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From books that healed the mind to those that helped us get fit, how we read our way back to happiness

After new research revealed reading could help you live longer, some of our best-known faces tell Kerry McKittrick and Karen Ireland about the books that prove good for their physical and emotional well-being.

Published 09/08/2016

Great reads: books can transform our lives
Great reads: books can transform our lives
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Toni Morrisson's Beloved

Actress and comedian Nuala McKeever (52) lives in Belfast. She is about to go on tour with her one woman play In the Window.

She says: The book which transformed my life and turned around my thinking was Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I read it about 15 years ago when it was a bestseller. At the time the whole poppy controversy was rife and people were saying if you didn't wear one you were a nationalist.

This book was about one soldier's experience of the First World War. It took me a while to get into it but then I couldn't put it down. It was so descriptive and when it got to the bit about life in the trenches it was compelling. It was so detailed that I felt like I was there and ultimately it was really sad and dealt with death.

It brought the impact of the war home for me and after I read it that year for the first time ever I bought a poppy as a mark of respect.

Ever since then I have tried to buy a white poppy for peace. The book changed my life and my way of thinking."

UTV and U105 presenter Denise Watson (44) lives in Lisburn with her husband David and their two daughters Samantha (11) and Elizabeth (7). She says:

I studied English literature at university, so I have read every type of book you could mention. All the genres from Chaucer and the Classics through to Black American fiction and books like The Colour Purple. I also read a lot of Sixties' literature as well as plays such as Beckett's Waiting for Godet, which I never got.

However, the one book that stayed with me and made me cry was One Day by David Nichols.

There was a lot of buzz when the film came out, so I went and bought the book and I couldn't put it down.

I learnt lessons through that book - the lead character sailed through life not really caring much about anything and it took tragedy for him to learn what is important to him. He worked in the media and I've seen people who got caught up in being in the industry and ended up disappearing into what isn't important.

The book stayed with me for a long time and I got caught up in the characters and the unrequited love one felt for the other at the start and how they met on the same day every year.

Reading is really important to us as a family and every night at bed time, the four of us get together and read stories to each other. It is a special time and it's certainly no surprise to me that reading is good for your health."

DTR presenter Caroline Fleck (44) lives in Coleraine with her son Jack (18) and her daughter Molly (18 months). She says:

I have never read fiction books. Even as a child I didn't read any fiction other than CS Lewis's The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe ... and I am still looking for the wardrobe. But as an adult the one book which really helped me as a person and as a parent was The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It is a book about how to be successful in life and in business.

At the time, my son Jack was going through a diagnosis of dyslexia and it divided his dad and me as parents as he was struggling to understand why Jack didn't get it. He is very academic and just couldn't understand why Jack wasn't like him.

Jack is extremely intelligent and creative and at the time I was reading the book, the author was going through the same type of diagnosis with his own son.

The book helped me explain to his dad that Jack wasn't like him and he wasn't like me - he was his own person.

This helped us as parents come to terms with what was going on and to realise that Jack would be successful in his own right.

It was a very powerful lesson. The book also talked about that magic moment you have when a big idea which your life ...I am still waiting to have that moment.

Since then I have read every self-help book out there. At different stages and junctions in my life I have reached for books which help me along the way."

Belfast businesswoman and celebrity hairdresser Brenda Shankey (45) lives in Belfast with her two children Will (13) and Lauren (15). She says:

When I had my breakdown four years ago and life was bleak, I read a book by Anthony Demello called Awareness. This was the first book which opened my eyes and changed my whole attitude. It taught me that nothing else matters except our own thinking and that we create a lot of the drama and pain in our own heads. I realised that we need to be more aware of our thinking and accept the things that are going on around us. Ultimately this book taught me how to live in happiness and grace.

Life does have its dramas and I have had my fair share of them lately, but you learn from all your experiences and everything we go through in life teaches us lessons and experience. Since then I have read a lot of books about mindfulness but that book turned things around for me and was a saving grace when I was in a low place."

Former Miss Northern Ireland Fiona Hurley (41) lives in Bangor with her husband John West. She works as a medical rep and is a qualified hypnotherapist. She says:

My all-time favourite book is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I just love everything about it. In terms of books which have helped me on my own journey, I can't pinpoint one in particular but I have read a number of books for my training in hypno-psychotherapy that have been invaluable.

These books helped me understand my own behaviour, my insecurities, self-esteem issues and also my strengths.

They've also given me an insight into other people's behavioural patterns and this has been insightful, not just from a professional perspective, but also because we are all social creatures and our interactions with one another are paramount to our happiness or unhappiness as the case might actually be."

Writer Malachi O'Doherty lives in Belfast with his wife Maureen Boyle. He says:

In my 20s, I was strongly taken with the idea that a spiritual enlightenment was attainable. I had read Carlos Casteneda and I had tried LSD and Mescalin. I had travelled to India and become the disciple of a Hindu guru. I read Swami Vivekanana and others and truly believed that one might surrender the personality for a higher state of being.

The trouble was that, after three years in an Indian ashram, practising intense meditation and hatha yoga, a choice was right in front of me. It was between continuing on that journey, or reclaiming my psychological well-being. I came home from India.

No one book tipped the balance for me, but one special book emboldened me, contributed powerfully to my decision to leave, to choose mental health over a devout and slavish commitment to a guru and the transcendence the journey was to lead to. That book was Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

And I know how naff that sounds, but perhaps not much more naff than the paragraphs further up. Jane is confronted by the same challenge I faced. On one side of the argument is the brilliant and passionate St John Rivers, who wants her to give her life to him, to serve his Christian missionary endeavour. And he makes the hugely persuasive argument that her simple human desires are inconsequential before this opportunity to make a real difference.

But Jane doesn't buy it.

Where many women of her time and since have thought it perfectly right to subserve all their own needs and desires to those of a spiritual man, from vicars' wives to Catholic nuns, she knew that she had to stick to the integrity of her own desires, her own fulfilment.

And I did the same. I went home and I found my way back into a discarded career in journalism.

I wasn't the same person I would have been had I never gone to India, because we are formed by our experiences. But after a time I felt I was myself again.

And I have often since been as happy as a man can be and never regretted either going there, or coming home."

Paula Bradshaw (42) is an Alliance Party MLA for south Belfast. She is married to Ian Parsley and has two children from a previous relationship. She says:

My book is actually a play that I read as part of my French A-Level. It's called Le Jeux Sont Faits which translates to The Chips Are Down and it's by Jean-Paul Sartre. It's all about our decision-making in life and if we had the chance to go back and make different decisions would we actually do that?

It's a book that has been directing my life for more than 20 years now, because I very rarely say no when someone offers me an opportunity. It's not something I would have read if I didn't have to for school but it's been a huge influence ever since. I try to live in the present - I think opportunities come to you at the right time for the right reason. I don't want to get to my later life and regret not having taken choices."

Victims campaigner Mairia Cahill lives in Co Down with her young daughter. She says:

Self-help books have their place, but, for me, nothing compares with plunging my head into a great novel. The feeling when you get to the end of the page mid-sentence, the endorphin rush of wanting to find out what happens next, the process of letting your imagination take you to places someone else has dreamed of, and the complete escapism that comes with a good novel, beats the 'you too can have a life' type books hands down.

A good writer will describe other worlds, enabling you to put your head somewhere else for the duration of the book - a great one will paint pictures with their words for you, and allow your imagination to colour in the rest. That's why films never live up to the novels I love - I have my own characters constructed and buy fully into the process of immersing myself completely in their world.

I was lucky to have a great English teacher at school who encouraged me to read widely. Her favourites of Maya Angelou and Harper Lee rubbed off on our class, so, when she suggested Toni Morrisson's Beloved, I devoured it.

That book took me out of west Belfast at a time when I needed to be anywhere but, and transported me into the world of Sethe, a woman who escaped slavery in Ohio, her daughter Denver, and their haunted house. Set in the 1870s it's a story of human resilience - even in the most appalling climate of post civil war racism, and it shocked me to the core, while also taking me on a journey outside of my own issues as the ghost of Sethe's murdered child, Beloved, comes to stay and feeds like a parasite, weakening her over time, until Denver enlists the help of the village women in an intervention. Through these characters, and Paul D, a man who had escaped slavery from the house Sethe also worked in, Morrison weaves messages of hope and horror in equal measure.

It's a reminder of how destructive and powerful memories can be. From the opening line; '124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom', I was hooked, and later disturbed by images of Sethe slitting her own toddler's throat to escape a slavemaster, but also soothed at different times by the almost poetic way the book is written.

Perhaps the most powerful theme in this novel is that a person will never turn the page of their own life successfully, until they piece together the fractured parts of themselves by confronting the painful memories binding them to negativity. It's a Pulitzer prize winning beautifully written novel, and one that I've gone back to many times to both lose and find myself again. As one of the main characters says; 'me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.' It's a more enjoyable way of learning that lesson than buying every self-help book on the shelf, that's for sure.

Barry McElduff (49) is the Sinn Fein MLA for West Tyrone. He is married to Paula and they have three grown-up children. He says:

There are quite a few books that have made an impression on me. I've read two books by Peter Kay, the comedian, and they're great. They're autobiographical but anecdotal and very funny, too.

I also like books by Tim Pat Coogan - anything on history is well worth a read.

In terms of the books that I find the most inspiring, I do like some of the popular psychology stuff. Antony Robbins' Unleash the Power Within is a great book. It might come across as a bit cheesy, but I really like what it says about your attitude being your choice. Politicians can be very like GPs, in that people often offload their problems to them and I think it's important not to let that get on top of you. Robbins has a chapter about powerful language and I think that has been very useful given what I do. He makes you focus on your capabilities instead of your disabilities."

Sammy Douglas (63) is the DUP MLA for East Belfast. He is married to Jillian and they have four grown-up children. He says:

I like CS Lewis's book Mere Christianity. It's based on a number of interviews he did when he was working for the BBC. It's a book that isn't just written for academics but mere mortals like myself, so it's easy to read. I read it at a time when I was having difficulty with my faith as everyone does.

I also found a good book in the days after I was knocked off my bike on the Malone Road in Belfast and found myself in the Royal Victoria Hospital. I found that I had really lost my confidence about being on the roads - in the car as well as on my bike. In fact, I didn't drive or cycle for a couple of weeks.

But then I picked up My Own Two Wheels by Malachi O'Doherty, which is the story of how he started cycling again at 60. I've read it before but picking it up again was very helpful. It's all about his journey and includes some brilliant tips. It's inspired me and has certainly restored my confidence a fair bit. I'm more cautious when I cycle but at least I've made it back into the saddle. It's great to be back cycling. I started a few years ago to combat stress, not just from work but from other aspects of my life. You have to concentrate on what you're doing on a bike or you will crash very quickly."

Belfast Telegraph

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