For most of us, the way we feel about our bodies is complicated. As miraculous and beautiful as they can be at times, our bodies can also let us down, bones break, disease spreads. Some of these books explore the incredible journeys our bodies take us on, up mountains and across countries, through evolution to running marathons. Others examine what happens when they break down, the ways they can be manipulated and the disconnection we can feel when they don’t look or behave the way we would like.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Packing her rucksack on the morning she set off on the eleven-hundred-mile Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed could hardly lift it. She was grieving, newly divorced and depressed. Wild is her journey, the blisters, the sunburn, her body getting stronger as she walked all day, every day alone. It’s a powerful story about heartbreak and the body healing the mind.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
It’s difficult to stress how important The Metamorphosis is, as a cultural touchstone and as a cautionary tale about isolation, politically and personally. But it’s also a hugely gripping story. Gregor Samsa wakes up one day and finds that he has been turned into a cockroach. At first, the absurdity is comic. But the situation deteriorates rapidly, his family are disgusted, his sister will only enter his room if he covers himself with a sheet, Gregor is neglected, and he grows resentful. This is a book you will never forget.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Another dystopian novel, this time about cloning and organ donation. At a boarding school in the countryside the students write essays and learn instruments, but they are kept apart from the outside world. The priority above all else is their physical health, because their bodies are not their own. Never Let Me Go is a moving love story with a strong moral issue at its core, how do we treat the most vulnerable in our society?
Hunger by Roxanne Gay
“The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes,” writes Roxanne Gay in Hunger. It’s a memoir about life in a body that is constantly judged: strangers take fattening foods out of her trolley at the supermarket, try to give her encouragement at the gym and openly discuss whether the seatbelts on the plane will fit around her. Gay explores her own relationship with her body with an honesty that can be devastating at times but is powerful and important.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
This is a memoir about two walks, the first from the Cotswolds to London, the second around Spain. Laurie Lee walks through the countryside, visiting towns and villages, sleeping under the stars, relying on the people he meets for help with water and food. It is an inspiring journey and a celebration of youth: “I forgot everything but the way ahead. I walked steadily, effortlessly, hour after hour, in a kind of swinging, weightless dream. It was the peak of the curve of the body’s total extravagance, before the accounts start coming in.”
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is an utterly original novel about unusual and outcasted bodies. The Binewskis are circus geeks, a boy with flippers for hands and feet, a hunchback albino, a pair of Siamese twins and two parents who have used drugs and radioactive materials to create a family that they can profit from. And from there it gets even stranger. This is a cult classic, described by one reviewer as if “Flannery O’Conner had consumed vast quantities of LSD”.
All That Remains: A Life In Death by Sue Black
The body’s final journey is death, both a betrayal and an inevitability. Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist who has spent her career at burial sites and murder scenes, investigating war crimes and natural disasters. Here, she shares what she has learnt about how we perceive death with humour and warmth, in a way that is somehow life-affirming.
Animal by Sara Pascoe
Funny, personal and informative, Animal is part memoir, part evolutionary biology text: an autobiography of the female body. The amount of research is staggering, but everything is explained clearly and simply as the comedian Sara Pascoe takes us on a journey through puberty, consent, pregnancy, jealousy and love. The focus throughout is our animal urges, why we do the things we do. However well you think you know your body, there is something to learn from this.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami started running in 1982 and runs an average of six miles a day, six days a week. He’s run 20 marathons, including a 62-mile ultramarathon, and now competes in triathlons. He brings his circular, jazz-like prose style, so loved in his fiction, to this collection of personal essays about what running means to him. It is an essential part of his writing process, teaching him the difference between pain and suffering and the value of solitude.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A gothic horror classic, Frankenstein is credited as the first science fiction novel and has just had its 200-year anniversary. You know the story: Victor Frankenstein creates an eight-foot monster from body parts in a science experiment, and after he rejects it the monster seeks revenge. But this chilling book is much deeper than the television and film adaptations, asking important questions about nature versus nurture that are still relevant today.