Waterstones have recently released their latest promotion to demonstrate just how important books are in our lives. I always like these promotions and try to get involved but this latest take has made me want to share more about my early reading. They’re asking for 100 word pieces on a book that made you. Not influenced you but made you, a clear indication that someone in Waterstones knows how important books are to bibliophiles. I actually stood in a physical shop, mulling over this question in my head until someone started to edge around me (in a hilarious British fashion) to get to a book and I realised I must have looked a bit creepy. After all, Waterstones are asking what book made me and that’s a seriously hard question to ask!
I thought over it long and hard before I came to my conclusion, as I’m also one of those people that can never answer the rather basic question of “What’s your favourite book?” (favourite?!? Madness…). I read a lot as a little girl but there were very few books that I kept returning to time after time. One in particular would be A Little Princess but I feel that I just loved the story, rather than taking any message from it. Same with Asterix and several other series’ that I freakin’ engulfed whilst I was under the age of 10 (The Babysitter Club for example). I did also read a lot (and I mean A LOT) of Roald Dhal when I was a girl, seeking out every single book and even reading his biography (my first non fiction I read for pleasure) and then it hit me.
The Twits is a short novel by Roald Dahl. That tells the story of a horrific couple who are happy to play pranks on one another and geniunely be horribly obnoxious people. Mr Twit is a foul, bearded man who keeps food for later consumption on his face and enjoys putting the fear of “The Shrinks” in his wife. But don’t feel bad for her because Mrs Twit is just as unpleasant, treating those around her with just as much cruelty as she can dish out. As with many Dahl villains, they are extremes almost to the point of hilarity, meaning that even though they are the only people in the entire novella, they are not what I would consider “scary”. Indeed, Dahl writes about them with a tone of pity through most of the events that follow (and their inevitable come-uppance).
The story itself was enjoyable (there are monkeys) but what really grabbed me – and would continue to shape me long after I gave my copy away -was the description of Mrs Twit. She’s straight off the bat considered ugly, truly hideous, and we see that a lot with “bad” characters. Evil people are ugly, simple. Have a look at the excerpt from the book below:
“But the funny thing is that Mrs Twit wasn’t born ugly. She’d had quite a nice face when she was young. The ugliness had grown upon her year by year as she got older.
Why would that happen? I’ll tell you why.
If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until it gets so ugly you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
Nothing shone out of Mrs Twit’s face.”
This is the very first instance where I read why a bad person might be ugly. An explanation that my young brain latched onto and never let go. We’ve all seen people who aren’t conventionally attractive and yet you do think they’re beautiful. We’ve also all seen people that we’ve all recognised fills the quota for “beautiful” and yet they look distasteful. At least, I know I have. This single excerpt changed my entire perception of beauty and re-inforced a message that isn’t often taught: that beauty can be a state of mind. As I got older and started to read more classical fiction I also realised that Mrs Twit’s story is actually pretty rare for evil women. The order of events is very clear in this story: Mrs Twit thought about awful things and this made her ugly. Arguably, it can seem that ugly people are simply unpleasant when presented to us without this explanation. It’s certainly the case that “bad” people are more likely to be visually unappealing and that “good” people will look unbelievably attractive.
What I learnt from The Twits, was that beauty is just as much about attitudes and thoughts as your appearance. That a happy face will almost always be more appealing to us as a human than a glower. It meant that I was protected against the barrage of media influence. Twenty years of it and I’ve never thought that the practised smiles of D-list celebrities makes them look appealing. Or lashings of make up and surgery. As I grew up, I wanted my face to shine just like Mr Dahl describes. I don’t know if I succeeded but I think that’s a pretty good way to consider beauty. It certainly worked as the bedrock for my formative years and I know my daughters and sons will be getting copies of their own, in the hope that they will learn the same lesson and know what’s really valuable.
I hope your face shines with sunbeams as well, as sappy as that sounds.
If you want to read my 100 word explanation of why The Twits is a book that made me or you want to make one of your own then check it out here.
Edit 04/06/2013: My story has been added to the favourites! Needless to say I’m pleased to bits!