I’m not sure what prompted me to write this post, but it seems like an appropriate time to talk about the five books that most influenced me as a person and as a reader. Perhaps it’s because I’m going through a big transition now, both personally with my father-in-law’s declining health and professionally with my impending doomsday of January 1 for unemployment, that I want to reflect a bit. Either way, I think there’s something significant to be learned about someone in a list like this.
Maybe other bloggers will take my cue and do a list of their own?
The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. DixonThe first Hardy Boys book is my number one, and it’s not close. It was the first proper book I ever read and it’s largely, if not entirely, responsible for kindling in me a love of story. My parents’ raised me to find my own path. I wasn’t forced to do a lot of things around the house. Nor did they necessarily make me read or play sports. I’m not sure I could suggest these techniques for every child, maybe not even my own, but it worked for me. I found the things I loved and I did them, a lot. Sports, reading, video games, etc. Perhaps, if I’d never come across Frank and Joe, and their best friend Chet, mom and dad would have made me read more. Such drastic action never became necessary. I went on to read over a hundred Hardy Boys books before I moved on to greener pastures. If someone adapted them for an adult audience I’d probably go on to reading a hundred more.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Can you believe I have the guts to admit that Ayn Rand influenced me?! For those who don’t know, Atlas Shrugged is essential a what-if-story that asks, what would happen if a society’s most productive citizens refused increased taxation and government regulation and went on strike? At it’s core, it’s an objectivist philosophical text shrouded in a mystery and romance dystopian novel. It opened my eyes, not to objectivism, but to the power of narrative to communicate ideas. Rand wields her story with almost physical bludgeoning force, trumpeting her ‘perspective’ on nearly every page. It’s long winded and at times exhausting, while also possessing a great deal of conviction. I’m not sure it works as a piece of fiction or as a philosophy book, yet I steadfastly assert it works perfectly in tandem to accomplish both.
I went on to read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land a few months later and it had a similar impact, albeit putting forth a far different world view. Rand gets the nod for getting to me first.
The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
I could go on and on about how Shannara impacted me, but I wrote a piece for Pornokitsch that does a better job than I could ever hope to recreate in this little paragraph. However, I will say that it’s the reason I write this blog today.
I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain first, it should, by all accounts, be the novel(s) I list here. But it’s not. Brooks snared me in a way that Alexander could not and I admit that length has something to do with it. As a pre-teen Shannara was like holding another physical reality, a book that occupied a time and space all on its own by sheer breadth. Cracking it open felt like opening a portal to another world and it was the purest escapism I’d witnessed to that point, or at any point since. It was magic.
Read the piece I wrote for Pornokitsch. I can’t necessarily recommend that everyone read Brooks’s first novel. I’m not sure it holds up that well, especially to an experience genre reader, but if you know a twelve year old in need of a distraction, forklift a copy of Sword of Shannara to them.
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
I knew a guy in college. His name was Ted. He was Thai, but born in America. That’s only significant because his sister was Miss Thai Universe, which for some cultural reason that escaped me made her an uber celebrity in Thailand. She had a talk show and was in all the tabloids. When Ted would visit her, he was also occasionally caught up in it. Now, this has absolutely no relevance, other than being an odd story, except that Ted recommended I read Martin Amis, in particular Time’s Arrow.
Ted was an English major. Oddly, Ted didn’t read fiction. By the end of our freshman year Ted only read criticism. We were playing pool one night and I brought up Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Ted replied (I’m paraphrasing), “absurdism, yadda, yadda, colonialism, yadda yadda.” Of course, he hadn’t actually read the novel, just five or six essays about it. With that in mind, I hope you can see why Time’s Arrow so appealed to Ted — a novel told entirely in reverse from birth to death. It’s a thought experiment, a literary gauntlet thrown down.
Except, it’s not a gimmick. Amis takes on the Holocaust from a completely different angle. An angle demonstrating that the abomination only made sense in reverse, where instead of taking life, the Nazi’s restored it. Amis’s novel was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1991 and remains imprinted on my memory as an example of the relevatory ability of fiction.
Ted went to live in Thailand after our first year and I lost track of him. I never had a chance to talk to him about Time’s Arrow.
The Scar by China Miéville
What the f!$% did I just read? That was my reaction when I read/finished The Scar. Miéville’s third novel, and his opus to this point in his career, is one of the most creative works of speculative fiction I’ve ever read. On finishing it, I flipped back to the beginning and started it again. If The Sword of Shannara made me love SFF, then The Scar showed me what it could do when an author of Miéville’s capabilities set his phaser to ‘kill’.
The novel begins with a ship leaving New Crobuzon. On it, is a middle-aged woman named Bellis Coldwine who’s headed for a far-flung colony. The ship is soon captured by pirates, and the passengers and crew taken to Armada, a floating city constructed of hundreds of ships tied together. Unexpected twists abound and the sheer creativity of the setting overwhelms the senses. It is in my humble opinion one of the most significant pieces of SFF written in the last twenty years, and along with its predecessor Perdido Street Station, may be responsible for launching a whole new wave in the genre.
That’s my list, eclectic though it may be. I just left off Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Don DeLillo’s Pafko at the Wall, and a few others.
So, what makes your list?