Back in the summer, my friend and colleague Jenny Ollerenshaw (publisher and founder of Advance Materials and one of the most prolific readers I know) nominated me for the facebook meme then doing the rounds: name the 10 books that have most influenced you. Until now, my responding post has been conspicuous by its absence. Not because I didn’t want to reply, but because doing so has been uncomfortably difficult. This might sound odd coming from one who doesn’t usually pass up an opportunity to talk about books and reading, so perhaps I should explain. Answering “which are the 10 books have I most enjoyed?” or “which are the 10 best books?” would have been SO much easier. The problem lay with that innocuous little word “influence”.
It turns out that if you ask someone who has worked with and around books for the best part of 30 years which have most influenced them, you may unwittingly provoke a disproportionate bout of existential angst. (“Oh, good grief, I’ve worked with books all this time. But when push comes to shove which of the books I’ve read or worked on have actually influenced me. Do books really influence anybody these days?” I’m sure you get the gist: the thin end of the wedge on an alarmingly precipitate downward thought spiral.) It’s a relief, therefore, to report the mental paralysis proved short-lived and was quickly swept away by a flood of candidates, and a host of associated memories. Sifting through them is what has caused the extraordinary long delay in responding. Like the books themselves, these memories were to be enjoyed.
And even after all that remembering, I’m going to cheat. The books I’ve selected have all been enormously influential in my life, and I’m happy to share them as such. However, I don’t think I will ever be able to identify “the most” influential. Because the truth is that as our circumstances develop, our needs vary. So what influences me now may not be what influenced me last year and may not be so relevant a year hence. One of the unalloyed joys of books is that once read, they reside patiently in our experience, waiting to be called forward again when the moment is right. The books we have read become part of our cultural, emotional and intellectual ecosystem.
I was intrigued by the list of books that really mattered at the time, but didn’t make the cut, because they just don’t mean so much to me now. At university I was passionate about the novels of William Golding. Now, with the exception of Lord of the Flies, they leave me cold. So they influenced me strongly then, but seem much less significant now. I remember my father saying the same of D H Lawrence, who he described as “the young man’s novelist”. Similarly one of my proudest moments at university was the day I managed to work a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy quote into an essay about Ibsen’s Brand. Yet I didn’t think about Hitchhiker’s Guide for the following 20 years. (Oddly enough I referenced it to Porter Andersen in the Authoright seminar at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, positing, with reference to the burgeoning self-publishing phenomenon, that if Adams were writing now, he might have foreseen the Book Event Horizon and not the Shoe Event Horizon.)
But I digress.
*Fanfares and drum rolls*. Bearing in mind the caveats above, My (current**) list of ten most influential books read is as follows:
- I am David, Anne Holm (translated by L.W. Kingsland)
- Considering Poetry by B A Pythian
- The Selected Poems of W H Auden
- Vanity Fair, William Thackeray
- The Atlas of Western Art History, John Steer & Antony White
- Poems for the Very Young, Michael Rosen
- How to Train Your Dragon (and the remainder of the Hiccup the Viking Series), Cressida Cowell
- Thud! Terry Pratchett (preferably in the audiobook version read by (Sir) Tony Robinson)
- Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain, MaryAnne Wolf
- Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Each one of these has significance and strong attachments for me. To explain them, I’ll be putting up ten posts during the remainder of November, expanding on why each of these made it onto my list. Because making my choices has caused me to think about the process and the pleasure of reading, which feels worth talking about. Who knows, if I get the bit between my teeth, I may also write about some of the long-list rejects.
**And yes, I do reserve the right to change my mind…