my 12 most influential books

In keeping with the list-making that’s abounded during June, I thought that I’d share the 12 books that have had the most influence on me. Again, these are not presented in any order, but simply as they bubble to the top of my brain.

1. Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien). For me, he is the fantasy writer par excellence, though it is not a title that he would wear comfortably. Many have argued that his characters lack depth, but each of the heroes has a double that reflects their potentially dark side. I read this every couple of years or so, and it always seems fresh to me. I was fortunate enough to visit Oxford last December. I visited the Bird and Child pub each day, and made sure that I visited his grave at Wolvercote. It felt to me like the completion of a pilgrimage.

2. The Dispossessed (Ursula le Guin). I got to read this in Year 12 for the HSC. It helped to kindle my interest in politics and science fiction (I wasn’t really a sci-fi reader at that point).

3. The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921)/The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929/The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940 (Isaac Deutscher). These three volumes constitute Isaac Deutscher’s monumental biography of Leon Trotsky. It is the finest example of the biographer’s craft that I have ever encountered. A meticulous scholar, Deutscher also wrote engaging prose. Deutscher himself was also an interesting figure. A Pole from a Jewish family, he became a member of the Communist Party of Poland in 1927. He was an adherent of the Trotskyist opposition in the 1930s, though not an uncritical one. He moved to the UK a few month prior to the outbreak of WW2. Like Joseph Conrad, he learned English relatively late in life and yet became a master of its prose. Deutscher became associated the the New Left in the 1960s before his death in 1967.

4. The Bible. Even for those who do not believe the claims made of it, it is an important text in its own right. So much literature is written with this as a reference point. From a literary and historical point of view this is an important text to gain some familiarity with.

5. I Claudius/Claudius the God/Count Belisarius (Robert Graves). I remember watching Derek Jacobi as Claudius in the BBC series, and I was given a copy of the books as a present. A few months later, I saw a copy of Count Belisarius in a second-hand shop and devoured that too. His ‘rehabilitation’ of the reputation of Claudius even today is not implausible, and the intrigues of the Imperial family are well-told.

6. Days in the Sun (Neville Cardus). Neville Cardus was a working-class boy from Manchester whose two great loves were classical music and cricket. He wrote for the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), and his rich prose captures the essence of his subjects. He is a master essayist, and gives us glimpses of a cricketing world where sponsor’s logos are absent, and where drama is allowed to unfold over days.

7. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Stephen Donaldson). Donaldson created a superb anti-hero. It is a wonderful piece of invention. I have yet to embark upon the final Chronicles. One of my tasks for this year. But I have to read the first and second sets again first…

8: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon). A magisterial history that not only covers the collapse of the western empire, but the successor states in western Europe, as well as the Eastern empire up until the capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Though a good deal of his work has been surpassed by modern scholarship, it is still the single-most ambitious portrayal of Roman history from the first century to the fifteenth.

9: Asterix the Gaul (René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo). I got interested in roman history (and history in general) by reading these. They also taught me that good writing can legitimately appear in comic or graphic form. I also learned to appreciate word-play and puns from these. As good as Goscinny and Uderzo were, a lot of credit is due to Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge for retaining the sense of the original.

10. Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson). Wonderfully dry and witty travel writer, Bryson is a native of Des Moines (‘someone had to be’), who has spent much of his life in the UK. One warning – do not read his work in a public place, unless you are prepared to have people stare at you as you constantly snort in mirth.

11. At the Barricades (Wilfred Burchett). Burchett was an Australian journalist from the 1930s until his death in 1983. he was the first Western journalist to arrive in Hiroshima after the Japanese surrender in WW2, and penned the famous lines ‘I write this as a warning to the world’. He was also in a long-running dispute with the Australian government in the 1950s and 60s when they refused to issue him a replacement passport after it went missing in 1955. I could also substitute any of John Pilger’s works for this one, but Burchett gets the gong simply because I read him first.

12. After Dark (Haruki Murakami). I read this only a few month ago.  picked it up by chance at work 9I was waiting for a group to arrive for an infolit session). I’ve always liked Japanese literature, and this was short, which fitted the bill. I found the sparse prose absolutely captivating. I’m grateful for my predecessor for adding it to our collection. it was a wonderful find.

There are a lot of titles that might have made it here. The corpus of Shakespeare’s works come to mind, though I prefer to see them acted, rather than read them. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels also deserve a mention. The wry, Gothic constructs of Peake’s mind is terrifically absorbing. Or the novels of Poul Anderson. If the list were 15, then Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables would enter. But I have to stop somewhere, and this is as good a place as any other.


3 thoughts on “my 12 most influential books

  1. Hey John – lots of overlap here! Thomas Covenant: I was always interested in what happened to him ‘back here’ – but don’t think I read past the first chronicles. Might go on my reading list for this year, too. Tolkien, of course; the Bible (and had you not included other ‘items’ on your list which were also multiple items, I may have commented on that!); Ursula le Guin – though I don’t recall reading “The Dispossessed”, though I’d be surprised if I haven’t; and Robert Graves’ works – magic. Asterix was a great favourite in younger years but personally I would no longer rate those books in my top-whatever. And Murakami is a personal favourite, mainly because of “What I Talk About …” 🙂 unsurprisingly!

    • I’m not surprised at the overlap 🙂 It’s not necessarily a top 12 list (for example, I doubt that I’d ever sit down to read Gibbon again). it those books that have had the most impact on me. Though if I were compiling my top 12 favourite reads, Asterix might still be in my list. Hmmm…

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