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10 Books That Defined My Decade

Buds by Agnes Martin

A new year always draws out the process of inward reflection. What were we coveting this time last year? What resolutions, commitments or continuations did we aspire to?

How did we steer the course, or not? How might we begin again this time around?

The end of a decade without a doubt applies its gentle pressure to this process. Ten years is no small matter. I’m not usually one to feel the lull, but now more than at any other time of my life I’m feeling the weight of the past ten years, and eagerly awaiting the potential of its lift as the clock strikes midnight.

Of course, I know this isn’t realistic, so instead, I'm pondering the ways I can create gentle reflections to realise my growth centres — both achieved and still requiring focus.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, it’s what led me to a deep joy of writing myself. One of the ways I’m seeking to reflect is through the books I’ve read over the past decade that defined new ways of thinking, being, seeing, communicating and loving. It was my partner who observed recently on revisiting a text he read years ago, how he had absorbed the teachings as his own thought processes, and it was good to be reminded where these originated from.

I found that a wonderful sentiment, so here are ten books — in no particular order — that have forever changed the way I approach life:

1. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

Coelho’s stand out novella is loved by millions over the world. It has a simple, highly readable, and adventurous narrative, filled with soul-stirring wisdom reminding us that often what we seek is right where we begin.

We pursue Santiago, a young Andalusian shepherd, as he is lured from his simple life with his sheep in Spain to make a trail to Egypt in pursuit of a highly coveted treasure buried at the pyramids. Along the way he encounters several challenges and barriers that hold him from his mission, but he also finds true love and a myriad of characters who share life’s wisdom. These characters help him to learn some tough lessons, ones we might all be familiar with in our own forms.

Santiago’s story comes full circle in a conclusion that will leave your heart glowing. It certainly did mine when I read this one freezing winter while traversing Prague, my heart equally frozen and greatly in need of the reminder of the internal gifts we all hold.

2. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

I have spent the last year of this decade reading this phenomenal book, and have no doubts it will be one I not only turn to again and again but one I firmly place into the hands of others.

Van Der Kolk is a forefront psychologist in the field of trauma research and recovery, and this book could easily fall into the land of inaccessible research/academic narrative. Instead, it takes us on an incredible personal journey — one of Van Der Kolk, his colleagues, his patients, and more importantly, the self. Although his work focuses on the extreme ends of trauma (PTSD, sexual assault, childhood abuse) the insights and knowledge he shares will benefit anyone who has experienced trauma at any level (so: all of us).

For me, the last section of this book exploring alternative therapies for recovery and approaching internal trauma was profoundly enlightening. It’s provided me with the incentive I need to revisit a few areas and make some positive changes.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean Dominique-Bauby

I read this towards the start of the decade, and it still comes to mind every now and then. It’s a tiny memoir, written by Dominique-Bauby — previous editor-in-chief of the French ‘Elle’ magazine — after he experienced an accident and became paralysed, unable to communicate, but still fully conscious. Doctors refer to this state as ‘locked-in syndrome’. The only remaining muscle he had control over was his left eyelid, and it was through this he began the process with his physiotherapist of learning a new way to communicate. It was also how he dictated his memoir, letter by letter.

As far as stories of heart, triumph, and the power of the human spirit go, this book speaks volumes. It found its way into my hands at a local free secondhand bookstore (all books were free to prevent them from going to landfill). At the time, I was feeling down on my luck for a variety of reasons. This book reminded me there is so much good to focus on and be thankful for.

4. Felicity by Mary Oliver

Ask me a couple of years ago and I would have emphatically told you poetry ‘is not my thing’ but as it turns out, I was simply reading the wrong poetry.

Oliver’s work is adored by many and it’s so easy to see why. Every poem speaks to a whole world with the daintiest of sentences, constructed in ways that find their way straight into your heart.

I borrowed this collection from my local library but on my third read went out and purchased my own copy which now sits dog-eared and creased on my bedside table. It’s the perfect antidote to flick through when the day has been a little flat.

5. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz

It’s been quoted by many in a variety of expressions but some books really do just find you at the right moment and it’s so surreal how this seems to happen repeatedly across a life. This book was a gift and sat on my bookshelves for a few years until said gift-giver broke my heart and I felt compelled to pick it up.

Grosz shares some of the key learnings he’s discovered across a momentous career as a Psychotherapist. Each chapter is an overview of a topic he finds himself continuously being met with in the therapy room, an example case study, and how Grosz has found ways to overcome these core issues that ultimately many of us struggle with.

The chapter on love is utterly compelling and for anyone experiencing heartache it’s such a refreshing take on the topic. I urge you to read this even if the entire book doesn’t speak to you.

6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

There’s a bit of a stereotype that surrounds this book, which I still believe to be somewhat unfounded. When I referenced this as a favourite book once to a literary snob he looked aghast and demanded ‘Why?!’.

Because for many young women, Plath speaks about notions and ideas and thoughts and fractures that we have often felt we cannot voice ourselves. The distance Plath creates for her character in this book is such a core part of growing up for many women. Perpetual longing and loneliness pursue us wherever we go, and Plath’s articulation of this is sublime. Despite everything else that surrounds this book, the sadness, and the outcome, it is a book that spoke very clearly and calmly to me: you are not alone.

Much like the oft-quoted line: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart, I am I am I am.”

7. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus is someone who many feel drawn towards. His lightning sharp observations, narrative, and break down of social construct is so hauntingly brilliant, it’s very easy to see why The Stranger is a core text for many.

In this short story, we follow Meursault, an Algerian man who murders an Arab in the French Algiers for no apparent reason. Told from Meursault’s perspective in two halves — before and after the incident, Camus delivers a perfect representation of existentialism, determinism and the absurd. In Meursault’s own words, he is someone who feels things are ‘done’ to him rather than having active control over the ‘doing’. A list of relationships devoid of emotional attachment becomes a pivotal characteristic in the case brought against him for his transgression.

It is a perplexing tale, that will definitely call you to question cores themes and ideas you might not have yet explored about yourself and life around you.

8. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson

Robinson is a stand-out thinker, writer and speaker on creativity and self-fulfilment, particularly in the context of our education systems.

In this book, he discusses the concept of ‘The Element — the point at which natural talent meets personal passion, and how finding this can help us all to live a more fulfilled and satisfying life. Filled with anecdotes from his own experience, work, and conversations with others who appear to have achieved their element, Robinson breaks down what this can look like for each of us as individuals. It is a richly entertaining, inspiring and hopeful read, with Robinson delivering a highly colloquial narrative style.

This book is the reason I do the work I do. It is the reason I work in schools and education, with the types of students I do, and it is what firmly set me on the path of what I consider to be an exceptionally rewarding and fulfilling career. Since reading this, I’ve gone on to discover many other thinkers, authors, and activists in this space and know that Robinson’s idea of ‘The Element’ is far from unique — but it is what encouraged me to think differently to begin with. For that I am eternally grateful.

9. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

Without a doubt, this is Gibran’s most well known and widely read work. Composed of 26 prose poetry fables, Gibran takes us on a true journey — of the heart, spirit and what it might truly mean to live a fulfilling life

Gibran provides us with his philosophical, spiritual and inspirational musings sprawling across a multitude of topics including love, marriage, children, eating, joy, sorrow, work, crime, freedom, reason, passion, pain, teaching, learning, grief, and death — to name only a few.

It’s a short book, filled with beauty and wonder that will pull you up sharply to heed his words and reflect over your own ways of living and approach to this thing we call life. As someone who has never considered herself particularly spiritual and with no affinity to a religion of any kind, I was surprised by how much this book spoke to me. It has encouraged me to embrace a little more of my own spirituality and the good that can come from doing so.

10. H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald

Sometimes in life, a book is placed in our hands at the right time, by the right person, and it creates a tiny catalyst that in its own way begins to chart a new course for our life.

This book did that for me, despite it not being the kind of book one would expect to have this impact.

In H is for Hawk, McDonald details the deep grief she experienced when her father died suddenly. As an experienced falconer, she inadvertently attempts to hide from her grief by adopting and trying to tame a Goshawk — a notoriously difficult bird. Through the process, she begins to acknowledge how the Goshawk’s fiery and sometimes destructive nature is a mirror to her own state of mind, and so, begins to heal. This small memoir is at once heartbreaking, heartwarming, and a truly beautiful story of what it means to have parts of your life you have absolute conviction about really challenged. A wonderful blend of nature writing, literary prose, and memoir.

This book made me realise how much grief I was still carrying in my bones and offered me a tiny pathway to find a way out. The hands that placed this book in mine were waiting to welcome me once I did.

And thus began a new journey for my life and heart. One this new decade will be consistently devoted to.

All links included in this piece are for Goodreads, a joyful app that helps me fuel my love of reading!


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