There is a meme going around – to name 10 books that have influenced you or otherwise stayed with you. Like, I think, most people doing this I have had a hard time limiting it to 10 books and have been hanging back in the hopes of a second nomination so I can do as one friend did: select 20. That doesn’t seem to be happening, though, and I do want to take part. So here, in no particular order, are my 10 influential books:
1. Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien
Part of me wants to go with books that not everyone will have heard of, because memes likes this can be incredibly useful for helping track down new reads, but Lord of the Rings had a huge impact on me so this list wouldn’t feel complete without it.
As a child, we would spend a week or two weeks being looked after by aunts, uncles or grandparents to give our Dad a break. One year when our Uncle and Aunt near Reading had us, they took us to a charity shop and let us each choose a book. I don’t remember how young I was; maybe 8, maybe a little older, but young enough that my choice of The Fellowship of the Ring was a surprise: I was also bought The Borrowers for when I found it too difficult and gave up on it. For the next two or three days, I remained ensconced in my cousin’s bedroom as I travelled Middle Earth. I then had to wait an agonising length of time (at least the rest of the week) to go home and borrow my Dad’s copies of The Two Towers and Return of the King.
Partly it was the look of surprise on my Aunt’s face as I devoured the novel, partly it was the incredible breadth of fantasy I was being exposed to and the depth of the world containing it, but this book is one that had a magnificent impact on me. The Borrowers was a bit of a let-down after that.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K le Guin
If you have not read this, go and read it now.
Le Guin is an author I adore. She is a wonderful story teller. Her stories – rich in detail, set in vibrant, believable fantasy and science fiction locations – are woven with political threads that make you consider your prejudices as well as being beautiful stories. There is something almost punk-like about the way she achieves this marriage of art and politics, albeit in a far gentler manner.
The Left Hand of Darkness is part of what is known as the ‘Hainish Cycle’, a collection of science fiction stories in which Earth (Terra) is one of many planets with humanoid life seeded there by the since-collapsed Hainish Empire. This novel is set on a planet called ‘Winter’.
There is a particular moment in this novel where other characters debate the Terran need for speed, that amuses me and periodically reminds me to calm down and take things slower, but the real power of this book is in the way gender is treated: the natives of Winter are hermaphrodites. I think this book is probably where my first steps towards feminism (and in particular intersectional feminism) took place.
Read it. And read the others. She is truly wonderful.
3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The language controlling this book is beautiful and poetic. The story is told within a framing device – a technique I like and which works well to keep you interested in what is to come with small moments of foreshadowing and conclusion as you periodically return to the present. I’m really looking forward to the conclusion of the series and too the soon-to-be-released spin-off novel, The Slow Regard of Silent Things which focuses on one of my favourite characters in the novel, the curious and mysterious Auri.
4. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Imagine being told for 8 ½ years that a particular book is the best book ever. Imagine finally giving in and reading that book… With Snow Crash, I was amazed to discover it lived up to the hype.
It’s near-future science fiction and with a strong cyberpunk feel to it. I love the technology and the way it’s thrown in without distracting explanation yet still vividly believable and comprehensible.
There’s a vast, detailed world collected into a compact story. It’s very well-written and a book I can highly recommend.
5. The Natural History of the Vampire by Anthony Masters
Not a fiction book this time, but rather a slightly unusual reference book.
When I was very little, my Daddy read us a short story called The Legend of Croglin Grange. He warned us it was very scary, but we insisted anyway. My little siblings – fearless as they are – were utterly unaffected and enjoyed the story. I went away from it absolutely and utterly terrified of vampires. So my Dad did what any sensible parent does: told me they didn’t exist but then taught me how to combat them – which included lending me his copy of The Natural History of the Vampire (it has since made its way onto my shelves. I’m pretty sure he knows I’ve perma-borrowed it…).
The book gives details of vampire myths from around the world and looks at the way the myths have changed over the years – particularly the way they have been shaped and influenced by popular culture (John Polidori’s The Vampyre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hollywood in general get particular mention).
It’s worth noting there are vampires out there who sparkle in sunlight – only it’s more a ‘sparkly mist’ that surrounds them than anything Twilight-esque.
6. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
Like a gateway drug, Guards! Guards! led me in to the Discworld and from there to the Johnny series, The Carpet People and Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman) – for a long time, my favourite book and one that still gives me a lot of pleasure.
I went to a ‘three school system’ – rather than primary/secondary, we had a first school, a middle school and an upper school. The school library in my middle school was tiny but had one shelf only the eldest year group were allowed to read: the Discworld novels were on this shelf.
Guards! Guards! is not my favourite Discworld book (it’s hard to pick, but probably one of the witchy ones or possibly Reaper Man), but it is the first I read and will always be special to me.
7. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
My fear of vampires is probably a large part of my love for this book – in my opinion, one of King’s better novels. It doesn’t suffer from a weak ending like several others and doesn’t have a Brit call an aeroplane an ‘airplane’ as in The Langoliers and for which I’m still not quite ready to forgive.
I re-read the novel recently and bits I vividly remembered didn’t happen, which I think shows the power of a good book over our imagination.
For vampire novels, I would also recommend John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In.
8. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper
I love the whole Dark is Rising series, but this is my favourite because it’s the one in which Jane (the token girl) takes the lead. I also love it because it’s a tiny act of kindness, rather than violence or struggle, that saves the day.
9. Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
I read this when my brother was fairly new and it summed up a lot of my ambivalence towards him: I hated/resented him, but equally loved and was hugely protective of him. I could see myself in the main character, Ida, and the image of a big sister protecting her baby sibling is powerful to me and always comes with a frying pan.
This book inspired Labyrinth, a film I love, and I can see its threads in Juliet Maurillier’s Heir to Sevenwaters. It’s also inspired one of the novels that flits through my head, demanding attention from time to time yet will probably never come to fruition (although Alan Garner and Susan Cooper also influence this particular endeavour).
10. Folktales of the British Isles
A collection of tales that was given to my parents when I was born to be given to me when I was old enough to appreciate it. This book is probably from where my love of folklore and mythology stems – an important part of who I am.
The tales come from all over Britain. Many have their roots in Celtic tales, others later. They are split into different groups including Giants, Fairies, Magical Creatures, Kings and Heroes, Ghosts (“He woke in the night most frit and reached for the matches and the matches were placed in his hand”).
It’s a beautiful book and the stories are wonderful and powerful and in a strange way feel like they’re all mine.
If anyone wants to give their 10 Important Books in the comments (or link to somewhere they’ve already shared) I’m always after new recommendations!