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Monday, 6 July 2015

10 books that have influenced my life in some way

When a friend recently challenged me to list ten books that have influenced my life in some way, I was presented with two problems. The first was the painful process of whittling my favourites down to just ten. I hummed and hawed over the issue for several days and had to suppress some serious feelings of guilt at 'betraying' some of my other favourites before reaching any kind of resolution. The second was the frustrating feeling that Facebook (where the challenge was circulating) wasn't an adequate platform for conveying just how much I loved these books. After all, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, 'I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met... all the cities that I have visited.' To redress that wrong, therefore, here are my picks in the order that I discovered them, alongside some of my favourite book covers and quotes for each.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord of the Rings Fellowship Collins edition book
Collins edition (2002)

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

This was the first classic I discovered for myself and so has a special place in my heart. I loved LOTR with the pure, ardent love that pre-teen girls now usually reserve for the likes of Justin Bieber or One Direction. After the film came out, I had the posters, the coveted Burger King Frodo figurine and the bitchin' Howard Shore CD collection. But the book served as my literary awakening. The vast, fully realised world, the myriad sympathetic characters, the rich, interweaving narratives; this was the most excited I have ever been to read a book/s (so much so that I bunked off school to read it). A masterpiece. 

2. Mai the Psychic Girl by Kazuya Kudō, with art by Ryoichi Ikegami


Mai the Psychic Girl Viz comic issue
Viz Comics, Issue 3 (1987)

Her power may be equal to that of a small atomic bomb! The problem is that the firing button is the mind of a 14-year-old girl who doesn't yet know how to control her emotions.

The first manga I ever read. Before Buffy, my model for a kickass female lead was Mai. Mai daydreams during class, worries about being noticed by boys - oh, and she has telekinetic abilities that a shadowy secret society wants to weaponise in their pursuit of world domination. The story might be somewhat basic and dated in places, but Mai the Psychic Girl is unique in several ways. The realistic and impressive art style generally stands apart from the exaggerated, cartoonish anime that so often populates the genre. It also has that idiosyncratic 80s/90s aesthetic - not too refined, which adds to its nostalgic charm. But above all, this manga grapples with issues of female adolescence and Mai's difficulty in getting to grips with her superpowers - and all the responsibility that entails. One of my most important discoveries as an 11-year-old.

3. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson 

Speak (Square Fish edition) by Laurie Halse Anderson
Square Fish edition (2011)
When people don't express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You'd be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It's the saddest thing I know.

High school was a challenging time for me. I might not have been a complete social leper, but I never exactly fit in, either, and I was generally regarded with deep suspicion for actually enjoying books (and listening to Howard Shore). Yes, the bitterness towards the high school experience was strong in this one. 

Speak quote: "Perfect trees don't exist... Be the tree."

So, it was a relief to find a sympathetic voice in Melinda in Speak (holed up in a library booth while cutting P.E., naturally), one of the first characters to make me aware that I was not alone in feeling this way. And, while Melinda's experience was far more intense than mine, her profound sense of displacement (leading to her construction of her own 'safe haven' in an abandoned janitor's closet) and her ultimate salvation through art were experiences that 'spoke' to me as a disenchanted youth. 

Speak
 remains one of the most powerful YA books I've read. Ironically, it was also one of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of the decade.

4. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Vintage Charlotte Sometimes Puffin book cover
Puffin edition (1972)
And, she thought uncomfortably, what would happen if people did not recognize you? Would you know who you were yourself? If tomorrow they started to call her Vanessa or Janet or Elizabeth, would she know how to be, how to feel like, Charlotte? Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that?


I came to this book somewhat late, having learnt of it only through my adoration for The Cure (Robert Smith took inspiration from the book for three of his songs - Charlotte Sometimes, Splintered in her Head and The Empty World). I now share at least one thing with Robert Smith (in addition to my teen penchant for eyeliner); we have both been haunted by this book for years. 

Cure song Charlotte Sometimes girl quote

Two young girls make an improbable connection across time and space without ever actually meeting; this was hard-hitting stuff for a children's book. Ostensibly a time-travel/adventure story ('with quite large writing', as one of my friends joked when he saw me reading it), Charlotte Sometimes is really about so much more - war, alienation, identity... what makes you you. Told with the simplicity yet piercing perception that only a child's perspective can bring, this is incredibly poignant and much more complex than it might seem.

5. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain Sceptre edition book cover
Sceptre edition (2007)


But what the wisdom of the ages says is that we do well not to grieve on and on. And those old ones knew a thing or two and had some truth to tell... You’re left with only your scars to mark the void. All you can choose to do is go on or not. But if you go on, it’s knowing you carry your scars with you.

There's always a danger that when you study a great novel the process of dissecting it in class will kill its magic. Not so with this book. The narrative of Inman's odyssey to his beloved, Ada, and her own journey to independence is epic in scope, yet concerned with the fragile beauty of human lives. 

Jude Law as Inman in Cold Mountain heartbreak quote

Cold Mountain taught me to reconsider the given order of things. Set against the brutality of the Civil War, the characters learn how to reposition themselves in relation to the environment around them and weave their own personal understandings of war, history and spirituality from the prevailing narratives that have been passed down to them. 

The language and dialogue are crisp, yet graceful, lyrical; this is a book of great and lasting beauty. Frazier is quite possibly one of the finest writers of our times.

6. The Re-enchantment of the West by Christopher Partridge 

Reenchantment of the West Continnuum book cover
Continnuum-3PL (2005)
Something new is evolving in response to new conditions; a massive cultural shift has engendered a massive spiritual shift; the religio-cultural tectonic plates have moved and we are only now beginning to map the new territory.

My Religious Studies professor's magnum opus. Contrary to popular modern opinion that the West is undergoing a process of secularisation, Professor Partridge argues that a contemporary alternative religious milieu has emerged. Having undergone something of a 'secularization' process myself after a loosely religious upbringing, this discovery made enormous sense to me, as my spiritual impulse had never fully abandoned me. 

And, as Professor Partridge points out, while church attendance has dwindled and traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs are unlikely to regain substantial ground in the West, these have shifted into a broad 'occulture' of beliefs and practices that permeate society, from healthcare, environmentalism and drug use to popular music, film and the internet. The idea that the West has become reenchanted in diverse and personal ways rather than disenchanted inspired me (although there is also a dark side to this, as with all things) and made me look at religion and spirituality in a whole new way.

7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey 

Viking Press edition (1962)
No, my friend. We are lunatics from the hospital up the highway, psycho-ceramics, the cracked pots of mankind. Would you like me to decipher a Rorschach for you?

I've always had something of a defiant streak, so I felt a strange kinship with the perspective of 'the cracked pots of mankind' in this celebration of non-conformity. To quote a reviewer who quoted Emily Dickinson, 'Much madness is divinest sense'. Indeed, the hallucinatory perceptions of the novel's schizophrenic narrator, Chief Bromden, are more reflective of reality than their outward appearance. 

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest laughter quote

Kesey sets up a thought-provoking series of questions about the nature of truth: which is truer, the psychiatric patients' sanity or their insanity? Their life in the asylum, or their day spent on a fishing trip? McMurphy's rambunctious individualism, or his silent, vegetative state? This novel demonstrates at once how pervasive, yet fragile the power structures that contain us are. Nurse Ratched might tyrannise the inhabitants of the psychiatric ward, but it's the internalised sense of bondage that signals the true death of the individual. 

This book is flawed (not least in its depiction of women), much like McMurphy himself - but that doesn't make its central message any less powerful. We all have a choice to try to enact a change, no matter how small, so you can at least say 'I tried though [...] Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, now, didn't I?' Compulsory, life-affirming reading for the subversive thinker.

8. 1984 by George Orwell 

1984 George Orwell Penguin Books eye cover edition
Penguin Books edition, 2008

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.

The greatest sci-fi works present worlds that are alien, yet at the same time familiar. They present scenarios that might seem outlandish - in this case an omnipresent, tyrannical government and the aggressive suppression of independent thought. However, they are rooted in real-life fears and concerns that constantly make the reader ask, 'What if?' The best of them are even able to give us deeper insight into our present reality. In this sense, 1984 succeeds in being utterly terrifying, but essential.

One of the central issues of the novel is the the malleability of reality and the extent to which one can be 'free'. It soon becomes apparent that the only space that is unclaimed by Big Brother is that inside Winston's own head. The book follows his struggles to shape his own external private space and connect with another person against the assault on individualism imposed by ubiquitous propaganda and the ever-watchful gaze of Big Brother.

This book shocked and challenged me. Ultimately, however, it woke me up to the dangers of apathy and the importance of being engaged - with wider society, one's local community and oneself.

9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye red fairground horse book cover
Little, Brown and Company edition (1952)

I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff... That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.

This book is for anyone who has ever questioned their place in the world. The pathos of not being able to go back to more innocent times and the overwhelming uncertainty of what lies ahead are captured perfectly in this novel. This book might be told from the perspective of a posturing adolescent narrator, but I found the surprising vulnerability evoked as relevant, if not more so, to my twenties as it would have been in my teen years.



Catcher in the Rye Salinger quote about books

The fact that a customer furiously demanded that the book be removed after I displayed a vintage copy during my time in a used book store (in 2014!) shows just how important this book still is. I'm sure Holden would have some choice words for the 'phonies' who are so willing to judge a book they have clearly never read based on appearances.

10. Just Kids by Patti Smith 

Just Kids Patti Smith Robert Mapplethorpe Ecco book cover
Ecco edition (2010)

We went our separate ways, but within walking distance of one another.

Rock 'n' roll, New York and poetry. A revelation. That Smith is a poet, first and foremost, is evident. She writes with lyricism and poignancy about her formative years and relationships in New York in the late sixties and seventies - an epochal time. The company she keeps is astonishing - the book relates her encounters with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg. Smith also perfectly evokes the bittersweet pain of growing apart from someone you were once so close to they were a part of you, but loving them all the same. 

Patti Smith books and rock 'n' roll quote

This book made me ache for an era I can never truly inhabit - I could've roughed it in the Chelsea Hotel, living on art, love and dreams, I thought to myself. But then, would I have? Smith might have been at the heart of the action, but she was dauntless, tenacious; she started with nothing and was full of ambition - and naivete. She has since described herself as 'just a girl from North Jersey working in a bookstore' - not unlike myself at the time of reading (if you substitute 'North Jersey' with 'North England', that is). She carved an artistic career on her own terms, and, despite her groundedness in her romantic and artistic partnership with Robert Mapplethorpe, became an icon. Her determination to see through her dreams inspired me to reassess my own approach to mine, by now sitting slightly dusty, but still familiar, on the shelf.

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