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Zawe Ashton, Caitlin Moran and more on who taught them to love books

From lucky car boot finds to well-stocked libraries (and not forgetting dad), Grace Dent, Caitlin Moran, Zawe Ashton and more reflect on how they came to love reading.

From lucky car boot finds to well-stocked libraries (and not forgetting dad), Grace Dent, Caitlin Moran, Zawe Ashton and more reflect on how they came to love reading.

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How an English teacher hooked musician Sharleen Spiteri on reading

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee is a book that you’ll pass on to people and recommend. It’s a book that will inspire you to write songs. It’s a book that will help you sort out your life and it’s a book that will make you understand things that happen in your life.” 

  • Photograph by Alice Hawkins.
  • Articles written from interviews by Sophie Robinson, edited by Natalie Smith.

It was a life-changing English teacher who hooked musician Sharleen Spiteri on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Spiteri was 12 and Miss Kennedy was “a bit of a hippy”, young, laid-back and phenomenally good at reading aloud.

“She expressed the excitement, the tension and the fear. You could smell the smells, feel the heat and imagine the kids running around, the freedom and also the suppression. It was my first romance with a book,” explains Spiteri. 

“She really changed my understanding of literature. She told us that just because you’re told it’s good or because somebody says it’s a classic, doesn’t mean you need to think that.”

As a musician, songwriter and lyricist, words are a huge part of Spiteri’s life.

“Literature and music are everything,” she says.

But for Spiteri this book is more powerful than any other due to her connection with Scout, the central character.

 “I wanted to be Scout in the book and was pretty obsessed with her because I was a real tomboy growing up. I wasn’t the cutest kid. I was a scrawny, skinny little tomboy– I got badly bullied at school.”

“My sister had the other side to Scout. I remember my sister literally getting a hat-pin and jabbing it in a girl’s ass when we were at school. She had the strength and feistiness that Scout has but I had her physical attributes. My sister was really cute and really pretty and I was the geeky one.”

“Scout is a real tomboy, but she’s always sticking up for her brother. She looks out for her family in the daytime, then at night she is more thoughtful, emotionally connecting with both things and people’s feelings.”

“It’s a book that you’ll pass on to people and recommend. It’s a book that will inspire you to write songs. It’s a book that will help you sort out your life and it’s a book that will make you understand things that happen in your life.” 

“I’m first generation Scottish and having a funny name meant getting called names, “Spit Spiteri. Iti…” this that and the next thing. The name calling and getting teased about your parents in the book connected with me when I was growing up,” she says.

“The book is about injustice and it’s about relationships and belief in people and not judging a book by its cover. It’s about the injustice that Harper Lee felt and the love of her family and their closeness.”

But it’s the simplicity of the story that Spiteri returns to.

“It’s a story where good wins through and bad people get what’s coming to them. Everyone has experienced a little bit of that at some point in their life and that’s why the book will always touch people.”


Sharleen Spiteri is a songwriter and the lead singer of Texas. She chose Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which will be released as an e-book for the first time on July 8. Said Harper Lee, “This is Mockingbird for a new generation.” 

Human rights lawyer Shami Chakrabati also chose To Kill A Mockingbird. To find out what she thinks of #THISBOOK, read her article here.

Discover more #THISBOOK selections from our 19 incredible women here. Join the conversation and share your #THISBOOK on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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What Katy Did: How a hit pop song kick started Kate Mosse’s career

Wuthering Heights endures because it is a novel of infinite colour. It’s a kaleidoscope.”

  • Photograph by Alice Hawkins.
  • Articles written from interviews by Sophie Robinson, edited by Natalie Smith.

Picture a teenage Kate Mosse, sitting next to a tape recorder. She’s trying to record the Top 40 off the radio. A song comes on, and a girl a few years older than her is singing a song about a ghost tapping to get in at a window. 

That, of course, was Kate Bush, and her 1978 single ‘Wuthering Heights’. 

“The song was inspired by one of the most violent scenes, right at the beginning of the novel, where the ghost of Cathy puts her hand through the window. The narrator, Lockwood, drags her wrist across the broken glass to get himself free.  That, I thought, is the most powerful writing I’ve ever read,” Mosse says as we film in a warehouse in London’s Shoreditch.

Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a novel Mosse keeps coming back to and it’s been a different book every time.  

“To start with, you think you’re reading a love story, but it’s not a love story at all. It’s a novel about obsession, about revenge, about ghosts, about landscape, about the lives that women can or can’t lead. It’s the most beautifully poetic novel, and each time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought, “How does she do it?”

“When I first read, it was with a sense of admiration and awe that one writer, could have achieved so much in one, single novel.  Now, as a novelist myself, I admire her lyricism, her style, her plotting and her passion even more. It’s the most extraordinary laying bare of relationships between women and men, within families, between children and absent parents. Hate, as well as love.” explains Mosse. 

“What I love about Wuthering Heights now, as someone in their fifties, and as a parent myself and most importantly as a writer myself, is that on the surface you feel that it is a novel about constraint, and about what women and men can, and do, do to each other.”

“It is a very violent novel. It is a novel full of ghosts. It is a novel that’s set up in dualities, black and white. There is this terrible place, Wuthering Heights. The name comes from the noise that the wind makes round this isolated place up there on the Yorkshire moors,” explains Mosse.

“Down in the valley is Thrushcross Grange - the perfect society. That’s acceptable society. All the way through the novel there’s storm and there’s peace. There’s dark and there’s light. All the descriptions of Heathcliff with black skin and black hair, and then the pale, elegant Isabella Linton, who is the person, of course, he marries and ruins.”

“Scratch beneath the surface and what you see is Emily Brontë writing about men and women as passionate, equal people.”

“With Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë changed the rules of what was acceptable for women to write. Up until that point, everything women had written was domestic. With this book, she said that anything a woman wants to write is acceptable.”


Kate Mosse, the Co-Founder & Chair of the Board of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is the author of the multi-million selling Languedoc Trilogy - Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel - as well as Gothic fiction, including The Winter Ghosts,  four works of non fiction and three plays, including the award winning Syrinx. On the board of the National Theatre and the Executive Committee of Women of the World, she won the Spirit of Everywoman Award in 2012 for services to women and the arts and was appointed OBE for service to literature in 2013. She chose poet and novelist Emily Brontë’s 1847 masterpiece Wuthering Heights. 

Discover more #THISBOOK selections from our 19 incredible women here. Join the conversation and share your #THISBOOK on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. 

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Actress Saffron Burrows sings the praises of this powerful story

“What’s brilliant about good writing and good storytelling, powerful novel-writing and biography, like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, is that it clearly traverses all terrain and gender and class and race.”

  • Photograph by Alice Hawkins.
  • Articles written from interviews by Sophie Robinson, edited by Natalie Smith.

“The book I’ve chosen is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, says actress Saffron Burrows as she sits in her parents’ bohemian Islington home.

“For me, it was one of those books I read on my way to school in the morning. I stood at the traffic lights waiting to cross the road and couldn’t take my eyes off the page.”

“This is the first of six volumes of her autobiography, so it related to me at the age I read it, around 14. It’s all about her girlhood.”

“I remember feeling incredibly connected to this tale of someone who’d lived a very different experience to me. This part of the book takes place in the 1930s, in America’s South – and it’s a story that reflects the human condition. The racism and prejudice she suffers, just being a girl in that time and that place, makes this an incredibly powerful story.”

Burrows is clearly in awe of Angelou as a writer whose work makes a difference.

“What’s brilliant about good writing and good storytelling, powerful novel-writing and biographies, is that it clearly traverses all terrain and gender and class and race.”

“This book is full of contradiction and full of having to live in a state of contradiction, but with a message of joy that comes through in Angelou’s voice - something that would stand anyone in good stead for the rest of their life.”

A year ago, Burrows saw Maya Angelou, who is now 86, speak at an event. 

“She was incredibly full of energy and wisdom and humour, now, at the later part of her life. That acknowledgement of humour in the face of adversity was there very powerfully in this early edition of her autobiography.”

For Burrows, raised in a house full of books, reading is the “most wonderful, liberating way to spend your life and your time.” 

"If you fall in love with literature, it carries you through your life, and it carries you through lots of difficult situations."

 “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book is for anyone who’s at an age where they want to fall in love with storytelling, to be moved by something, and to come to life afresh.”


Saffron Burrows is an English actress whose career began with the film In the Name of the Father (1993). Most recently, she’s appeared in the television series’ Boston Legal and Law and Order. She chose American author and poet Maya Angelou’s 1969 book I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Discover more #THISBOOK selections from our 19 incredible women here. Join the conversation and share your #THISBOOK on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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Reader, classics Professor Mary Beard loves this unlikely romance

Jane Eyre raises all those wonderful questions about what women want, what really counts as happiness and success.”

  • Photograph by Alice Hawkins.
  • Articles written from interviews by Sophie Robinson, edited by Natalie Smith.

We are filming in Professor Beard’s Cambridge sitting room.

We’re here to talk about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a book Beard first read as a rather precocious ten year old. 

“It was the first ‘grown-up book’ I ever read,” she says.

“It’s also been a book that I’ve come back to over my life, so almost 50 years. I’ve read it again and again and it’s always been different.”

Jane Eyre raises all those wonderful questions about what women want, what really counts as happiness and success. It cuts down to the real essentials of women’s options. Jane’s a working girl. She’s a governess. She’s independent.”

“She’s somebody who is finding their own way in the world. That feels very modern. There are all kinds of Victorian heroines that just don’t feel like us any longer but Jane really does. She’s out there, she’s on her own and she’s fending for herself.”

Quite a feat for a book published in 1846.

At its heart, Jane Eyre is the “happy ending story” of a girl who starts out life orphaned. 

“This book is about perseverance and survival and the idea of triumph over the odds.”

“She’s living with a really nasty family of relatives, sent away to a terrible school, becomes a governess, falls for the man of the house, nearly gets married to him - but he turns out to be married already, to a mad woman in the attic. Jane has a semi-dalliance with a bit of a prig but in the end comes back to Mr Rochester and gets the guy in the end,” Professor Beard neatly summarises.

“As you get more cynical and as you grow up, though, you see that maybe marriage wasn’t the only answer to a girl’s life.”

“On second and third readings, I became more interested in the other characters that tell a different story. The guy she marries has a previous wife, that’s very important in the story. You start thinking, “What was her story? Who was the first Mrs Rochester?” 

Then there is Rochester’s blindness. By the time Jane “gets the bloke”, he’s blind, no longer in his prime. That ambivalence fascinates Beard, as does Jane’s lack of (traditional) beauty.

“Jane is not particularly pretty. This book is great for women who don’t think of themselves as real cutesies because Jane’s attraction is her character.”

“I used to see myself as Jane because I never thought I was very pretty. I always thought I was going to be a working girl. As time has gone on I’ve got greater distance from her,” she says. 

“I read Jane Eyre and for a little while I became Jane Eyre. We’re as one.”

Most keenly, she has distance from the ending of the book, where Jane reaches that “ultimate female goal” of marriage. Professor Beard, whilst happily married, now knows that it’s not the only answer, as she may have thought aged ten.

“The sentence that stands out, and I think stands out for everybody, is the first sentence in the last chapter – ‘Reader, I married him. The quiet wedding we had.”’ That becomes such a sort of climatic moment for the book. In some ways it has entered people’s consciousness as the novel, the almost cliché of the novel’s happy ending or any novel’s happy ending, this is, ‘My reader, I married him,’ moment. I think that you can never get that line out of your head.” 


Professor Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, a Professor of Ancient Literature at the Royal Academy of Arts, blogger, BBC television presenter and Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Professor Beard recommends Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a spin-off prequel to Jane Eyre which tells the story of the ‘first Mrs Rochester’.

Discover more #THISBOOK selections from our 19 incredible women here. Join the conversation and share your #THISBOOK on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

From the inspirational to the intimate, we’d love you to be part of the #ThisBook conversation. We want you to nominate your #ThisBook and tell us about the novel that most impacted, shaped or changed your life.

Not sure how you could pick just one? We invited 19 incredible women from business, fashion, art, film, television and music to kickstart the conversation by sharing the story that made them see the world differently - at thisbook.com from May 18th.

Join the conversation: Tell us about the book, written by a woman, that has had the most impact on you with #ThisBook