Ten influential books

There is a meme going around where people are listing the 10 books that influenced them the most. I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a list I can live with (at least for today). These are in chronological order of me discovering them.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – I don’t really have a version of this in mind, largely because these stories were told to me orally as a child, and no one book contains all the stories as I remember them. I know that these were certainly the first stories I remember hearing, and also the first books I can remember reading, and that the archetypes and themes remain with me to this day. In particular I was enthralled by the stories concerning the Grail, and whilst I didn’t have the understanding of the symbolism and metaphysics at the age of 4, I think it is those stories in particular that have stayed with me to this day.

C.S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia – My favourite books as a child in primary school, and also the books I came back to at University when we had to write a paper on religious allegory. I think they work on both levels, and that they should still be essential reading for children everywhere.

Frank Herbert – Dune (and in fact the whole Dune series) – I read Dune as a child, following my obsession with David Lynch’s very fine film adaptation (which remains one of my favourite films). I love all the books, and even have a soft spot for the TV series and the sequel/prequel books written after Frank Herbert’s death. No sci-fi I have read since has ever come close.

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure – I had trouble deciding between this and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I think Jude the Obscure has to win due to the fact that it influenced me more. I studied it for A level English Literature, and has such had to dissect every word over and over again. The style of writing wasn’t really to my taste, but I empathised so strongly with the eponymous character, and think I’ve probably absorbed a fair bit of how he saw fate and destiny into my own life over the years. I think it’s probably the first book I read where I could just instinctively see where the author was coming from, and I’m proud of the fact I wrote a large number of critical essays on this book that were highly regarded at the time.

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land and other poems – Another A level text. Before I started studying Eliot I had read very little poetry through choice, and this was so different to anything we had been made to read at school. I loved the way he wove so many different thematic threads together, and thought that The Waste Land in particular was possibly the best thing I had read at that point. I still have a copy of this on the bookshelves in my study, and dip into it on occasion when I want something that is both familiar and challenging. I also hope that listing a book of poems is not cheating, although I think I’m going to cheat even more thoroughly before I’ve finished writing this.

Aldous Huxley – The Human Situation – Talking about cheating, this is another book that might not count, in that it’s not a novel and is instead a collection of essays. I’m including it because it is probably the biggest influence on my University years, and was quoted from more times than I can remember in essays about sustainability, human geography and ecosystems. It certainly wasn’t a set text, but it deals very nicely with our dysfunctional relationship with the planet, and as such made essential reading during my Environmental Science degree.

Don DeLilo – Great Jones Street – I’m torn between this and Iain Bank’s Espedair Street which I read at the same time (during my years at University) and which covers similar themes. Great Jones Street is the story of a famous rock star who goes into seclusion to deconstruct the mythology of fame, and it very much appealed to my (at that time undefined) introverted self. I’ve long struggled with the dichotomy of wanting to stand up in front of large groups of people and talk, and yet being terrified of social interaction and feeling very much like fraud whenever I open my mouth, and this book nicely explores those themes and a few other themes as well. From the day I read this until the day Kurt Cobain died I wanted to be a rock star. I don’t have those urges now, but I think this book nicely epitomises that time in my life.

Paul Auster – Leviathan – This follows on quite nicely from Great Jones Street, and is another story of a creative person who loses their creativity for a while, and is one of those rare books where I can strongly empathise with more than one central character (and in this case both of the two main characters). I love the way Paul Auster writes, and I’d also strongly recommend New York Stories from the same era.

Douglas Coupland – Generation X – I feel like this was written for me and for my generation, which of course it was. It was the first book that suggested it was OK to underachieve for a while on occasion, and I read it at a time when I really needed to learn that lesson. It was also my introduction to a writer I still like to this day, and nothing made me happier than discovering that a pixilated dolphin statue I discovered whilst wandering around Vancouver was actually a Douglas Coupland sculpture.

Donna Tartt – Secret History – The newest book on the list, and one that I first read in 2001. As well as being a very well written and utterly compelling debut novel, it also reminds me of the time when I had just arrived in Birmingham, and was building my life pretty much from scratch in the same way that the main character in the book was. The fact that some of the other characters reminded me a lot of the friends I was making at the time probably didn’t hurt.

Of course, I’ve read a lot of other books in the last 13 years, and some of those have probably influenced me a fair bit too. But I think the list above are the ones that contributed the most to me being the person I am today.