Mar 23, 2010

Ten Books That Changed My Life

Some bloggers are listing the Ten Books that Influenced Them The Most. That wording doesn't really work for me (ah Proust, Nabokov, Updike, influences all!) so I've changed it to books that had a big impact on me. Here they are, in roughly chronological order.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis. The first book I read and reread until I disappeared into it, like Lucy into the back of the wardrobe. I used to time it so that I finished the last page of The Last Battle on Christmas Eve, so that any comedown I had upon reentering reality was immediately compensated for with Christmas presents. Lewis over Tolkein: as revealing in its way as McCartney over Lennon would be.

2. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The first book to take over my head in that virulent way that sightly pretentious masterpieces only can when you are a teenager. It sat at the centre of my universe for a long time, everything radiating out from it, like spokes from a hub — the 20th century, Modernism, the possibilities of aesthetic obliquity, narrative self-consciousness, etc. It taught me all about being a literary critic, basically — lessons I would spend twenty years trying to unlearn.

3. A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes. My guilty secret: a big French literary theory phase, with a particular weakness for books that blew up pop culture particulars into big shiny generalities like Lichtenstein cartoons. Mythologies is the Ur-Text for any would be pop culture analyst. But this one had a sexier topic and cover. I couldn't get over that someone was attempting to be intellectually rigorous about tenderness. If ever I showed off about owning a book, it was this one.

4. The Shining by Stephen King. King was my first true, purely pleasurable, just-for-myself read. I used to eat up all his stories about evil, talented children whose gifts could be used for good or will, depending, but are destined to be misunderstood by the adult world. No wonder I used to read him so secretively. This is the best of them, complete with a heartbreaking father/son relationship, and a great account of falling off the wagon. The best American novel about alcohol, in my opinion.

5. In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan. The first book of contemporary literature I can remember picking up and liking. Up until then everything had been Dickens and George Eliot and the rest of them. This meant I could live in the present and buy books in a bookshop like a normal person. Not only that but these guys were alive, right now, writing. It was a like realising you can date brunettes and redheads — a whole world opens up.

6. Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth by Gitty Sereny. The book that boiled my fascination with the Nazis (ongoing throughout my twenties) down to one electrifying showdown: on the one hand Speer, the evasive, vain, intellectual, grandiloqent architect of all that was most glamorous about the Third Reich, and on the other his diminuitive Jewish biographer: grave, persistent, sympathetic, exacting. The first book to teach me that ethics could be as exciting as aesthetics.

6. The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. A painfully unoriginal choice, I know. I didn't even read it as a teenager. I came to it late — late enough to realise that all the modern American novels I liked had their straws in Salinger's soda. When people say that it speaks to them, they aren't being metaphorical: all the writing goes into not making it sound like writing, and then hides even that effort. An act of perfect ventriloquism.

7. Revolution In The Head by Ian McDonald. The bible of my early thirties; and the best book about a pop band I've ever come across. An obsessive book, by an obsessive, for obsessives, so fond and familiar in all its particulars as to be slightly embarrassing. He knows each Beatle better than they knew themselves and his descriptions of the songs are so good I would reread them again and again, muttering "descending arabesques of G minor arpeggios," as if one day I might be able to slip such phrases into my conversation. It hasn't happened yet.

8. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis. Quite simply the saddest book I ever read, written with such intimate, inside-out peeled-skin understanding of its subject you feared slightly for its author. (His latest book, Seasonal Suicide Notes, suggests maybe I was right to worry). I've never gone back to it. It still terrifies the life out of me, but it's an amazing book, bleak, brilliant, maybe the best biography I've ever read.

9. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. A miraculous blend of warmth and detachment — the kind that only great comedy can do. This book came along at just the right time for me, bringing to an end a long and long-suffering period where I read a lot of depressing books about depressing subjects so that I could get depressed on behalf of myself, the subjects of the books and the rest of humanity (who didn't realise they needed me to be depressed for them). Then one day I came up for air and Stella Gibbons was there.

10. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The only book that I've read in adulthood the way I used to read as a child — in one compulsive, don't-want-to-come-up-for-air gallop. It came after a long period in which I read nothing at all, just comic books. It was snowing. Two weeks later I knew one thing for sure: Anna Karenina is better than Spiderman. Which news will come as a big relief for the Tolstoy estate, obviously. Anything you can do to pass it on.

1 comment:

  1. Great list, with a nice eclecticism, and dare I state the obvious, very male.
    It's interesting comparing yours with the other bloggers - God they're an arid lot..
    Mine would go something like this:
    The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe - C S Lewis
    Far from The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
    Indecent Exposure - Tom Sharpe
    I Claudius/Claudius the God - Robert Graves
    Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
    History of Western Music - Grout
    War and Peace - Leo Tostoy
    Holocaust - Martin Gilbert
    The Whisperers - Orlando Figes
    North and South - Elisabeth Gaskell