There’s a craze going around my more literary-minded friends on Facebook at the moment to list the fifteen books which influenced you most and then tag several more friends to post their own on their wall. I don’t do the whole tagging thing or any other kind of chain-mail version of whatever latest craze is going on – whether it involved buckets of icy water or no – but I did like the idea of writing here about the books which have been a major influence in my life.
As this is my blog, I feel it quite permissible to cheat a little. Most of the posts I’ve seen have listed fiction and I shall do the same here too (or, at least, ‘stories’ – there’s a distinction to be made with the last two). However, I’ll start with a handful of non-fiction books first because I think they’re worth mentioning. I offer those as a ‘bonus’ (if you like) on top of the of the fifteen works of fiction I’ll present later. By the way, there’s no particular ordering to this list (apart from a little for purposes of neatness) so please don’t read anything into what comes first, last or next to what.
So here goes:
Use Your Head – Tony Buzan
I first read this classic work on memory techniques in the mid-80s and it changed my academic life forever. With a dreadful memory, I was keen to find ways around it and Buzan showed me how to use techniques which would enable me to succeed in many academic subjects. He gave me a lifetime of learning which I have enjoyed immensely and which is a journey I continue on today. Moreover, the pursuit of memory techniques has led me to develop my own which I’ve used for many years with my students. All being well, my next book will be on a complete mnemonic system for students.
How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie
The grand-daddy of all the popular social psychology self-help books, what I loved most about Carnegie’s classic work was the gentleness and care of the man himself. Far from being a book about ‘getting your own way’, his great work concerns itself, fundamentally, about being nice to people. This aim to please and make the world a better place (and in so doing, find that it makes your own world better too) struck a chord with me and still does today.
The Inner Game of Music – Barry Green
I hate – really hate – performing in front of others. When I was young and beginning my training as a musician I found myself almost paralysed with fear whenever I tried to perform in front of others. I still struggle to this day but Barry Green’s classic book changed the game for me. While I still struggle with nerves, Green’s techniques helped me relax and gain confidence as a musician and enabled me to finally cope with performing. More than anything, Green’s book taught me it’s ok to make mistakes. I’ve never forgotten that.
Against Therapy – Jeffrey Masson
Although I’d already dismissed Freud and was less than convinced by psychiatry in general, Masson’s classic work was still an eye-opener to me. He demonstrated what I’d always suspected about therapy techniques and managed to vocalise what I couldn’t quite put my finger on – the very essence of what’s wrong with a society which pushes people into therapy sessions when what they need is the love and security of community.
Kim – Rudyard Kipling
Having not read any Kipling since I was a boy, it was a delight to rediscover him while I lived in Bangladesh. Often criticised for his love of the colonial British Empire, I find you have take Kipling in context of his time. Though he undeniably loved the empire, this novel shows he loved India and its people just as much. What amazed me is that though written more than 100 years ago, much of what Kipling described of India is still the same today as it is in Bangladesh.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley & Animal Farm – George Orwell
I’ve grouped these two authors together because I read their works around the same time in my youth and both books (along with Orwell’s 1984) deal with the issue of society turned amoral. I think these books are even more relevant now than they were when first published. What’s most horrifying is the reality today that the people have chosen exactly this kind of government for themselves. Not even Huxley foresaw that.
Equus – Peter Shaffer
Why would a boy poke out the eyes of six horses? Inspired by a real-life case, Shaffer wrote this play exploring the issues of God, sex and the cynicism of modern life. I read the play in one go and the effect it had on me has never left. It was my first real inkling into both the positive and negative aspects of religious fervour.
Collected works of Kafka – Franz Kafka
I studied Kafka’s stories at university but it was when I saw the BBC version of The Trial that his writings came to life for me. This is Lewis Carroll for adults. Gone is the childhood innocence of march hares and Cheshire cats; here is the nightmare world of bureaucracy and the inescapable machine of the system. In recent weeks I’ve come to realise just how real, wise and true Kafka’s stories are.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
I was 20 when I first read this powerful story. My jaw dropped open before I’d finished the first page. I’d never read a book so horrifically honest. Though since then I’ve read many books just as raw, Alice Walker’s tale was the first and arguably the best of them. In some ways, Walker’s honesty about life was something I greatly admired and I still look up to her as an immense talent.
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
I had a troubled few years as I entered my teenage years which resulted in time receiving psychiatric help. It was in the hostel where I lived for several months that I listened to my first audio book – Bronte’s classic – and was spellbound. Heathcliff was the first anti-hero I’d ever come across and his tortured relationship to Cathy, the bleak moors and almost everyone else around him appealed to me. The book continues to haunt me even now, so strong was the imagery. Interestingly, in recent years I’ve gone back to listening to books using Amazon’s Audible service. I’m so glad I have. It’s doubled the number of books I read in a year!
Anne of Green Gables – Lucy M Montgomery
I was fifteen I think when my parents tried to persuade me to watch the TV programme. I nearly ‘declined with thanks’ but, at the last moment, I decided to appease my parents, spend some time with them and watch something that sounded very much to me like a little girl’s story. So began my twin love affair with Anne Shirley and the girl who played her in that production – Megan Follows. I went on to buy all six books of the Anne Shirley series and they are still in my collection of beloved books today. More than with any other person – real or fictional – I identify with that little red-haired orphan girl for whom “tomorrow is a new day without any mistakes in it yet”.
The Screwtape Letters – C S Lewis
Letters from a senior devil to a junior devil, Lewis demonstrates his keen storytelling skills, knowledge of theology and understanding of human nature in these letters written by Screwtape to his junior, Wormwood. C S Lewis has always been a writer who, for me, makes the difficult make sense and does so in an entertaining manner. In my opinion, The Screwtape Letters is far superior to his Narnia series and is my recommendation for anyone wanting a place to start with the great man.
Finnegan’s Wake – James Joyce
This is the one book which I suggest – indeed, insist – you get hold of with a decent introduction. Otherwise, it’s pointless trying to read it. In my mind, a better book that his Ulysses, though it ties with his collection of short stories, Dubliners, Joyce writes the story of one night of one man’s dreams. In doing so, he makes up words, deliberately mis-writes or misrepresents others and generally messes with the English language reminding us that we make language and we can do with it what we will. Joyce certainly does. At some point I will write a post on why I no longer believe in the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation but for now I’ll just suggest you read this book for yourself and see if it influences you the way it influenced me.
The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
From here on, the list becomes a little…sillier – before then getting deeper. I kick off with the most wonderful ‘trilogy in five parts’ by the sublimely funny Mr Adams. My love for these stories (some of the few that I’ve enjoyed reading not just once but several times over) is evidenced by the fact I have the books, the audio books, the radio series (on mp3 and original vinyl record), the TV series on video tape and DVD and a DVD of the movie. Oh yes, I also have the CD of the music from the movie. Moreover, the house my family and I just moved into came with a huge poster from the movie hanging on one of the walls. The world would, in my opinion, be a much greyer, duller place without The ‘Answer’, Vogons, Marvin, Babel Fish (the ultimate proof of the non-existence of God) and the reason why the petunias said “oh no, not again”. My childhood was changed for the better by Mr Adams and for that I will be forever grateful…and silly.
Foundation – Isaac Asimov
As a boy I devoured science-fiction. Not just in comics (which were staple diet for all boys) but the classic books by McCaffrey, Bradbury, Clarke and many others. But none come close to the series of books belonging to the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Oddly, after years of trying and failing to get hold of his most famous book, I, Robot, I finally read it earlier this year and, despite it having aged a little over the decades, I loved it. Asimov retains his title of the master of sci-fi (who doesn’t know of the 3 laws of robotics invented by the man?). My hope is that when I begin to regress into childish ways through the slow death of my mind, I will still have time to return to my real childhood and read all of Asimov’s books once more.
Boy – Roald Dahl
When my two children were young I set out to collect all of Roald Dahl’s books and read them all to my young ones. I pretty much did this including the first part of his autobiography which is every bit as wonderful as his stories. The only stories I didn’t read to the kids were his collected stories for adults. I bought and read those while in Bangladesh and was taken back to the days of Tales of the Unexpected on British TV in the 70s and 80s. The series had the coolest music of any mystery/suspense series ever on TV. In my humble opinion of course…
The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
This is the biggest cheat I’m allowing myself here. Not one book but all of Pratchett’s incredible series are wonderful, wonderful books and the only series I’ve ever read which really can be read totally at random despite the fact the various characters have a definite story thread running throughout. Pratchett’s ability to bring you straight into the story is amazing. Although set in a ‘Harry Potter in medieval times’ fantasy world, it doesn’t take long to realise that the author is poking fun at us in our society today. I take audible books now simply so I can listen to to Stephen Briggs reading the stories – he’s brilliant. I find this series to be flawless (though my wife doesn’t agree for some reason) and Discworld was one of a small number of things that kept me sane in Bangladesh and continues to save me now back in the UK.
The Bible – Various
So now we go deep. I’m going to avoid the argument about whether the Bible is fiction or historical fact or ‘written by God’ or whatever. For me, the Bible has been a source of comfort, inspiration and safety for nearly 30 years. I take it as a sign of becoming ‘old’ that I increasingly love both Mozart and the psalms. I don’t care if it’s true or not in some ways, the words are beauty, peace and love – often by authors under great stress and danger. They deserve respect.
The Qur’an – Mohammed (PBUH)
It would have been remiss of me to spend six years in Bangladesh – the fourth largest Muslim population in the world – and not find out something about the faith of more than 140 million people there. The journey was an illuminating one. I came to understand more about my own fears and prejudices about this misunderstood faith (and why so many in the West wrongly fear this peaceful faith) and learned a little of the founding of Islam. I am still trying to work my way through the Qur’an in the original Arabic but it’s slow going as my Arabic is dreadful. I have read it in English but it’s not the same. Nevertheless, though I’m not a Muslim, I have come to appreciate and respect Mohammed (PBUH) as a great man who did something quite remarkable in the 7th century for the Arab world and who is undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in world history.
So that’s my list. I hope you enjoyed the tour and found something of interest here. Of course there’s so many missing I could have mentioned: no Tolkein; no Dickens, no Shakespeare; no Forster; no Steinbeck…the list could go on. But even though I may bend and push the rules a little, my British sense of fair play prevents me from extending the list of fifteen any further. There is a distinction, of course, between great works of literature (and all the above certainly fit that category) and ones which were influential personally. As this list concerns the latter, I feel no shame in making these authors rub shoulders a little in this post. But you must be tiring of this by now – it’s time to stop I think.
Please feel free to leave comments and links to your own blog sites listing the books must influential in your lives – I’d love to read them!