Reading more into influence of books

FOR writer Alexander McCall Smith, it's the poems of WH Auden, which he takes with him wherever he travels. For actor Brian Cox, it's The Dice Man, a novel about a man who bases every life decision on the roll of a dice. And for stand-up and author AL Kennedy it's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe which helped her through teenage health problems.

For each, they are books which changed their lives. And it's not just celebrities who have a special tome which is close to their hearts, as the Scottish Book Trust has been finding out. The trust is asking people to send their stories for a project called The Book That Changed My Life – and entries have been flooding in.

The best will be published next year – but here's a sneak preview of two from Lothian.


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Mum Margherita, 41, of Willowbrae, is a teacher seconded to the road safety department at the city council where she works with all city schools from nursery to S6. She chose , a children's story by Dr Seuss about, unsurprisingly, green eggs, ham – and Sam.

"Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss changed my life when I was seven years old. Firstly, I want to make it clear that I had a great childhood, growing up in the 70s on a Scottish council scheme was great for me. I played outside with the rest of the kids on my street, I was never lonely, but my family were poor, properly poor. I didn't know that then so it wasn't important but now I know that it was one of the factors in my incredibly slow start at school. We never had many books and we certainly didn't have any children's books at home because we couldn't afford them.

"My mum was Italian and my dad fought in the Second World War so my home life was interesting but not very good for language development. My speech was mixed with Italian pronunciation, west coast slang and occasional swear words. I have a very strong memory of the infant teachers being horrified at me when I started school, especially the infant mistress who constantly corrected me and took it upon herself to reinforce the fact that I was stupid.

"After a year of school I couldn't read and had a real problem telling the difference between blue and purple. Slowly I began to form the idea that I was stupid, and it stuck. For the next two years of school I didn't try too hard and was happy to be left alone, colouring in or counting, which I could do unnoticed by the infant mistress. My class teachers were frustrated by my lack of progress but I never believed them when they said I could do better.

"Then our local library burned down. At the time I had borrowed Green Eggs and Ham and despite the requests for borrowed books to be returned, I kept it. This became the first book I owned and I loved it. I looked at it again and again until eventually I could read it, cover to cover.

"Suddenly I had achieved something that I believed I couldn't and it changed my way of thinking. I wasn't stupid any more, I started to learn. I learned so fast that I went from the bottom of the class to the top, I went from Green Eggs and Ham to a whole feast of books, anything I could get my hands on.

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"The rest, as they say, is history. I made my English teacher proud with an A at Higher, then achieved what I needed to get where I wanted and now have three kids who have a mountain of books. Today I teach, and I never tell children they can't, they just can't yet."


Father of two – and grandfather of three – Colin, 67, of Dunbar, chose The New American Poetry 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen. A poet himself, Colin has a new book out next year, The Floor Show at the Mad Yak Cafe, about his trip to China and Tibet.

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"In 1961 I was an unhappy chemical engineering student, conscious of the fact that I did not want to be a chemical engineer, but having no idea what I really wanted to do. One day I walked under the rhinoceros head outside Jim Haynes' Paperback bookshop in Edinburgh, accepted a cup of coffee from Jim, and started browsing the shelves. The poetry section was bright and colourful. I bought Donald Allen's book, and a couple of issues of Evergreen Review, and started to read.

"At school I had been bored by conventional poetry as it was taught in the 1950s, but I enjoyed reading the TS Eliot poems at the back of the book, although I wasn't supposed to be reading them. NAP changed my life, because as I read the work and became excited by some of the authors, I suddenly knew that I wanted to write, to become a writer. I dropped out of my course, but after a spell of temporary bar jobs I realised that I needed a proper job and a steady income. I started my career in librarianship in 1963, and rose within the profession, but I still had the ambition to write.

"The poets in the anthology who most impressed me were Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and "Brother Antoninus" (William Everson). To me, their work still has a freshness and a freedom from rules and 19th century strictures about What Poetry Is. Even now, my well-thumbed copy is on my bookcase, and I still read the poetry in it with enjoyment and wonder."

The deadline for submissions is 1 December. Log on to www.scottishbook for more details.