt to fashion or taste, leads to his making enemies of social commentator Ellsworth Toohey, and leading architectural leaders of New York.

Roark is the beloved of society beauty and mystique Dominique Francon. I shall never even begin to understand their relationship, based as it is on them hurting each other and calling that passion.

For me, though, this book is all about the way The Left is portrayed. Toohey’s collectivism and his call for everyone to stand together, whilst only mixing with those he finds personally appealing and can talk longwindedly about himself to reeks of some lefties’ way of being just as restrictive and isolating to the people they supposedly represent as the Evil Powers they claim to be opposing.

This book made me reassess my ambitions and how I choose who to respect, and also made me smile a little at its utter disparaging of the ‘do-gooder’ type, who only really do good because of how it makes them feel.

It’s blumming long, and took me about a month to read in total, mostly because I had to keep putting it down in order to have long thinks about what I’d just read, but it definitely dusted the cobwebs off my brain.

It did also result in my boring the pants off most of my friends with my wanting to have long involved conversations about what it means to be a good person, so it would kill a book club.

The Book That Made Me “Me” – Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I’ve ranted on about how much I love this book so many times, people are getting bored of it. Needless to say, this book shaped everything about who I am now. My sense of humour, my refusal to go full-out hippy, my dream of a man with heavenly teeth, the works.

Funny, witty and well-written, the story of what happens when well-mannered, sensible, modern Flora Poste goes to live with the Starkadders in their decrepit, ancient manor is both a social comedy and a pastiche on the loam and lovechild novels of DH Lawrence.

I’ve recently read Gibbon’s later novel Westwood, which is just as good, if a very different book. If you’re an Austen fan, get on this.

Which books have changed your life?

Jess Haigh

(Image courtesy of RTP)


  • Cariad Martin says:

    Good choices. It’s really tough to pick just three.

    ‘All Families are Psychotic’ by Douglas Coupland- the book that made me a wannabe-hipster & pop-culture addict.

    ‘Kavalier & Clay’ by Michael Chabon- the book that made me a proper writer.

    ‘Lust’ by Susan Minot- the book that made me a feminist, and made me not a prude.

    I only read Tiffany Murray’s ‘Diamond Star Halo’ this year but I think in the future that will be something that I look back on as a huge influence on me, not just as a writer but it also ignited some other things in me.

  • Jess- timely of you to write this as I’m a third of the way through The Fountainhead. Having heard so much anti-Rand stuff I had to see for myself. That and the fact that I live with an architect! The book sure is an egotistical rollercoaster peppered with horrible people. I take it you won’t be reading Atlas Shrugged, then?!

    • Jess says:

      Actually, I was planning on reading Atlas Shrugged but my friend who had to live with the horror that was my reading The Fountainhead talked me out of it until next year, my brain needs a break! One Rand a year is enough for anyone I think! How are you finding it?

  • Kate says:

    What a great subject. I love Cold Comfort Farm too; I read and very much enjoyed Nightingale Wood last year and am looking forward to Westwood as well. I’d always vaguely assumed she only wrote CCF, since it was the only one which was ever talked about, and was amazed to discover that she pretty much churned them out.

    The two books I always think of as having changed my life are two relatively abstract philosophical novels: The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. I read them both when I was sixteen and found them incredibly fascinating, challenging, moving and inspiring and had an inchoate sense, after reading them both, of looking through the world with changed eyes.

    Unfortunately I’ve never opened either of them since then…I’m terrified that they may not live up to my memory and I want to keep them as the perfect experiences they were. Also my tastes have changed completely since I was a teenager and I’m much more interested in narrative and character now than I used to be. You can never go back again…

  • If I had to choose three I’d say:

    The Bell Jar by Plath – it transformed my approach to mental illness and enabled me to forgive myself for problems I had as an adolescent.

    The History of Sexuality by Foucault – it made me realise how sexuality works. And inspired me to write my first novel, Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls

    Metrosexy by Mark Simpson – basically, it rescued me from my oppressive and misandrist feminist past. Viva la revolucion!