I’ve been asked a few times recently about the books which have inspired me most, and contributed to the process of awakening I describe in If Women Rose Rooted. As I began to browse through my bookshelves to see which books have lasted – which have travelled all around the world with me, being packed up and unpacked time and time again because I couldn’t bear to let go of them – it became clear that I was going to have to offer two lists: one for nonfiction, and the other for fiction. So here is the first, and the other to follow next week. They’re ordered according to the time in my life when I read them, earliest first. If you’ve read any of them and they also affected you, do leave a comment, and if you have others of your own to share, I’d love to know about them.
The Diaries of Anais Nin
I began reading them when I was 21 and in London working for my PhD, and they opened my eyes to so many ideas that I hardly know where to begin to list them. Nin was a narcissist, of course, and when I open the diaries now, three decades on, I’m often shocked at her self-indulgence, not to mention the frequent silliness. But sometimes, when we’re a lost and awkward 21 and deeply uncomfortable in our own skin, we need someone to show us what it is to live a passionate life. Nin did that, for sure. The books she loved informed my own reading for some years to come, and in those pre-internet, pre-Amazon days I remember spending many happy weekend hours trawling Foyles in London, or Crouch End library, for the sometimes obscure volumes I was looking for.
The Wilder Shores of Love, by Lesley Blanch
This was one of many books recommended in Nin’s diaries. In it, Blanch paints a compelling and fascinating picture of four women who escaped the impossible constraints of 19th-century Europe and found freedom in the Middle East, finding what Blanch calls ‘glowing horizons of emotion and daring’. Isabel Burton (who married the explorer Richard), Jane Digby el-Mezrab (Lady Ellenborough, a society beauty who ended up living in the Syrian desert with a Bedouin chieftain), Aimée Dubucq de Rivery (a French convent girl captured by pirates and sent to the Sultan’s harem in Istanbul), and Isabelle Eberhardt (a Swiss linguist who wore boys’ clothes and lived among Arabs in the Sahara). In those days I was fascinated by women who had the courage to make great changes in their lives, to escape from confining roles and places where they couldn’t breathe, to flaunt convention. This book convinced me that if women could do it in 19th-century Europe, we had no excuse for not following our bliss today.
Hovel in the Hills: an Account of the Simple Life, by Elizabeth West
This might seem like an unlikely book to include on such a list, but it had a profound effect on me. I read it soon after my mother, then in her mid-40s, fled Coventry for rural North Wales. The book describes how West and her husband also fled what then was called the ‘rat race’, and moved to a remote tumbledown cottage (yes, there really was quite a bit of the hovel about it) in Wales. They were pretty penniless, and lived off-grid and as self-sufficiently as they could out of necessity as well as for the love of it. Reading this book made me understand clearly for the first time that this was my dream too, and that it wasn’t what I had been told my dream should be: to be professionally successful, earn lots of money, live in a nice house in or near a city, acquire all the other trappings of ‘success’. It reinforced my instinct that you could be happier with what the world considered to be ‘nothing’ than you could by having what it considered to be everything. It was a while before I got there, but whatever else I did, I always had an image in my heart of my dream life, in a hovel in the hills. I was a little disillusioned recently to discover that the Wests eventually packed up and moved back to the suburbs, but this much-thumbed wee paperback will always have a place on my bookshelves.
Leaving My Father’s House: a Journey to Conscious Femininity, by Marion Woodman
Woodman’s book helped open my eyes, during the years in which I was trapped in a decidedly patriarchal corporate culture, to the many hidden ways in which that patriarchal culture operated to suppress women. I was a little too young then to be sure of what this women’s wisdom was that Woodman wanted to be brought out into the world; it would be another decade before I came into anything remotely resembling my own. But I was fascinated by the detailed journeys back to something approximating wholeness taken by Woodman’s three female clients, and it was in this book that I came across the possibilities of using fairy tale therapeutically for the first time.
Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
This is one of those books that I might have bought for the title alone, but Estes’ image of women embracing their inner wildness was compelling for a woman in her early 30s who hadn’t the slightest idea about how to embrace hers, or what such a thing might even look like. Although Estes’ general approach to analysis of fairy and folktales would influence my own later work, I have to admit that I found this book heavy-going. The language was a little over-wrought and sometimes cloying, and it wasn’t till a good decade later that I read it all the way through. But for sure it offered up ways of being in the world which deeply resonated, and the sense that expressed emotion could sometimes even be healthy, rather than just damaging, as I had experienced it through my own childhood.
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, by Sue Monk Kidd
Of all the books I’ve ever read, this one probably paved the way for more change than any other. It came along at exactly the right time, when I was in America experiencing a classic midlife crisis, and wondering where to go next. It was an absolute revelation to me, not that there had once been goddesses – I’d been steeped in mythology my entire life – but that the divine feminine might be relevant to women today. This book was the first to make me really value womanhood. It changed absolutely everything, and it’s hard to find more words for the experience than that. And it is perhaps the most beautiful and compelling book title I’ve ever seen.
Awakening at Midlife, by Kathleen Brehony
This one happened along very soon after I’d finished Sue Monk Kidd’s, and the beauty of it was that it made me understand that the intensely challenging midlife transition that I was going through was actually a privilege, and, if you approached it well, an opportunity for profound growth and transformation. Brehony is a Jungian therapist with a strong focus on creativity. Still much recommended today for anyone asking all those difficult midlife questions.
The Desert is No Lady, Vera Norwood & Janice Monk (eds)
This may also seem like a curious book to place in such a list, but when I read it I had been spending quite a bit of time in the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, especially when I was learning to fly. The book is about creative responses by women artists and writers to the southwestern landscape, and has a strong focus on work by Hispanic women. The beauty of the book for me was that it showed me the intense identification that these women had with their place, with the landscape. The title poem, Unrefined, by Pat Mora (whose work I came to love as a result of this book) says it perfectly: ‘The desert is no lady. / She screams at the spring sky, / dances with her skirts high, / kicks sand, flings tumbleweeds, / digs her nails into all flesh. / Her unveiled lust fascinates the sun.’ This book above all made me long for the wild Celtic landscapes that I felt defined me, in my turn. It was one of the books which brought me home again.
Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, by Val Plumwood
I read this book maybe five years ago. Australian environmental philosopher Val Plumwood spent her academic life arguing against the ‘hyperseparation’ of humans from the rest of nature, and what she called the ‘standpoint of mastery’: a reason/nature dualism in which the natural world, women, indigenous people and non-humans, are subordinated to anything associated with the (masculine) qualities of reason and the intellect. In this book, she lays the foundations for a feminist ecology, clearly and thoroughly describing the trajectory of Western philosophical thought which landed us in the mess we’re in today. It’s an academic book, and far from an easy read, but it warrants the effort.
Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her, by Susan Griffin
There are words in this book that I can never read aloud without my voice breaking: ‘This earth is my sister: I love her daily grace, her silent daring, and how loved I am, how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget: what she is to me, what I am to her.’ This is more than just an appreciation of the earth: it is an intense identification with it. ‘I feel her pain’, Griffin writes, ‘and my own pain comes into me, and my own pain grows large and I grasp this pain with my hands, and I open my mouth to this pain, I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on, under great weight, with this great thirst, in drought, in starvation, with intelligence in every act does she survive disaster.’ So it is with the earth, and so it is with women. This book helped me finally to understand our strength. To see why it is that women need to rise. And maybe, while we’re doing it, to roar.