Tag Archives: lists

Books that changed my life

A meme’s been doing the rounds on Facebook. Instructions are as follows:

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

I did that… but then wanted to offer more explanation of why these books are so special to me, and why you should probably read them as well. And so, I spent far too long writing up 16 potted book-reviews (After posting the original 15, I remembered one other which absolutely had to be on the list). Here they are (in no particular order), complete with links to Amazon via my associate account, so that you can buy them and earn me a few coppers if you like the sound of any of the books here (if anyone knows of a good alternative to Amazon for a very low-volume affiliate account, please let me know).

  1. Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison. I read this aged 17. At the time, I read only fantasy/sci-fi (which I thought this was). It is, in fact, anti-fantasy: all of its short stories seem to finish unresolved; no quest is ever completed satisfactorily. Suddenly I understood: this is what life is like; there is no beginning, middle and happy end. Despite this, the writing is so beautiful, the choice of words so unconventional and vivid, the stories can be enjoyed for those reasons alone. Reading this book taught me that sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the goal. I realised the fallacy of fantasy, and have never really bothered with it since. This one book completely changed my reading habits.
  2. Pastoralia, George Saunders. Probably the funniest, but also the saddest book I’ve ever read. Again short stories, they are a perfect exaggerated satire of life in the corporatised early 21st century (just as Gogol nails the early 19th century and Kafka the 20th). Saunders started, and has continued, in the same vein, but this his 2nd book is the peak of his originality & brilliance.
  3. All Quiet on the Orient Express, Magnus Mills. Like Pastoralia, warped sad, funny, chilling satire, and also a 2nd book which I prefer to the (more critically acclaimed) 1st, or subsequent ones. A young man camps in the Lake District, and takes on some farm work to subsidise a planned motorbike trip to the Orient. The atmosphere is very similar to League of Gentlemen. But nothing happens. Ever (except for one shocking, terrifying incident). But it "doesn’t happen" in such a way that makes this book the most compelling of page-turners. Surely, any moment now, something will happen! I read this for a book club once, and one of the other members said "how could anyone identify with this book? The hero is so spineless, nobody could be like that in real life." I identify 100% with the hero, I could be just that spineless, and I can appreciate that a story this unlikely could all too easily just happen. (I should also add that the original, Ladybird-style cover for this book is gorgeous. Sadly they’ve reprinted it in something generic and instantly forgettable).
  4. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Angela Carter. Angela Carter writes like an angel on acid, and nowhere is her writing more trippy than in this book. It’s a story of a young man from a ministry in an unspecified city in an era which seems to hover unobtrusively somewhere between medieval times and the 21st century. The city is under siege from Doctor Hoffman and his hallucination engine, so that nothing is ever what it appears to be. Carter can use language like absolutely no-one else I’ve ever come across. I’ve never experienced synesthesia except while reading her books. She can put one word unobtrusively alongside another in such a way that you can actually smell what she’s talking about, even though that smell is contaned in neither of the two words. Nearly 20 years after I read this book, I can stll remember its exact taste (and still don’t understand why it’s persistently out-of-print).
  5. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn. Again (like Carter) there is a smell, feel, taste which I associate with this novel. Without meaning to sound sexist, it sems that female authors often have a more sensory way of writing than men (although Harrison sometimes comes close). The story of an American family of circus freaks, deliberately and lovingly mutilated during gestation through a variety of bizarre and sickening practices. It’s an extremely beautiful, extremely moving study of the bonds and dependencies which arise within a group who are alone within society.
  6. Gödel, Escher, Bach – an eternal golden braid, Douglas Hofstadter. This was on my 3rd year psychology BSc reading list, for a course in Cognitive Ethology taught by Dr. Susan Blackmore. The book (and the course) changed my life completely: showed me all kinds of metaphors for how human consciousness may operate, and banished the need for any kind of "magic spark" from explanations of consciousness.
  7. The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins. Part of the same Susan Blackmore-led module as Gödel, Escher, Bach, this book did the same for my understanding evolution.
  8. Songlines, Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin’s brand of half travel-writing half musing and philosophising is, in my experience, quite unique and quite magical. This is the story of his trip to Aboriginal communities around Australia, but it is also the story of the human race. He builds up a theory, that humans are natural nomads who draw their energy and inspiration from the rhythms of walking, and who have lost much of their spirit by being coralled into permanent residencies. It’s very convincingly argued, and another example of a book which changed my opinion of what it is to be human.
  9. The Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky. I read this during my first two weeks apart from Gill – she was in Egypt while I was buried under a duvet in a squat in Leytonstone. It still conjures up memory of the magic of our young love mixed with the melancholia of separation. The story follows hero Danny (a not-even-thinly disguised version of Skvorecky) during two periods in his life. He is an aging Czech literature professor in a University in Canada, lusting after his young students, but his mind wanders back to his forced-employment and ultimately meaningless sabotage in the Messerschmidt factory in WWII rural Czechoslovakia, lusting after his tuberculosis-stricken co-worker. The novel is divided up according to the authors Danny is teaching at the time – Poe, Hawthorne, Twain. It’s incredibly complex, and I’m sure there is much here which I don’t quite "get", but its melancholy synthesis of youthful uncertainty/optimism and aged wisdom/cynicism really, really buries its way deep inside my heart.
  10. The Photographer’s Eye, John Szarkowski. Szarkowski is my favourite writer on photography (though I’ve long meant to read Geoff Dyer, who is by all accounts a genius on the topic. Sontag and Barthes I’ve struggled with but not yet engaged with). Although this is mainly a (very good) photobook, with an all-encompassing survey of photography at the time of the accompanying exhibition (1964), what most insprires me is the accompany essay and the way the book is structured: split into 5 aspects the photographer must tackle (even if subconsciously) when making a photograph: the thing itself, the detail, the frame, time, and vantage point. His explanation of these 5 is so clear and succint that even a child could read it and instantly become a master of photographic critique. It also articulates (again quite perfectly) what it is that makes photography different from other art forms (it’s all in the frame – quite literally).
  11. Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut. Extremely clever, extremely moving, extremely thought-provoking. An example of the kind of sci-fi which I still find quite acceptible, post-Viriconium. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. While captured during World War II, Billy is abducted by aliens who live simultaneously in all times, and he begins to see reality as they do, jumping from one point in his life to another, via old age, the death of his wife, the marriage of his daughter, a WWII bombing raid in reverse where aeroplanes mercifully suck fire & destruction out of a German city, to the finale in a fire-bombed slaughterhouse in Dreseden. One of the most powerful anti-war (but not anti-glacier) books ever, and a constant reminder that every single death is important, yet unavoidable. So it goes.
  12. Exquisite Corpse, Robert Irwin. Robert Irwin is one of the most intelligent, yet one of the most easily readable, authors I know of. This is a fictionalised autobiography of an English surrealist painter, which tells the history of the surrealist movement from the 30s to the 60s. Again, I find myself drawn to the WWII period, where surrealism was unnecessary with "a white horse galloping around inside a burning meat market… a girl in a blue dress emerging with her skipping rope from clouds of black smoke and skipping calmly by… facades of buildings curving and distending like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari… staircases which led nowhere, baths suspended apparently in mid-air, brick waterfalls flowing out of doorways and objects jumbled incongruously together". The novel also has one of the most audacious twists of any novel I have ever read, truly worthy of a surrealist. Read more of my thoughts on Exquisite Corpse here.
  13. The Good Soldier Švejk, Jaroslav Hašek. I was made aware of this (and also the excellent War with the Newts by Karel Čapek) through frequent references in the work of Josef Skvorecky. I usually struggle with books more than about 50 years old, but this one proved to me that during the First World War there was at least one author who shared a sense of humour with the writers of The Young Ones, Blackadder and The Office. Side-splittingly funny (but sadly uncompleted due to the author’s death), Švejk is the archetypal "little man", who subversively stands up to, and is much cleverer than, those in authority. By obeying their orders to the letter, he brings chaos everywhere he serves. I’m told by various friends that this is one of the absolute classics of Eastern European literature; also that the English language does not contain the range and nuance of swear words required to accurately translate the book.
  14. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. The Tin Drum. An epic novel on the making of modern Germany. Again, it stays with me particularly because of the imagery and unusual incidents: Oskar’s violent birth, the worn-out drums, his father’s fall into the cellar, and (especially) the horse’s head with the eels. I also have a DVD the excellent Oscar-winning film of this (which only covers about the first half of the novel), plus a copy of the book in its original German (Die Blechtrommel, if I remember correctly), which I dream of one-of-these-days reading even though so far I’ve not managed to struggle very far into page two.
  15. À Rebours (usually Against Nature in English), Joris-Karl Huysmans. I read this on the recommendation of my friend Caroline Simpson, and am very glad I did. The story of Des Esseintes, a fin de siècle decadent aristrocrat who, having experienced all of life’s supposed pleasures and indulgences, tires of it all and has himself bricked up inside a house (with only a small hatch through which his servants deliver his meals). Like the Magnus Mills book, this sounds like it could be a tedious read, but its limitations are part of what make it quite magical: the attention to detail is as breath-taking as an intricately jewel-encrusted tortoise. The writing is quite dense, and this book taught me that reading is also an activity which can benefit from a "slow movement" approach: I lingered over and savoured every single word, and got a huge reward from doing so.
  16. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban. A post apocalyptic parable written entirely in not-quite-English (I know some people find this kind of thing very hard to read, but I find that if you let the sounds of the morphemes wash over you then within a couple of chapters it all makes sense). I’m told that every single word in the book has at least two meanings (prime among them: Addom, the biblical first man whose splitting caused the nuclear event which created the current state of this Kentish archipelago). Biblical and scientific double-meanings abound, parliament is a ritual carnival carried out by Punch-and-Judy men, and tradition and survival determine everything in this harsh future environment. Absolutely unique, absolutely genius, and once read never, ever forgotten.

I could have added at least another 15 kids books to this – especially the Uncle & Agaton Sax books. And When Little Bear met Great Bear (or was it the other way around), which I’m sure I didn’t dream up, but I have never managed to find listed in any online catalogue or in any of the booksellers in Hay-on-Wye. Anyway, I hope that you enjoy these reviews and that you’re inspired to read some of the books as a result.