Some of you folks who are good enough to take time and read this little blog know me as a reader, someone who enjoys a good story. In fact I’m not hassled by medium when it comes to great stories – but there is something uniquely magical about books.
By that I mean plain old text-filled books. In the hands of a good writer, with no sensory aids (visual or aural) to help you out, your mind can be lit up like the Aurora (a.k.a, the Northern Lights).
A brief note on me and reading before I go ahead: I’ve been a reader since I was very little, whether I understood words or not, I just liked stories. I liked to learn and explore ideas and mine for information. As I became more able, I would even sit on my parents bed in the early mornings and read out page after page of the newspaper – granted there were probably horrible manglings of language and article content and likely much amusement for my folks, but I loved doing it and I’m ever grateful that they would let me do stuff like that and never discouraged me. From then on I pretty much read always and hopefully will continue to do so for as long as humanly possible. Now, back to the matter at hand!
Recently a trend on social media was sharing 10 books that have influenced you or have meaning for you and though normally I avoid such things, it made me start thinking and sorting a list in the back of my mind and then I made the list out because it was a rare occassion when social media was touching on something I considered worthwhile – not listing your 10 favourite action movies or something, but 10 books that influenced and continue to influence you.
Now even for the not-so-serious reader, there will be books and stories that left a mark on you from your younger days and maybe the odd once since, the result being that I started noticing what an interesting and wide variety of reading people had done and what a remarkable variance began to emerge of what influenced different people. For some people, some books can even be life-changers or saviours if they come across your path at certain times in your life and that is the power of prose, the power of a story and so I wanted to spend a little more time and share that with you.
Now, I’m sharing my list of books that left a mark in my mind (so to speak) with you, here and now, and I wanted to add in a brief reasoning for why those books remain so – they are in no particular order:
10. The Happy Prince & Other stories by Oscar Wilde – One of the unexpected books on this list for me. When I first put down Mr. Wilde on this list, I was going to list A Picture of Dorian Gray as the book of choice because (a) Wilde is one of the authors who I love the most for his skill with words and (b) it is probably my favourite story of his for a variety of reasons, not least being the central premise. But, as I started to write about it here, I realised that while I loved it, the work of his that really influenced me was a set of short stories I have including the tale of The Happy Prince and other stories that he wrote for his children.
They influenced me because they were stories meant for children, simple tales, yet they had themes and sub-text that was not as child-like as we tend to make kids-things. They were often whimsical and at many moments quite sad, but always honest and filled with heart. There was emotion and genuine heart-ache and joy and instead of simple morality that tends to be the norm, it was more complex than that but put in a way that a child could absorb it. I’ve always loved and embraced the idea of making kids read and while I may write some heavy and intense/dark stories now and again, I rarely write things that you couldn’t give to your 13-14 year-old kid. Not everything can be for every age-group, but there is so much that can be crafted and be more universal and these stories were a huge influence on my approach to writing in this regard and my desire to dabble in fiction for children – both like this and unlike it because you’ll never hear a more honest opinion than that of a child.
9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – Arguably the single most influential book that he wrote and probably the most popular – thanks in part to its cinematic adaptation that cemented the icons we know today as Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott and gave us one of the most fantastic soliloquies of all time. A meditation on humanity, on relationships, on our connection to things, legacies, life and death, consciousness and identity – there was little this book does not touch on and if you read it through a couple of times you can’t help but feel your own mind expanded and your perspective pushed further than expected. As with all his work, it is disguised as a wonderful scifi adventure but the depths underneath it all cover territories of thought far and wide and in ways few writers ever could. Even if you don’t like science fiction in general, this is a book that everyone should try and read once in their life, preferably when they are young enough to still be seeking out an identity and sense of self and have not hardened into the less flexible adults most of us become over time.
8. Kull – Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard – Originally the book in this spot was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury but I had to bump it. That was a hard choice because that’s a marvelous story about censorship and freedom of thought, it is another that should be on the mandated youthful reading list.
But what eventually came up as an alternate (an unlikely one at that!) was this collection of the only Kull stories that Robert Howard wrote before moving on to his more well-known and legendary creation – Conan of Cimmeria. To most people, this is associated with the 80’s movie and simple sword and sorcery. But it’s not that simple. Howard wrote these stories literally as penny-dreadful style pulp stories which were meant to be cheap thrills and chills and entertainment. He did more. This collection was the first of his original prose I came across that was really his words, his stories and not a comic or movie and it blew me away. His word-play is not artful and deft as some men of letters, but he has a way with them that few are lucky enough to possess – he crafts worlds that ensnare the mind, he crafts characters that live in these brutal worlds and have to be brutal and savage to survive them. Yes somehow he creates stories that have actual complexity despite their short length, that have characters like Kull who are basically the cliched Barbarian you may think of when I mention it, but he is more than that, he is a nobody who rose to be King, he is a warrior who doesn’t fight for blood-lust or pure “glory” and in all this there is an attitude to people – playing with gender roles and such and even racism and intolerance – that I can’t tell you was intentional, but it is there to be seen when you read the stories.
Howards work influenced my short-stories and my fondness for the medium and what it can do in capable hands and his version of the “manly-man” warrior cliche was so much closer to what could be called better men and more genuine heroes or at least worthy of respect and some admiration in the context of the worlds they inhabit.
7. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution by Terence McKenna – This was one that even I didn’t expect to see here at first, I’d totally forgotten about it but then it came back to me as I was pulling and adding stuff and shuffling around this list of 10 books. It was a strange, random find in an second-hand bookstore in a market alley that I came across when I must have been around 15 or 16 and was just starting to really learn about drugs and alcohol. In some ways this book is critical because it kind of changed my life – I mean in the sense that while I didn’t become a Terence McKenna, the book did teach me to see past myth and pure word-of-mouth and heresay and cultural stereo-types and phobias. In a way it taught me to embrace the scientific method and look for facts before judging something.
It was also one of my earliest experiences with the concepy of humanity in nature and our relationship not just now or recently but through the course of our evolution and how we are tied to so much more. I may not agree with everything that is said in the book, but I learnt to be open to all of it, to study the evidence presented and draw my own conclusions and do so rationally and reasonably, regardless of what other people told me – I think it’s a key part of what makes me what I am today and I’m grateful for that.
6. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – Okay, I’ll be honest, this is probably the book that tops my list of “If you could carry one book with you on a desert island…” I read this fairly late in life (compared to most) but it had me in splits and entertained from page one and has never stopped doing so till today. “Inside jokes” inspired by the book and the series continue to shuttle around my brain and are shared with the odd person here and there who loves the book as well. It is the tale of Arthur Dent, just a simple fellow wanting for nothing major, expecting nothing major and just wanting to live simply, peacefully and probably be left alone. But somewhere in all that he is meant for more and ends up either by chance or destiny in places and doing things both remarkable and utterly ridiculous. Never has a character been more relateable to me than Arthur and almost never has anything made me laugh and be astounded at the depths of an idea simultaneously as Mr. Adams did with these tales.
5. Count of monte cristo by Alexandre Dumas – There were many classics that were fighting to be on this list (in my mind!) and the final battle was won by this tale of love, loss and revenge. I’ve never lived an unhappy life, I’ve been fortunate in most all things and am grateful for it – so unlike what some might imagine, I do not necessarily relate to the need for vengeance of Edmond Dantes. But there remains something about the way Dumas told this tale, the way he crafted the events and the emotions and the journey of not just the main, but all the characters, that had me entranced from the first time I read it. It is one of those stories I reread every now and again and it leaves me pondering many things every time and more importantly I suppose, it leaves me appreciating the things that I have that have not yet been lost and remembering the things that I have…
4. Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – Hands down the book the blew my mind the most any single book has ever done. Not as strange or convoluted or such as some of the others you might find here, it is simple a scifi tale that spans a HUGE amount of time – from relatively present day to when our solar system ceases to exist and the last of humanity is about to die. But along the way, the manner in which Stapledon shows not just socio-cultural but biological evolution in humanity, the journeys and tribulations he supposes that we face over millenia first on Earth and then as our sun ages, on other planets in our system and further and further to the systems edges as millions of years pass. Never before had I seen such detail, such non-spiritual but beautifully envisioned path for the evolutionary concept. It was an example of science fiction at it’s best and honestly I believe even now that any and every child capable of reading it should be required to read it in school because it will change your way of thinking in ways you can’t even imagine if you’ve not yet.
3. Ubik by Philip K. Dick – The first full novel by this author I happened to read and I honestly consider myself lucky that it was so – not because it’s better than others by him but because it is a startling and intensely paced story set within a mind-bending reality. It is a story that when reading, especially at a young age when you have a lot to learn, you can feel your own mind twist and contort as much as the reality of this story does and for a creative person like me who loved concept like time-travel, destiny vs. free will, evolutionary possibilities and such, it was one hell of a ride! From around this time till today, this man is undeniably my favourite author because there is not a piece of his body of work I have not loved at least a little and he is the kind of writer I aspire to be someday – I may never get there or even come close, but it is that distant star I aim to reach.
If I’m honest, I’m glad that I read this and his short stories before I ever came across the critically acclaimed and more popular fare (like Man in the High Castle and the also on this list Do Androids…) because my reaction to him as a writer I didn’t know from anywhere and in short and strange bursts in these earlier books was a unique experience and in some ways I feel having started on his earlier and lesser talked about works allowed me to sort of grow as he did and as I got to his later books which had more and more depth, I was far more perceptive and receptive.
2. The Once and Future King by T.H. White – Not a book I would have expected to be on this list but then again there’s a great deal about it that surprised me and continues to do so. Granted, it’s actually the collected set of the series by Mr. White, in that it’s much like the Lord of the Rings I suppose. One of the most entertaining, well-crafted, engaging and intriguing takes on the Arthurian legend, it showed me a different face to something so familiar and a part of popular culture – it also showed me much about how little details can utterly alter perspective and change the way even the reader views a familiar tale. Of course the character of Merlin and his reverse-time life and other things utterly blew my mind and till today give me ideas.
1. Dune by Frank Herbert – Okay so this is probably as close to a #1 as I’ll get if I were ever to make a genuine list of this kind. All other slots would be up for grabs. I love this book. I re-read it every couple of years and love it every single time. There was a phase through middle and early high-school where my reading had declined and I was not overly connected to reading, the passion of it from childhood waning. Partly it had to do with limited access, an abundance of fluff-best-sellers and such. But then one day my Dad brought me a copy of an old scifi book he had once enjoyed. He did it as a lark, as a nostalgia moment – little could he have known the fires it ignited in me as it brimmed with philosophy, religion, emotion, science, mysticism and played with the ideas of humanity itself. Dune was for me nothing short of a Rennaisance when it came to reading and stories and I’ve been happily lost in the literary seas ever since.
Well, there you have it folks, the ten books that most influenced me in a variety of ways. Going over this I realise it is not what I would have expected to start with, missing a few of my most favourite writers and much loved books like Neil Gaimans’ Anansi Boys or something by Tolkien or even Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk to name just a few. I must admit it’s been an bit of an enlightening experience in that sense because while I know I love those books and writers and I know that not being on this list doesn’t take away from them for me personally, it was interesting to see the ones – both old and not so old – that left a mark perhaps greater in key ways than others. Maybe it was because of the “when” I read them or what I was going through at the time, reasons abound and chance is a tricky thing – but things like this are of interest and should be of interest to more people because while it’s not desirable to dwell on the past, peeking back now and again at specific things can teach us a lot about our mistakes, about who we are, about who and what we could be and so much more.
I hope you all enjoyed that and as always, if you have any thoughts, any books you liked, anything on your mind regarding these books in particular – drop a line in the comments below.