12:00 pm EDT, October 21, 2014

Hypable staff challenge: The books that define Natalie Fisher

Every staffer who’s taken on this challenge so far has said the same thing – it’s too hard. They’re not wrong. Picking five books and deeming them your most important or influential is difficult and unfair, but here’s my paltry attempt.

There’s a book challenge going around various social media sites right now that requires you to list the 10 books that have affected you the most. Here at Hypable, we’re kicking off our own version of the challenge. While we may be doing only five books, we’re also going to tell you why they affected us — and maybe we can convince you to read them, too.

I actually participated in this meme (oops, showing my age there – back in my day, kids, when we drew water from a well and used a website called LiveJournal, a “meme” was this kind of circulating personality quiz rather than the current definition of an adaptable viral joke) when it went around my Tumblr dash many months ago. At the time, it was difficult to narrow down ten books to represent myself. Paring away another five for this challenge is pretty much the equivalent of performing surgery on myself without any anesthetic. These books, and many more, are my friends, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without any of them.

Honourable mentions must be given to some other likely contenders, any of which could easily be swapped into a slot on this list: the epic saga of Les Miserables, which I have a tattoo from; The Secret Garden, my first exposure to classic literature (and angry little girls); My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, as well as the complete works of James Herriot, which introduced child-me to humanity through the eyes of other mad animal lovers; Mary Grant Bruce’s Australian classic Billabong series; Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’s phenomenal biography of Kurt Cobain; Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, Carl Barat’s Threepenny Memoir, Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, Elie Wiesel’s Night, the complete Sandman comics, The Little Prince, Jostein Gaarder, Alain De Botton and of course, of course, of course, Harry Potter, the loving of which has directed the path of my life in so many immeasurable ways.

But rules are rules, so I bit the bullet, took a knife to my own heart, and after all sorts of violent sobbing, produced this list of five very important books.

‘Alanna: The First Adventure’ by Tamora Pierce

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Quite simply, this book is where everything that matters began for me. I was given a copy of Alanna: The First Adventure – the first book in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet – around 20 years ago, and the experience changed my life more than I’ll ever really be able to put into words.

As I mentioned, Harry Potter and everything that came with it – the online communities, the vastness of fandom, the friends, the places it led me – has definitely dictated more of my life’s actions than anything else on this list – I literally would not know a single one of my friends without Harry Potter having somehow played a part in it. But before that, the Alanna books forged me. They changed who I am – or possibly, they created it – I can’t really tell any more.

From a young age, not only was I influenced by the strong female characters before I ever had a chance to pick up any prejudice or insecurities, for which I am truly grateful, but these books were also my first experience at loving something wholeheartedly. It was my first experience of what I now know to be the kind of obsession that creates fandoms.

I knew – and still know – every single little thing there was to know about the fictional Tortall universe. I didn’t want to get my Hogwarts letter or go to Narnia, I wanted to be a lady knight like Alanna of Trebond, I wanted to wield a sword and a magical Gift. You can keep your maps of Middle Earth – I can identify the fiefs and coastline of Tortall with my eyes half-closed. This is my fantasy world, this is my spiritual home.

‘The Amber Spyglass’ by Philip Pullman

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It’s 2002, I’m sixteen, and I know what it feels like to be in love. If I didn’t, it’s possible my relationship with this book would be very different, or at least slightly less intense. As it stands, The Amber Spyglass is the first book that broke my heart. I remember the physical sensation of the heavy hardback lying in my lap, on top of my bedcovers, while I’m sitting upright heaving with sobs, unable to stop or really function at all. I’m almost certain I didn’t go to school for the next couple of days – I had a lot of ‘mental health days’ that year.

The Amber Spyglass, as the final book in Philip Pullman’s genius and revolutionary His Dark Materials trilogy, is phenomenal and important in many ways – a fitting, terrifying conclusion to an adventure about parallel worlds, angels, daemons, original sin and the destruction of God. At the centre of the story are young teenagers Lyra Belacqua – from an Oxford of a world not quite ours, and Will Parry, from the one that is. It is the result of their journey – and their eventual love – that saves all the known worlds, but for reasons too big to explain here, they must be separated, forever, and remain in their respective universes to live their lives. His Dark Materials is so much bigger than a love story – it’s possibly the greatest 21st century work of fiction for young people, and it will stand the test of time as one of this era’s defining texts – but it’s this, the moment of their separation, done not forcefully but by choice and responsibility, that will always be one of my most visceral memories. It was the first time I cried in a book – really, properly cried, and I’ve tried to write this review without crying, and I’ve failed.

Last year, I visited Oxford and in the ancient university’s small botanic garden, I saw (along with the pine tree that inspired Tolkien’s Ents) their bench, the setting of this scene – existing in our world, that is, Will’s world, just as it exists in Lyra’s. On Midsummers Day, many readers apparently gather there, to be with Will and Lyra in spirit, and to celebrate their love of the books. But I’m glad it was quiet, for me, to be alone with my thoughts and sorrow, and all the atoms of the universe.

‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

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This is, if I had to actually pick a quick and simple answer on a personality profile, my favorite book in the whole world. This is the one book that can never hurt me. At any moment, I can pick it up, skim a few scenes that I already know off by heart, and be grinning, transported. There is never a moment that I do not want to be reading this book. I have three copies of it in my house right now. It is the ultimate feel-good novel. By the way, it’s about the apocalypse.

You’ll find thousands – maybe millions – of people who have similar such things to say about Good Omens. It’s a cult hit, but I didn’t know that when I first read it. For me, it was in the very early days of my fandom internet use – oddly, I discovered it because a fan artist I really loved was also doing gorgeous fanart from this book. But it’s easy to understand why this story – of prophecies, hellhounds, Satanic nuns, nuclear power plants, aliens, antichrists and above all a posh and crabby angel and a suave but sweet demon, respectively the representatives of Heaven and Hell on Earth, who work together to prevent the End of Days because they’ve decided they quite like the world, thank you very much – has remained a favorite for nearly 25 years. It’s impossibly funny, unfairly intelligent, unforgettably quotable and quintessentially English. It’s also screaming out – and it’s gotten so very close so many times – for some sort of film adaptation, but I think everyone is sort of secretly glad that it hasn’t happened yet because no one’s ever going to get it as perfect as it would need to be to make people happy.

‘Cool for Cats’ by Jessica Adams

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As a music nerd – a big time music nerd, a reader of biographies, a watcher of documentaries, a collector of albums, a follower of tours, a student of the history of pop from Elvis to The Beatles to Bowie to Madonna to Nirvana to One Direction – you always come across, at some point, a certain text that defines, through fiction, the experience of being a fan, of being on the peripheries of the music industry during a certain era, or just of being a general obsessive. There’s Almost Famous, High Fidelity… but for me, nothing beats Cool for Cats. Jessica Adams has made a relatively big name for herself as a standard ‘chick-lit’ author, but in my opinion, this particular novel is miles ahead of her other stuff as well as being severely overlooked by music lovers.

I like an occasional easy, girly read as much as the next person, and anything with a music industry twist will always catch my eye, but I had no idea how special Cool for Cats would end up being to me when I picked it up in a discount book warehouse about eight years ago. The story focuses on a genre I’m not even that personally connected to – the very late 70s post-punk/new wave movement in London (I’m more into early 70s glam rock) – but it’s a perfect snapshot of an era and a community, through the eyes of the sort of fan who dreams of being a part of it all, even the unglamourous bits. Linda’s transition from fan into journalist (for the crappiest new music magazine in London) and the experiences it allows her is authentic, unjaded and extremely resonant to anyone who’s ever tried to contribute to their ‘scene’ and who’s realised that normal life is never going to quite suit them, once they’ve had a taste of the other side.

‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett

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I was lucky enough to see The History Boys, with its original National Theatre cast, on their opening night at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2006. I did not have any sense of anticipation or excitement, going to see this play. I had never heard of it, or any of the actors, particularly, aside from the late, great Richard Griffiths. I recognised Stephen Campbell Moore from a recent film I’d seen, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan called A Good Woman, and I was intrigued and excited to notice that several of the boys had been in a production of His Dark Materials (you’ll have become familiar with my feelings about that above!) I remember thinking, as soon as I saw the programme photo of Dominic Cooper, that I wished I could have seen him as Will Parry.

But associations with His Dark Materials, Oscar Wilde, and Uncle Vernon rapidly fell away as the play began and proceeded to change my life. I don’t remember what struck me so severely that first time – a particular scene, a quote, or anything like that – I just remember feeling overwhelmed, full to bursting. It made something inside of me cry out, in a way no work of theatre ever had before. It changed me. It would go on to change my life in many ways, but in that initial experience, something clicked, or snapped.

Although I saw this play performed live before I read it in ink and paper form, it’s safe to say that few other pieces of literature have had such a huge impact on me, influenced my tastes, my language, my humour and my perspective. I know literally every single line and quote it in conversation nearly every day. I own it in multiple formats – the original script, the film, the Broadway bootleg, the radio play. I’ve gone on to watch and love nearly every future project that original cast of schoolboys ever worked on – following their careers certainly had a huge hand in shaping my taste in the British entertainment industry – and I’ve also gone on to learn the poetry that is such a focal point of Hector’s lessons, instilling in me deep love and empathy for the writers of the First World War. But the play itself, the lightly-played darkness, the old-school grandeur battling with contemporary culture, the beautifully drawn characters who display such rich inner lives, and above all people caring about things, unashamedly, almost out of their own conscious control… It’s food for my soul, and it affects me the same way every time.

It feels fitting to leave this article with a History Boys quote – one of the better known, probably, but no less worthy for that fact. It’s one that defines this entire project that we staff have undertaken on Hypable, and it’s a sensation that all of you, I hope, will recognise.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you … and here it is!, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours…”

Hypable Staff Challenge:

Find out what books define the other members of the Hypable staff who have taken this challenge:
Karen Rought
Jen Lamoureux
Marama Whyte
Pamela Gocobachi
Kristen Kranz

What are some of the books that had a lasting effect on YOU?

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