Get to know our new literature columnist, Nancy Dawkins, as she takes you on a brief tour of her relationship with reading.

I’m here to tell you about books. I will be here, on Kiloran, every month, telling you what I think about them, which ones you should read, and which ones will change the world. But why should you listen to me? Why does my opinion on books mean anything?… Because I fucking love books. Books hold power. There’s a reason books are banned and burnt. When I’m down books are my escape, when I’m content they are my rest. Books are both my transcendence and my grounding. When I want to forget the miseries of the real world it is books that I turn to, but equally, they are my first point of learning for real-world topics that I want to understand. If there is one thing I know my life would be much worse without, its books.

There are certain books that stick with you, not for their content, but for the way they made you feel. The first book that I have a visceral memory of is My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I read it when I was maybe ten years old, and I can remember the feeling of reading it. I was excited to find out what decisions the characters would make, my reading spurred by the intrigue of their inner life. It was the first book I read that had been written for adults, and so demonstrated the ambiguity of human thought deeper than books written for children. That was what had me hooked, and still hooks me today: books show you how other people think. This is not to say that my tastes were refined and that I was a superior child reader of exclusively adult fiction, quite the contrary. I was OBSESSED with Twilight, I read them hungrily in breaks at school and for hours and hours of the sofa at home. I made my dad drive me to Borders as soon as I’d finished one to pick up the next, and painfully waited for the next to be released. I wasn’t confined by genre, I read tween fiction as readily as I read “modern literature”. I remember reading Candy by Kevin Brooks followed by The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, then reading Harry Potter followed by The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. The more I read, the more I pieced together a picture of humanity in all its many guises, untethered to one telling of the human condition.

For my 18th birthday, my best friend bought me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Though I cringe at the cliché of this statement, it was The Bell Jar that changed my life and turned books into a tool for my survival and sustenance. I already loved books for what they could show me about the insides of other minds, but Plath taught me to love them too for what they show me about the inside of my own. If you hold my copy of The Bell Jar it falls naturally open to chapter 7, the chapter which states “I was only purely happy until I was nine years old” when the protagonist’s father died, and includes the famous fig tree allegory. I realised I too had only been purely happy until the age of 7 when my own mother died, and I had felt always in the “crotch” of that fig tree. The Bell Jar taught me that books could be an existential comfort, showing you that you are not alone.

During university, I struggled with maintaining my love of fiction, as my time was filled with reading philosophy assigned by my course. I laboriously slogged through Hobbes and Locke, Kant and Hume. I always enjoyed the more literary and poetic philosophical writings, preferring Confucius to Rousseau, Plato to Aristotle, and finally discovering the novels of the existentialists. Reading for pleasure was less and less something I felt I could do, in fact doing anything for pleasure became less and less something I felt I could do. Sometimes I don’t know whether my depression caused me to stop reading novels, or if not reading novels contributed to my depression. It was in an attempt to pull myself out of the hole I was in that I began to read again. I think it is very telling of my mental state at the time, that this resulted in what I call my “Nabokov phase”. I read so much Nabokov, basically just Nabokov. While the very few pages of the unfinished The Original of Laura are still some of my favourite sentences ever written, I have since come to realise that I don’t really like Nabokov very much. It also brings me great pleasure to know that Nabokov never wanted The Original of Laura to be published. After finishing Bend Sinister, Laughter in the Dark, The Original of Laura and Pale Fire in succession, I decided I would turn to something else. I chose Perfume by Patrick Süskind, as I knew it was the inspiration for Nirvana’s Scentless Apprentice (I was the original softboi). Following this I read The Pigeon by Süskind (which I describe as existentialism-lite), followed by finally getting around to reading Nausea by Sartre. Now, I don’t deny that Perfume is a good and gripping novel, nor that Nausea is at times brilliant and contains my favourite line “I think therefore I am a moustache”; but after reading books on books of white men whining I thought “fuck this, I never want to read another book by a man again.”.

In the year following my graduation, I was working full time at a bar, the physical work meant that my mind was free to read whatever it liked. After three years of reading the work mostly white men of the philosophical “canon”, I was unsure of what I really liked. I read lots. I began with sticking to my word and only reading books by women, making it my mission to avoid the old white men of the classics. I discovered some of my solid favourite writers: Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. le Guin, Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter. However, my literary knowledge was limited and I was still finding my feet. The books I most collected were those I had heard of, and which were available in the local charity bookshop in the high street near my childhood home, which I would frequent each time I visited my dad. The books I had heard of, and which were most often given away by the middle-class members of Clarendon Park, were mainly “modern classics”. So, I read Murakami, Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut, and Burroughs alongside Woolf and Austen, and much preferred the latter. I then began my philosophy masters, yet I kept on reading, knowing that it was necessary for my sanity. I began discovering more and more what I liked and didn’t like, and finding writers or books written more recently. I devoured Patti Smith’s Just Kids and worshipped Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick.

Then my body fell apart. I developed M.E. or had a major fibromyalgia flare-up, depending on which doctor you ask. Everything and nothing made me tired. I was basically unable to read. My brain could not absorb the words, or maybe it was that the words didn’t string together to form coherent sentences in my mind, or maybe the sentences simply evaporated as soon as they had formed. I was granted a year extension to complete my dissertation and attempted to focus on my recovery. I didn’t read for months, and god did I miss it. In an attempt to fill the book-shaped void, I entered the world of “bookstagram”. Scrolling through beautifully curated pages of books and book-stacks full of authors I’d never heard of but whose descriptions doused me in longing, I developed a near-endless list of new books I wanted to read. I discovered more queer authors, black authors, feminist authors and authors who wrote weird sci-fi and short stories and memoirs.

On January 1st 2019, I started reading again. I had regained more ability to focus, and I knew if I was ever going to complete my dissertation, I was going to need to be able to read. So, I would start with novels, and hope that if I could read them, I could soon come to read academic texts. I began with The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, and followed it up with My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, almost definitely chosen to reflect my state of illness and exhaustion. I fell in love with fiction all over again. Fuelled by my new-found focus, and inspired by such brilliant prose, I wrote reviews to flex and strengthen my writing muscles. Following these two came more and more wonderful books, mostly new fiction, often debuts alongside well-established writers still writing relevant and engaging books. I eventually finished my degree, in fact I smashed it out the park with my dissertation written about the importance of fiction as philosophy, and my pursuit of books continued and intensified. I discovered the fiction of Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith, Sayaka Murata, Candice Carty-Williams, Bryan Washington and Jenny Offill. During my hunts for novels, I’d stumble upon non-fiction written with the same feeling and love as fiction, like that of Rebecca Solnit or Olivia Liang. Through Franny Choi’s Soft Science, I also discovered that I loved poetry, which I had previously placed below prose in my estimation. I came to love poets like Ocean Vuong and Yrsa Daley Ward. I found that there were other people who had similar tastes to me, and through them, I could discover writers like the ones I already coveted. I loved Ursula K. le Guin, so naturally, I would come to love Octavia E. Butler; I loved Angela Carter, so I loved Carmen Maria Machado.

Basically, I fucking love books. I hope you will enjoy reading my love letters to them.


Here are 20 books to read if you want to get to know me (and even if you don’t):

The Time Travellers Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eudenides

The Entire Twilight Series – Stephanie Meyer

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

The Original of Laura – Vladimir Nabokov

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories – Angela Carter

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

Soft Science – Franny Choi

The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Bone – Yrsa Daley Ward

Night Sky With Exit Wounds – Ocean Vuong

Recollections of my Nonexistence – Rebbecca Solnit

Lot – Bryan Washington