There is a tendency with lists like this to protest how impossible it is to narrow down your choices or to feel they have to say something profound and meaningful about one’s character. I shall do no such thing. My five reads are shamelessly populist, books I return to time and again or represent significant moments in my life.
Miffy in the Snow by Dick Bruna (1970)
I learned to read with Dick Bruna's rabbit; so did my mother, newly arrived in Britain and struggling with English language lessons while I sat at the back of class. We felt the same sense of achievement on finishing a book. I distinctly remember her suggesting we read Miffy in the Snow together. "No," I said grandly, "I'm too big for that now." Even at a young age, I realised the significance of that moment: that I would have to go it alone in a brave new world. My mother stopped coming to the library with me after that.
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (2011)
Moran's exuberant, shouty, hilarious take on challenging the patriarchy, giving voice to a new wave of feminism, speaks to the 12-year-old me, the one who pored over copies of Spare Rib and biographies of the Pankhursts and dreamed of one day acquiring a bra she could burn. "We're not arguing for the whole world," she reasons. "Just our share." Well, quite.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Written more than 200 years ago, there is a reason why Austen's gentle comedy of manners still regularly tops book lists. Austen was the wise, witty Moran of her day and Elizabeth Bennet an early feminist heroine. I saw parallels with the conservative Asian community I grew up in, where it was a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman must be in want of a doctor as a husband".
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)
From the moment, 100 pages in, when Fermina Daza so cruelly, arbitrarily rejects Florentino Ariza, I was hooked. This is no love story but a melancholic treatise on the different kinds of love there are: obsessive, unrequited love; familial love; dutiful love; and love as a kind of violent epidemic, all set against a backdrop of death and decay.
Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life by Richard Stengel (2009)
Sometimes it is not just about what you read but where. I picked up this book in the Apartheid Museum in Mandela’s homeland. Stengel distills his wisdom into pithy life lessons on bravery, courage, leadership and forgiveness. He reminds us why this luminous, contradictory, extraordinary man was one of the few great heroes of our time.
Tahira Yaqoob is The National's comment editor and was longlisted for the 2018 Mogford International Short Story Prize