The Facebook meme du jour is all about listing the ten books that changed your life. The fad has inevitably produced a backlash from people convinced that their dull and illiterate ‘friends’ couldn’t possibly have read half the weighty, intellectual tomes they’d claimed.
I think it’s an interesting exercise. It only becomes pointless if it’s turned into a chance to pull open your intellectual raincoat so unwitting passers-by get an unwanted opportunity to see how big your bookshelves are.
But books can change people. They can open our eyes to new ideas and new worlds and leave a profound impression. However when sat down to consider what my ten might be I realised two things.
Firstly most of the books that really made an impression did so when I was much younger. When you’re a blank page it’s that much easier for the words from another to end up on your own. Compared to books I read before the age of 18 I really struggle to think of many that have had as profound an effect since.
Secondly the books that made the biggest impression weren’t necessarily the best books I’ve read, indeed my list of my 10 favourite books would probably be substantially different. Timing is important. Read a mediocre book at a point in life when you’re looking for answers to the questions or issues it tackles and it may hit home much harder than a great book read at a less critical moment.
So my list tries to cleave as closely to the spirit of the question as possible. This isn’t a list that will impress many. That’s not the intention. But it might give anyone who is interested an insight into my formative influences.
- The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkein. I read The Hobbit when I was six. I read voraciously from a very early age and this was the first big book I read. It was that big I went back to much easier things thereafter. But I loved the story. A few years back I had an amusing conversation with a guy I worked with at a software company for which I did comms. He’s a bright bloke. Our minds work in different ways but he’d always give me a run for my money. It was pretty typical of him and spoke volumes about our relationship that I once mentioned to him, feeling a little self satisfied, that I’d read The Hobbit when I was six, and he came right back and said, a little insouciantly, ‘well I read Lord of the Rings when I was six.’ And I thought ‘well fuck you.’
The other thing it did was make me unduly anxious about Luca’s reading. We fought over his lack of progress when he was five and six. Hey, mea culpa, totally. I was being pretty stupid about it. However I solved it by telling him he could have a Wii U if he read the first Harry Potter book before he turned seven. He did…with a week to spare, and in the eight months since he’s read the next four and a half books in the series. Well that’ll teach me. Hopefully.
- Grimble/Grimble at Christmas, Clement Freud. I could equally have said ‘My Friend Mr Leakey by J.B.S. Haldane. Both these (the Grimble stories were in a slim single edition so I don’t really think of them as separate books) had a defining influence on my sense of humour. Both were written for children by polymaths; Freud being a restaurateur, broadcaster and politician, Haldane a mathematician and classicist who became a Fellow of the Royal Society and was honoured for his work in physiology, genetics and evolutionary biology. What they also had in common was a very, very silly sense of humour. The line I always remember from Grimble was about a Garibaldi (aka ‘squashed fly’) biscuit on which was written, in green ink ‘do not eat this biscuit because green ink is bad for you.’ My Friend Mr Leakey was actually written in the 1930s but has aged well, though references to collar studs might leave some feeling a bit bemused these days. There’s a lovely scene where Mr Leakey, a magician, helps a postman by turning a troublesome dog’s teeth to rubber. Now I write children’s books and to these two I owe my greatest debt. Curiously my agent, Ben, shares my appreciation for these two as does Neil Gaiman. Great minds and all… and both illustrated (the editions I had anyway) by Quentin Blake who drew childhood for anyone growing up in the 70s.
- The Illustrated Self Sufficiency, John Seymour. This was the self sufficiency bible of the ‘Good Life’ era. I didn’t read all that much of it, just dipped into it and dreamed. But the illustrations of how to manage a one acre plot and a five acre plot fired my dreams. I still fantasise about writing and living off the land.
- The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, et al., Douglas Adams. I don’t think any single radio programme has ever made such an impression on me as H2G2. I was eleven or twelve, I think, and hung onto the radio every time it was broadcast. The music still transports me right back. And for once the books not only lived up to but bettered their progenitor. Adams, once a member of the Pythons’ writing team, fused a wonderful sense of the absurd with a fascination for life’s big issues. His answer to the big unanswerables was to be silly – indeed expecting an answer to an unanswerable question is preposterous and Adams captured that beautifully. So why such a big impression? I suspect H2G2 set me off on my own quest for the outer bounds of the ridiculous and the profound.
- The Quest for Gaia, Kit Pedlar. This I read at sixteen and went vegetarian as a consequence. Pedlar’s case doesn’t centre on animal rights but on the unsustainability of feeding an increasingly crowded planet on meat given its resource intensiveness and environmental impact. If any book was responsible for my turning towards green thinking this was it.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig. I read this when I was in my late teens, if I remember right, into 60s counterculture, motorcycles and even philosophy. Consequently I signed up to study philosophy and theology at Oxford. I guess my real interest was in ethics and practical philosophy. Oxford’s main focus was impractical philosophy. Seriously people, even empiricists look both ways when they cross the road or they quickly become ex-empiricists because busses still exist even when they’re not observed. Not sure whether to hold Pirsig responsible for my decision to study philosophy, or not, but the book (and it’s not really such a great book) really did capture my teenage imagination.
This is where the list gets a bit harder. By the time I left university many of my ideas were fairly well formed. I’d spent three years studying Locke and Hume and Aristotle with oodles of New Testament theology thrown in. No one thing I read there made a huge mark.
- Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson. I could equally have said Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 or The Great Shark Hunt. I read these at university or shortly after and confirmed my inclination towards journalism. Thompson invented Gonzo – first person reportage where the writer is a protagonist and objectivity flies out of the window faster than you can say ‘pass me the drugs’. True objectivity in journalism is impossible. We may strive for it and strive hard. But when I was reporting from Malaysia I could not shelve my commitment to liberty, democracy and human rights, nor buy the government’s inference that these concepts were somehow different in an Asian context. Thompson simply dropped any pretence to anything other than total subjectivity and in doing so was uncompromisingly honest.
- Tales From The City, Armistead Maupin / Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins. By the time I turned thirty I realised I wanted to be a writer first and foremost and a musician second. Turning thirty gave me the impetus to sit down and write properly for the first time. The book I wrote almost got published but no cigar. I returned to it late last year after a gap of almost 17 years and the rewrite is almost done. But when I originally wrote it I sat down to re-read both Robbins and Maupin – Robbins for his freeform use of language (currently reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain which plays with language in a similarly unfettered manner and arguably in a much more powerfully elegant manner), Maupin for his command of dialogue which is both captivatingly natural and moves on the plot with apparent effortlessness, and both for their outrageous refusal to let truth be stranger than fiction and in their strangeness they somehow find truth. I recently picked up a Tom Robbins (Fierce Invalids…) and I have to say his ‘wildly original’ use of language seemed positively laboured and clunky at times. It may be that Jitterbug wouldn’t bear re-reading now, but then it gave me permission to write however I pleased.
- White Mughals, William Dalrymple. I hate William Dalrymple. No one should be able to write as well at 23 as he did when he produced In Xanadu; literate and erudite without any apparent need to wear either his learning other than lightly. I so hope he had a good editor or he’s simply to damn good to be allowed to live in peace. Actually I don’t hate him at all. I think he’s a monstrously talented writer and researcher. White Mughals tells the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, British Resident at the court of Hyderabad and his affair with a local princess. It also tells the story of the British in India at a time when many Brits were becoming Indianised and the Indian courts Anglicised, and documents the end of that era with the growing racism at the heart of the East India Company. It’s a great book. I read it towards the end of five and a half years in Asia when I was conscious of becoming Asianised and it resonated strongly. But it also influenced my choice of name for Luca. I wanted to call him James Achilles. The ‘Achilles’ was sadly vetoed but he is James Alexander Lucas after James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a man with a foot in Asia and a foot in England, just like Luca.
- Tom Paine, a Political Life, John Keane. I read this about four or five years ago now. After a lifetime being interested in politics (I was already hooked by the age of ten… sad I know, but true) I finally found my political hero. I loved the Paine Keane introduced me to – flawed, self pitying, irascible, wont to pick fights for the hell of it (verbal rather than physical ones) but the most brilliant polemicist of his (and arguably any other) age. He wrote the three most widely read works of the 18th Century, helped spark a movement for independence in America, tried to remain principled as a participant in French revolutionary politics and was a deeply humane and idealistic man until the end. Consequently Paine’s thinking has shaped my own immeasurably.
So there you are – books that have changed me. I’ve read and enjoyed countless scores of others, some the kind that I could name drop I suppose, but enjoying a book and being changed by it are two very different things.