There are certain books you come across in life that you wouldn't have read otherwise.
I mean, let's say a friend thrusts a book at you one day, says it's their most recent read and begs you to read it too so they can discuss it with you, or just simply so you'll share their joy over it or join them in their hatred of it. Or maybe a significant other buys you the complete works of an author you have never heard of (or worse, one you utterly loathe) as a Christmas present.
Or, or, or... You have had to read a book, a play or a collection of essays for school/college/uni... Now this is where I'm coming from in this post! I thought I'd list 5 of my favourite educational reads. 5 texts that I was set to study (a couple of which I had to purchase myself before the course even started) and subsequently fell in love with, learned so many important lessons from too – and to think, I had no intention of reading them otherwise!
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell.
I had been aware of this book years before I actually sat down and read it – aware because for GCSE English we had to read the book (then watch the hideously frightening film of) Animal Farm. My class were all briefed on George Orwell; his life, his work and his love of the extreme and very blatant metaphors. It's one thing reading about animals taking over a farm and soon becoming a dictatorship, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was next level.
Nineteen Eighty-Four told the story of Winston Smith, a citizen in a totalitarian world who is employed to rewrite the past to fit the desires of the Party and yet deep down he is furious with the way things are and yearns for change, to rebel. He is under the control of Big Brother, the mass surveillance that acts as head of the Party.
We used this book as stimulus when devising our piece for the third year Drama module Group Project. There were eight of us – always a dangerous prospect when working in a group, but we did alright – and our aim was to portray a futuristic society under constant surveillance and ordered to behave in a certain fashion. I missed the group viewing of the film Nineteen Eighty-Four due to work, which was a real shame. To be fair, after properly reading the book, the idea of seeing the film terrified me at the time. Maybe I'll brave it in the near future.
The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler.
I decided to read this incredible work around the time I was writing about Feminism in my English Lit A Level – I tried to draw parallels with the classic texts I had to read alongside it, but nothing could quite compare to this. I ended up ditching my original idea and instead wrote about something much more boring that would get me a better grade, but I couldn't cast this book aside. I was reading it on my trains to and from college – and getting some strange looks or even titters and giggles from other passengers. Those immature philistines.
This book is a series of, well, monologues about life with a vagina. Women tell Eve Ensler their stories, some hilarious and others horrendous; their fears and fantasies, their answers to the most baffling questions (my favourite was 'if your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?' on page 15 – and my favourite answer was 'purple velvet pyjamas') and she gives all of these things life and a voice. It's a celebration of female sexuality 'in all its complexity and mystery'!
This gorgeous important work also brought about V-Day in 1999, a global movement to stop violence against women. Boom!
Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay.
This book came into my life through somewhat educational means – as in, I wanted it and had been recommended it by several friends, but never got around to getting myself a copy, and then quite astoundingly my ex-Head of House from my high school purchased it and had it delivered to my house as a nice 'get well' type present before my second operation. When I asked him why he'd thought to get me that exact book, the book I'd been so desperate to read for such a long time but never mentioned to anyone, he said 'Well, it seemed like your thing!' What a legend that man is.
So yes, this book may not be of a strictly educational introduction into my life, but damn it it's taught me so much I wish I'd studied it for my degree because I could write an entire dissertation on it.
This book is a collection of insightful and incredible essays about anything and everything that Roxanne felt those feminist feels for. There's one essay about Orange is the New Black, one about the hideous song Blurred Lines, another discussing the faults with the Sweet Valley High book series, and some guidelines on how to be friends with another woman.
I just hope that someday I can meet this awesome author professor genius woman, buy her a drink and rant at the world with her.
The Twits, by Roald Dahl.
Yes, I am starting with something light, easy and obvious. Also magical.
When I was younger I was definitely a big fan of Roald Dahl. I watched the film James and the Giant Peach almost every day one Christmas season and read the book cover to cover. Matilda was the same, one of my favourite films and the most perfect book – and early this year I was lucky enough to see the insanely ingenious musical in the West End (Tim Minchin is such a babe, his music blew my mind, and also I hated and loved that the stars of this show were all very young kids who have more talent in their teeny feet than I do or ever will in my entire body and life. Seriously!).
Anyway, The Twits was new to me when we were given free copies in Year Two for World Book Day.
The Twits is the story of Mr and Mrs Twit, an old married couple who spend all their time playing tricks on each other. Worms in spaghetti, frogs in beds, eyeballs in drinks. Walking sticks made taller so they think they're getting smaller. They hate children, they never wash, their house has no windows, and they trap live birds to make into pies by lining the branches of nearby trees with glue.
One day, the Muggle-Wump Monkeys (the family of monkeys the Twits keep in their garden as they used to be mean monkey trainers, obviously) are freed from their cage by the Roly-Poly Bird (the magnificent flying specimen that hails from Africa, same as the monkeys) and they set about having their revenge on the Twits.
This book was downright bizarre, in the best way possible. Roald Dahl is one of the authors, the gifted storytellers, who taught me to have an imagination as a child. I wrote a short story myself about Jake the grasshopper and Clarchi the cockroach who were trapped underground in the muck but met in an escape tunnel, fell in love and vanquished their evil families – all because of Dahl's imaginative influence, his teachings that having an imagination is important.
Also I happen to believe whole-heartedly in what Dahl has to say in this story about nasty personalities and bad intentions showing on a person's face..
Punk Rock, by Simon Stephens.
Right, so I've written about this play and its importance in my life before. It got its own post! (Read it here, please and thank you!)
But I can't not include it in this collection of texts that I studied and adored – to the point where I bought my own copies, read and re-read them countless times, and let them have their huge influences on my life.
Punk Rock is the story of a group of well-to-do kids attending a private school and stressing about their upcoming mock exams. One of the tag lines is 'intelligent, articulate, fucked'. That about sums it up. The whole play takes place in their school library, and between the same seven students coming in and out – and some of them never out again by the end. Intrigued? Well, bloody read it then. You won't be sorry.
I played Cissy, the school bully's girlfriend. She is treated like dirt by her boyfriend, who is deep in the closet and struggling with his own personal issues, but she thrives on being popular and she puts up a sassy bitchy persona front when with her peers. She has a killer onstage kiss.
Performing Punk Rock was one thing, reading it pre-performance was something else entirely. I fell madly in love with the play, and it inspired me to devour every single one of Simon Stephen's works after that. Imagine my peeing-pants excitement when I wrote my Punk Rocked post last year and received a tweet from him telling me to 'never stop writing'...? You're nowhere near.
So, all of these books were brought to me through my studies. There are so many other texts that I would not have discovered otherwise, many more that I am delighted to have read or performed, but these are the ones I have learned the most from and will forever hold a special place in my heart. I must thank all the authors – but also all of the teachers who decided to include these in their syllabus!