The book that changed my life

11th February 2000 at 00:00
Geoff Barton on Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

It seemed a good idea. Write about the book that changed your life. The problem is that the ground rules keep shifting. The book that changed me as a 16-year-old (Orwell's 1984) has been eclipsed by the book that changed me last year (McEwan's Enduring Love). It is a reminder of the way our reading habits are interwoven with our everyday lives. Looking along bookshelves prompts memories not only of where I was when I read each book but - more deeply - of who I was.

The book that has made the greatest impact on me overall is Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong. It starts as a love story, before the onset of the First World War, and the emphasis on the deeply personal continues through three storylines. In the main narrative, it isn't the horror of shattered limbs and twitching corpses which is most affecting. It is the deep emotional scarring you watch the characters sustain and the blank, uncomprehending reaction of those at home. Before reading Birdsong, I'd read the war poets, taught Owen and Sassoon with differing degrees of success, but, if I'm honest, it had been secondhand emotion rather than personal involvement that I felt. I responded through duty rather than truth.

Faulks' ovel, like all the best books, revealed a different world from the one I thought I knew. As a result, I can't look at memorabilia of the First World War without feeling fascination and getting upset. Partly it is because I am part of the last generation connected to the fast-dwindling ranks of relatives who could have been there, and can remember fragments of childhood conversations about Uncle Arthur, one of eight brothers.

Now there's a terrible pathos in those memories and in images of frail veterans' faces, looking out from the inevitable November news-paper features. There's also an unexpected vividness in the lists of names scrolling down plaques and memorials in villages here and in France. The dutiful response I felt before has been replaced by an emotional level usually reserved for events we've lived through ourselves. The flickering battlefield images, the smiling faces of doomed camaraderie, the personal accounts - all seem charged with an innocence that makes our own age of materialism and selfishness seem sordid. It isn't often a book changes your view of the world. Birdsong did it for me.

Geoff Barton teaches in Suffolk. "Birdsong", Vintage, pound;6.99n Has a book changed your life?

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