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Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Five Books That Made Me.

When I first started this blog, I chose the name ‘Under the Influence’ as a way to acknowledge that as a writer, I have inevitably been affected by everything I have read. In fact though, it goes deeper than that – books have actually been some of the building blocks of my identity. A few months ago, there was a brief fad on Facebook for people listing the books which had had the biggest impact on their lives. I didn’t bother with it at the time because I felt a list without any explanation would not really be interesting. I’m hoping these will spark some sort of discussion - chip in with your own thoughts in the comments below. It would be good to know what books other people have found formative. Keep in mind that these are the books which have had the biggest influence on me, not necessarily my favourite books, or the best books I have ever read (although there is of course some cross-over).

Roughly in the order I came across them:

The Bible – various authors.
Nothing like starting with a controversy. Those of you who know me, know that I am not religious; those of you who know me best know that this has not always been the case. I was raised (on one side, at least) as a Jehovah’s Witness, meaning that the Bible actually played a pretty big part in my life growing up. I categorically do not think that religion is the only reason that humans have developed a sense of morality, and I believe that moral systems based on the Bible have a long history of being flawed, but it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that it didn’t play a part in my own development: principles like ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ are probably fairly universal in human culture, but this was where I heard it first.

Perhaps more importantly, stepping out from under its shadow when I was on the threshold of adulthood gave me the chance to reassess my understanding of the way the world worked, and revaluate my moral code. What it left behind was an interest in the stories we tell ourselves to explain who we are – I still find the Bible fascinating as a cultural artefact.

The Slimy Stuarts – Terry Deary
This is the only book on the list that I have never owned. Let me tell you a story: I am eight years old. It is the school holidays, and my mother has taken my brother and me to the local library. I am not enthused – I have somehow picked up the notion that reading is boring. This is the only time I ever remember thinking this. I can only assume I picked the idea up at school. Luckily, my mom talked me into borrowing The Slimy Stuarts. Deary has a knack for fishing out the bits of history most likely to appeal to young boys. I was hooked on books again, and had a newly discovered passion for history. I’ve never looked back.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I think I arrived at this book at just the right time. At fourteen, my reading diet consisted largely of Star Wars tie-in novels, and I was primed for something that would take my sci-fi fandom in a different direction. The ‘lived-in’ state of my copy is probably evidence of how much I enjoyed this book, but to justify its inclusion on this list, it also needs to have changed me in some way. My sense of humour seems like the obvious place to look. Adams was not afraid to follow a digression to see where it went, and he managed a careful blend of old fashioned silliness with astute observations on human nature which has almost definitely influenced what I find funny (although arguably I must have been in the same ballpark to ‘get it’ in the first place), but I think this book probably affected me in other ways too. I related to Arthur Dent, although in many ways he is an unusual protagonist – he doesn't want some big thing that will conclude his plot-arc – he wants a quiet life and a nice cup of tea. More importantly, the big events he stumbles into aren't part of some over-arching scheme. Coincidences are rife, as are random events. Things happen because people are trying to get by, and this has unpredictable consequences in other places. When they do try to answer the big questions of what the universe is about, the conclusions are always unsatisfying or mundane. This is how I suspect it is in the real world – there are no ‘big answers’, we just have to do the best we can in the circumstances we have.

Crow – Ted Hughes
This was the first poetry collection I ever bought, and I include it here knowing that in some circles, wading in on this side of the Plath/Hughes divide will be as controversial as my ideas about the Bible will be in others. Crow was very hugely influential for me as I began to figure out the sort of writer I wanted to be. Firstly, although the poems have no connecting narrative, they are all centred around one figure, and are packed full of repeated ideas and images. My musical tastes had already prepared me to look for this sort of consistency in the CDs I bought, and it is the album, not the song, which forms my base unit of consumption for music. This book taught me to look for the same thing in poetry, and gave me something to aim for in my own writing. The collection also has a mythic quality which (perhaps as a result of early exposure to the Old Testament) I have often tried to imitate.

Howards End – E.M. Forster
If the Bible started my moral education, this is the book that helped me to develop it into adulthood as I dealt with the implications of no longer believing in a god who could provide some external measure of right and wrong. It also gets to the heart of some of the big ideological questions which still affect our politics today, without ever being too overtly political. Forster tells the story of the relationship between two families – the culturally aware and socially progressive Schlegels and the more practical, traditional Wilcoxes. If this all sounds heavily allegorical, it doesn’t feel that way in reading, and I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the main protagonist is herself grappling with how to reconcile these two positions – giving the novel a means to explore the issue without needing to resort to allegory. Secondly, it does not offer an easy solution; neither side is presented as being entirely wrong or right, rather the author suggest the importance of finding a balance and of making connections on a human level. I read this book as part of my A-level course, and it forms part of the foundation of my political and moral identity.

Incidentally, in researching this blog post, I found out that Zadie Smith wrote a sort of updated homage to Howards End. I might have to have a look…

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