Just over a decade ago I made the almost catastrophic mistake of choosing to study fashion journalism post-college. Enticed by the glamour of the fashion industry after interning over the summer for a magazine in London, I decided against majoring in English over an unfounded fear that another three years of studying literature might diminish my love for it.
Within a matter of weeks I realised the error of my ways; I had absolutely zero interest in anything remotely fashionable, and desperately missed the required reading and text annotation I’d been used to for the previous few years for my school life. And thus it was that, rather shame-faced, I returned to my high school to meet with my former English teacher, the wonderful Mr Parsons. Despite studying for my A-Levels at Henley College and consequently not having seen him for two years he was happy to see my mother and I to dish out some much-needed advice. When I explained my dilemma and uncertainty over what to do next his counsel was simple: to drop out of my current degree and go back the following year to study English. When he told me of his surprise to learn that I had even considered doing anything else, I knew I had to follow his guidance – and my gut feeling – to leave Southampton.
I then enrolled at Reading, only to change my mind a fortnight or so before starting and I soon moved to the beautiful Brighton seaside where I spent three very happy years studying English. It was only after graduating, however, that I realised my reading taste had barely changed. Much like when Mr Parsons allowed me to study Othello while the rest of my peers were studying A Winter’s Tale, I had manipulated my degree and the texts we’d studied to suit me perfectly. I did my dissertation on black women’s literature – a subject that fascinated me – and managed to avoid the Dickensian and the Austen texts so synonymous with English degrees.
Shortly after graduating, I was perusing the shelves of the city-centre library when I came across Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that was to become, essentially life-changing. So enthralled was I by the Cornish landscape; by Manderly and its inhabitants that, on noting the sticker that stated it was featured in the BBC Big Read, I printed off the list and vowed that I would read them all by my thirtieth birthday.
And so it was that last night, with just a couple of hours to go before the clock struck midnight and my thirtieth birthday dawned, I closed the final page of Lord of the Rings, the last of the hundred books I had to read from the BBC Big Read. Five years in the making, it’s been a challenging, emotional and wonderful journey. From re-visiting childhood classics like CS Lewis’s much-loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, to discovering new novels I’d have never otherwise read, many of which – A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Pillars of the Earth, The Godfather – are some of the best books I’ve ever read. I loved many books I thought I would loathe – most notably Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment, Lord of the Flies and Great Expectations – and struggled through many I knew weren’t for me. Some books I started, and stopped, and started and stopped more times than I can remember, only to wish as I neared the end of the list that I’d been more careful with my time.
I’ve cancelled dates, missed many-a-social occasion, and woken at ungodly hours in the morning, to be greeted with bewilderment and confusion when I insist that my reason for doing so is to read. Perhaps the greatest feat that has come from this challenge was starting this very blog. Initially suggested by my wonderful boss Edwina, I started it to document the books I was reading from the BBC Big Read and what I thought of them; it later led me to my dream job managing the social media for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and in a roundabout way eventually brought me to Sydney.
Ulysses almost caused me to self-harm with despair and frustration; Gone with the Wind stole my heart so completely that it remains my favourite ever book; The Shell Seekers will always be special to me as I know how much my late granny loved it. Each book from the list has a story behind it, and a special place in my heart, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed it. I’ve bored countless people to death talking about all things literary – particularly my challenge, and I have little doubt that many of my friends will be as relieved as I am that I’ve finished at long last.
And so my challenge is over; the BBC Big Read complete. Many thousands of pages, no doubt many hundreds of thousands of words and I’m done. And what a glorious journey it’s been.