These are books that we found important. Some are fiction, some are non-fiction, some lie across the border, daring you to categorise them. For want of a better way to organise them, they’re in alphabetical order by title.

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, by Peter Barry

[D] I picked this up when I started doing my BA in Humanities. It is hands-down the best summary of literary criticism I’ve come across. It sets out the various lines of thinking, picks out what lit crit is supposed to actually do, and provides a solid handle on what’s going on in academic treatments and papers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this gave me a better grounding than any of the actual college texts, and I reckon it’s well worth reading even if you never intend to study literature per se. It requires no knowledge of literary jargon, and works just as well to think about genre literature as it does literary fiction. (

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee

[D] I got this book from a friend who was moving back to the US. I’ve been reading it ever since, and I’ve never finished it. I almost certainly never will. It’s a dense reference work for kitchen chemistry, breaking down into comprehensible terms what’s happening during the processes of cooking. It’s not something you need for day to day cookery, but when you’re puzzling through how to improve a dish, there are masses of good stuff in it. And for historical cookery, it can contain little details of why a particular medieval recipe says something which just won’t be gleaned from anywhere else. (

The Changeover. by Margaret Mahy

[D] This was one of the books I found in the school library. It’s actually a kids book, unlike many of the odd things I found there, or at least what’s now called Young Adult. It’s about a girl who becomes a witch, or possibly an occult practitioner, in these days of Harry Potter, and finds a new family. It’s set in New Zealand. It’s very much a coming of age book, a metaphor for teenagerhood. It’s very possible that it has stuck in my mind because a girl I knew, who hadn’t the slightest suspicion that I’d read it (boys not generally reading, let alone reading supernatural romances), compared me to the love interest in it. Her discovery that I had read it caused a reaction that still springs to mind when someone says ‘blush’. But even apart from that, it was one of those books that points out things to you – in this case, that you can choose and change your own path – which actually stick. It was a useful piece of mental equipment thereafter. (

Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

Wyrd Sisters was the first Pratchett I read. I was about 12. There was a line in it about Greebo the cat which made me laugh until I choked, and have to take some time to breathe deeply, and then try again, and repeat the laughing and the choking. My father thought I was ill. There are some mixed up memories on this, because I recall this taking place in a house we moved out of when I was 8, but that’s childhood for you. Wyrd Sisters introduced me to the concept of the literary reply. I had read Macbeth in the big old Complete Shakespeare we owned before that, and while I don’t think I entirely got it, I could see that Wyrd Sisters was riffing on it, and on various other things as well. I didn’t know you could do do that. It wasn’t a concept I was really introduced to in school, either; it took until I was doing literature in college that it was formalised – but I knew it long before. (

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

[D] I don’t know that I’d find this such a significant book if I read it now, having not read it before. But at the age of about 14 or 15, finding this in the school library changed a lot about how I thought. It’s fiction. It’s possibly even science fiction, because the premise on which it’s based – which you don’t really find until halfway through the book – isn’t a real thing. But that doesn’t change the impact. It’s a book about thinking about things – thinking properly, deeply, and with an approach that means you’re not fooling yourself about what you’re doing. It drives toward doing things better. It makes connections, a little, with religion (Christianity, Taoism, and of course Buddhism), but it doesn’t depend on anything supernatural. It was essential in backing up my thinking on dropping out of college, and also on going back 15 years later. (