For years now, I’ve been absolutely fascinated with the concept of bibliotherapy. I discovered it almost by accident when I came across the book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. The book delineates various ailments and the works of fiction that may serve as a cure, or a catalyst toward improvement, for each problem. Although I’m certainly not an advocate of replacing therapy and medication with reading, I am definitely intrigued by the ways in which books – and art, more generally – can help us to make changes in our lives. However, I don’t believe that this is an experience confined to the direst or most extreme circumstances. A well-timed read can shift our perspective in ways that we weren’t even aware we needed.
Since turning 30 last month, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I experienced my twenties. Any decade is going to see an incredible amount of change and carry a plethora of emotions, as well as some regrets. In some respects, I wish that I had been better equipped for the chaos of those years and prepared for some of the many wake-up calls that I received over the course of the decade. Books are, to me, a huge part of this preparation. I read a lot throughout my twenties and there were so many novels that left an indelible mark on the way that I viewed the world. There are lessons that I wish I’d learnt earlier, as well as lessons that I learnt at precisely the right moment in time.
While I don’t want to suggest that books offer a complete solution to the ailments that characterise life as a twenty-something, I do believe that they give us an opportunity to reflect on different aspects of what it means to be in your twenties. It is a decade of constant change – perhaps more so than any other. In an effort to reflect on the ways that I dealt most successfully with that chaos, and hopefully help those wading through the same quagmire of uncertainty, here is Part One of my list of 10 Classic Novels Everyone Should Read In Their Twenties (you can find Part Two here):
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is undoubtedly D.H. Lawrence’s most famous and controversial work. It follows the experiences of Lady Constance Chatterley, as she embarks on an affair with her aristocratic husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Mellors offers Constance a level of physical fulfilment that she is not able to experience with her husband, who has been paralysed from the waist-down since a war injury. The novel explores the nature of relationships and what it means to be truly fulfilled. Critical to the controversy surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover are the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters between Mellors and Constance. However, these experiences are integral to the point of the novel – that physical fulfilment is as fundamental to a successful relationship as emotional understanding.
Your twenties are, for many, a decade replete with questions about what a ‘successful’ relationship looks like and requires. While I’m not suggesting that we should all model ourselves on the example of Mellors and Lady Chatterley, Lady Chatterley’s Lover contains an important lesson on the balance needed for true fulfilment in a romantic relationship. Not everyone will require a distinct sexual component to their relationship – some may be psychologically disinterested in sex or physically inhibited. Lady Chatterley is not attempting to instil that sexual fulfilment is an inescapable requirement for a successful relationship. Rather, the novel teaches that it is important to critically examine your needs and then find someone who is able to meet them. To deny your needs – whether out of shame or fear – is to do a disservice to yourself and, inevitably, ensure that your relationships are a shadow of what they could be.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Is anyone surprised? This novel features on just about every list that I’m able to squeeze it into. However, I think this particular list is perhaps the most appropriate and important on which Jane Eyre has featured. Jane Eyre is absolutely my favourite book. There are so many reasons for this. However, the most significant is the way that it shifted my perspective on what it truly means to embrace yourself. Jane Eyre is a character with an impressive amount of self-awareness. From childhood, she displays an incredible sense of self. It is this firm understanding of who she is and what she believes that ultimately dictates the direction of the plot.
Jane Eyre is a complex novel. For me, however, this book is fundamentally a meditation on courage – specifically, the courage that it takes to stand firm in your own self-knowledge. Taken out of the realms of literary fiction and into real life, developing a concrete sense of self is no mean feat. I still struggle with it. However, books like Jane Eyre remind us why it is so important that we navigate life with our own principles as the eternal reference point. As a decade of constant fluctuation, my twenties were the time when I most needed Jane Eyre. Although I will continue coming back to the novel, it has a powerful message for those moments when conformity may seem easier than courage.
- Persuasion by Jane Austen
Truly, I could have put almost every Jane Austen novel on this list and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. I read each of her books whilst in my twenties and they all made an impression on me in some way. However, Persuasion is undoubtedly the most important in its value to those experiences specific to life as a twenty-something. The novel follows Anne Elliot, a 27 year old whose family is in debt. At the age of 19, Anne had fallen in love with Commander Wentworth but had been persuaded by her family and friends to reject his proposal of marriage. Eight years later, and against a background of financial turmoil, Anne is reintroduced to Wentworth (now a Captain). As she grapples with her continued attachment to him, she must face her regrets and the fear that his affections have found a new direction.
Although Persuasion is one of Austen’s lesser-known novels, it is perhaps her most realistic. It is grounded in the fundamentally human experience of what it means to make mistakes and live with their consequences. I am eternally fearful of having regrets, but I’ve come to realise that they are an inevitable consequence of living life in a world where we have many more choices and paths than we can possibly take. Persuasion is a lesson in the possibility of second chances. Although we may not get another go at love with someone that we’ve rejected, we never lose the possibility to start over and make difference choices for ourselves. My twenties were a decade replete with ‘mistakes’ and do-overs. At 28, I turned my career-direction on its head and walked away from a PhD programme that I was six months away from completing. It was both the hardest and the best decision that I’ve ever made. Mistakes happen. But so do second chances.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is another novel that I recommend at almost any opportunity. As with Jane Eyre, however, it feels especially appropriate here. The Picture of Dorian Gray follows the story of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man who has his beauty immortalised by the painter Basil Hallword. Into the plot steps Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist who expresses to the painter and his muse that beauty is the only thing of worth in the world. As a result, Dorian wishes that he can remain young and beautiful forever, with the version of himself captured in the painting ageing in his stead. This wish comes true and we watch as Dorian falls into a life of carelessness and depravity, all the while his painting turns increasingly grotesque and unrecognisable.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a reflection on superficiality. Dorian becomes obsessed with finding a way to retain his beauty in the face of the inevitability of ageing. He rejects change and pursues a course of action that allows him to escape life’s natural path, seemingly without consequence. One of the things that I found difficult to accept when moving into the later part of my twenties was the inevitability of certain things – having to worry about money, getting a job, becoming older. With the relative frivolity of our university years, it can be difficult to accept and navigate certain parts of becoming an adult. Although The Picture of Dorian Gray may appear, at first glance, to be simply a gothic novel about a narcissist, there is certainly a point to take away from its plot – accepting the parts of life with which we might not be completely comfortable is necessary. And recognising the inherently fleeting nature of the superficial is an important step toward finding those things that will offer us true fulfilment.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I read To Kill a Mockingbird in my mid-twenties, well after the point at which most people have worked their way through its pages. In a way, I’m grateful for this. I think it’s an incredibly important book to read in high school, largely because it is most students’ first introduction to issues of racism and compassion as immortalised in fiction. I think, however, that reading – or returning to – the novel in your twenties is incredibly important. As the novel follows Atticus Finch in his determined representation of Tom Robinson – a black man accused of raping a white woman – the reader is introduced to what it means to stand fast in compassion.
This novel obviously has an incredible amount of historical importance and it is vital not to detract from that. As a representation of some of the darkest parts of human history, however, To Kill a Mockingbird is also a vital reflection on empathy. As a human rights professional, I’ve always had a lot of interest in the way that fiction helps to educate us in empathy and compassion. All novels do this to some extent, by requiring that we see the world through someone else’s eyes. However, To Kill a Mockingbird grapples with compassion in a very raw and direct way. Of all the lessons that one should seek to learn in their twenties, empathy is by far the most important. As we leave university and move out into the world, we become a fundamental part of the way that society turns. We are no longer viewed as children or dependents; we’re no longer excused for our choices on the grounds of immaturity. Learning what it means to develop our principles from a position of compassion is so important. It lays a foundation for a life that is bigger than yourself. Reading or returning to To Kill a Mockingbird at a time when you’re figuring out who you want to be and where you want to stand, is one of the most valuable paths to ensuring that your imprint on the world is a positive one.