Monday, March 27, 2006

Influential books

Melvyn Bragg's latest book is not a novel, but an exploration of twelve books that changed the world. Brian Walden gave his own opinions in an article for the BBC news website, so I thought I'd list twelve books which influenced me.

  1. The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien: I read The Hobbit first, like most children, and then read its more grown-up sequel when I was about ten. It's a book I come back to, year after year, and every time I read it I find new things to admire and cherish. It's certainly influenced my own writing, as it has influenced countless other writers published or unpublished.
  2. Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson: I could have put in all three parts of Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, but it's the first part that really opened my eyes to a period of history which I knew very little of. The author's vast canvas stretches from Massachusetts to the furthest corners of the Hapsburg Empire, and the cast of characters is correspondingly huge, whether real life (such as Newton, Wren and Leibniz) or imaginary. Eye-opening and mind-expanding, it proves that fiction can be almost more informative and certainly more interesting than real history!
  3. The Greek Myths - Roger Lancelyn Green: I could have been poncey and put down Robert Graves' two-volume version (which I have actually read), but it's Lancelyn Green's versions of the Greek myths that I remember from my childhood reading. The stories aren't bowdlerised, and are very fresh and vivid. For me they were my first introduction to the fabulous world of myth.
  4. Persuasion - Jane Austen: People rave about Pride and Prejudice, but for me Persuasion is the best of Austen's books. It's a very quiet story, with little of the sharp humour or ridicule present in some of her other works, though Anne's family is presented satirically. The writing sets it apart from every "romance" novel ever written since.
  5. The Chronicles of Clovis - 'Saki': A series of brilliant, sharp and satiric short stories whilst, although set in a limited milieu of upper-class Edwardian privilege manage to be still relevant and witty. Human nature, after all, hasn't changed much.
  6. Jonah and Co. - Dornford Yates: Something of a guilty choice. Yates' works are dated, occasionally xenophobic (particularly towards Germans) and often anti-Semitic. The lower classes firmly know their place, and Communist is a dirty word. Yet the author's love for a past England, with woods and fields, and quiet roads long before the advent of motorways and rush-hour, is convincing and often lyrical.
  7. What A Carve-Up! - Jonathan Coe: Utterly riveting and terrifying. Polemic in the form of fiction, but weird and moving as well. The chapter on farming did more to convince me to buy free-range organic produce than anything else.
  8. The Pattern of English Building - Alec Clifton-Taylor: A comprehensive survey of the building materials of England, and how they have influenced the character and look of the English countryside and towns. Fascinating and erudite, and not afraid of expressing his own opinions about modern architecture and building materials.
  9. Chaos - James Gleick: Before reading this I'd been vaguely aware of Chaos theory, but not being a mathematician didn't know much about it. Gleick tells its story through the personalities of the people who became interested in it, and makes the whole story readable. Popular science at its best.
  10. Pigeon Post - Arthur Ransome: This is still one of my favourite books, but its influence (compared to, say, Swallows and Amazons) was more that it was the first Ransome I bought for myself. It and its forbears and sequels influenced my childhood and imagination, and for that I am grateful.
  11. An Incomplete Education - Judy Jones and William Wilson: Although biased towards an American readership, this is probably one of the best, wide-ranging and readable books about everything. Confused by the difference between imply and infer? Want to know about trends in philosophy? Want to understand what a quark is? Unsure what arias to sing in your shower? This book has it all.
  12. The Bible - Authorized Version: While not a big reader of the Bible, one can hardly grow up a Christian without reference to it. I was used to the Catholic, post Vatican-II translation we had at Mass every Sunday, so when I first came across the Authorized Version it was a revelation. The language speaks to me in a way that modern translations do not - like poetry, you might not always understand what's going on, but it sounds gorgeous.

I don't suppose that Melvyn's list resembles this one in the slightest.



At Wed Mar 29, 07:46:00 pm, Anonymous sarahvic said...

Nothing like that - he didn't include any fiction, apart from Shakespeare!


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