Friday, March 26, 2010

Authors and books who've influenced me most

Via Patrick at Popehat, I learned of a blog meme initiated by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. He listed the ten books that have influenced him most, and 'encouraged other bloggers to offer similar lists'. Quite a few have taken up his invitation, and I thought, “Why not?” - so here goes.

I'm in the unfortunate (?) position of being a bibliophile. I grew up in a home with over 3,000 books, and I've built up an extensive library of my own over the years. I recently (with much blood, sweat and tears, and feelings of having teeth pulled) reduced it to something like 3,500 volumes . . . and it hurt giving up every one of those I discarded! I can't wait for the advent of a really good electronic library system . . . it'll save me from (literally) shifting tons of weight every time I move house!

That makes it very difficult for me to choose a mere ten books that have influenced me most. I've certainly read well in excess of 25,000 books during my life so far (for example, in my last year at high school I kept a tally, and read over 700 books in addition to my studies). I therefore decided to approach this list by not looking at my bookshelves at all, so as to see which books and authors have stuck in my mind without the need for a visual reminder. I'm going to list the first ten that come to mind; but that's not really fair, as there are far more than ten who've had the same impact. Still, ten is a manageable figure, so I'll stick with it.

(I'm also going to cheat a little and list mostly authors, rather than their individual books, because their body of work as a whole has influenced me more than any single volume. I think this is within the spirit, if not the letter, of Mr. Cowen's challenge, so I hope he'll let me get away with it.)

Anyway, in alphabetical order by author (except, in one case, by the book's name, because there are too many authors to list), here goes.

1. The Bible.

Quite apart from being the source of revelation of my faith, I find the whole volume to be a fascinating detective story. For any given book, who wrote it? When? Why? Under what circumstances or conditions? To what extent is the author conveying the eternal, immortal, unchanging message of the Divine, and to what extent is he caught up in the culture and conditions of his own times and allowing those factors to influence and 'color' his message? Can the Divine truth(s) he conveys be readily distinguished from the latter factors? How does the Biblical message concerning any one aspect of faith and/or life (e.g. love, mercy, sin, etc.) change from early books to later ones, from the Old to the New Testament? How does Christ's advent alter Old Testament teaching – if at all?

There are so many questions, and the answers aren't at all easy in many cases. I have little time for the overly simplistic approach of Fundamentalism, which argues that 'if the Bible says it, that settles it'. My response is always to quote two passages to them, Matthew 12:30 (“he who is not with Me is against Me”) and Mark 9:40 (“he who is not against us is for us”). If every word in the Bible is exactly and literally true, then how can two such (seemingly) contradictory passages exist (both of them the words of Jesus Himself)? They usually start spluttering at that point, and cast aspersions in my direction. Pity, that . . . it kind of undermines their case. (There are, of course, many similar passages that defy a simplistic interpretation.)

Despite any difficulties in analysis or interpretation, however, the Bible remains the yardstick by which I judge my life in moral, spiritual and religious terms. It's not for me to make the Bible fit into my world so much as I must make my life conform to the standards revealed by God in and through its pages. Defining those standards is what makes things interesting, but the core ones are clear enough.

2. Jeff Cooper.

This prolific writer, firearms authority and father of the Modern Technique of the handgun is a seminal figure in the firearms world. He was unashamedly conservative, independent (although not what we would call Libertarian today) and self-reliant, and held himself and others to the highest standards of personal integrity. Regrettably, his philosophy on life is not as widely known as I think it deserves to be. His many books include five volumes of reminiscences and memoir which are as fresh today as when he wrote them. They've informed my own quest for knowledge and 'formation' in many ways. He also wrote regular columns for magazines and newsletters for graduates of his school, the American Pistol Institute; the latter have been published in three volumes. Many of his remarks are repeatedly cited by those knowledgeable in the field.

One of the chief reasons I'm alive today is that his teaching on the principles of personal defense and the use of firearms helped to keep me that way through eighteen years of what amounted to civil war in South Africa. Perhaps as a result, one of my favorites among many of his quotations is this:

“One bleeding-heart type asked me in a recent interview if I did not agree that ‘violence begets violence.’ I told him that it is my earnest endeavor to see that it does. I would like very much to ensure - and in some cases I have - that any man who offers violence to his fellow citizen begets a whole lot more in return than he can enjoy.”

Having (all too often) BTDT* as a prospective victim of violence, I can testify that his approach works!

3. Dorothy Dunnett.

This historical novelist kindled my imagination in a way that no other writer in this field has managed to do. Her marvelously fresh approach to some of the most tangled and turbulent periods of history has encouraged me to become something of an amateur historian myself. Her six-book Crawford of Lymond series remains, in my opinion, the single most important historical novel series of the 20th century.

4. Richard Feynman.

This Nobel Prize-winning physicist has amused and challenged me for many years. His two semi-autobiographical books (Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) are marvelously entertaining yet highly educational, and helped to renew my own interest in science. The Feynman Lectures On Physics, first published in 1964, has sold more than two million copies, and despite more recent developments in the field remains one of the most useful and accessible introductions to that field of science. His dedication to making his subject as clear and understandable as possible has influenced my own teaching and lecturing techniques. A remarkable man, who produced some remarkable literature.

5. Robert Heinlein.

His science fiction has engrossed me, challenged me, and made me 'think outside the box' in many ways, in terms of science, history, the future, politics, morality and many other issues. I haven't always agreed with him, but he's always succeeded in making me think all the more carefully about why this is so. His output is prolific, but if I had to select three of his novels that have most influenced me, they'd be Starship Troopers, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Time Enough For Love. He was, is and will probably forever be one of the 'greats' in the field of science fiction, which owes him an incalculable debt.

6. Thomas Merton.

This Trappist monk wrote prolifically about the spiritual and monastic life. As a young man, I found his earlier books, particularly those about his own formation as a monk and priest, and his works on meditation and contemplation, to be profoundly helpful in developing my spiritual life. His later works, where he challenged the status quo in terms of his perspective on modern life, I found less inspirational – but they were (and are) no less challenging, forcing me to re-examine what I believe and why I believe it. If I disagree with him, why? Am I being too blinkered or 'super-spiritual' in my approach? His books continue to give me 'seeds of contemplation'. I guess there's a spark of monasticism and/or 'solitude' in me, and he speaks to that. I re-read him to this day.

7. Alan Paton.

He's most famous for his 1948 book Cry, The Beloved Country, but he wrote many more works that have influenced me for many years. His two volumes of autobiography, Towards The Mountain and Journey Continued, give valuable insights into the racial tensions in South African society, and how this devout Anglican and intellectual giant of South Africa approached them. I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Paton, but I heard him deliver speeches on two occasions. Even though I left South Africa well over a decade ago, his books continue to speak to me.

8. Rosemary Sutcliff.

The books of this children's historical novelist were my constant companions as a child, and remain in my collection today. Physically handicapped, she never allowed that to stand in the way of her writing, and never used it as an excuse to live a less than fulfilling life. She brought the Roman, Saxon and Viking periods to life in an irresistibly fresh and interesting way, and her later English history novels conveyed a real sense of what life was like in those days. In a way, she's like a Dorothy Dunnett (q.v.) for children, yet writes with a timeless, ageless grace that makes her eminently readable by adults as well. She occupies a warm place in my bookish heart, and her books a permanent place on my shelves. (I was delighted to learn recently that her novel The Eagle Of The Ninth is being filmed, and should be released later this year. Provided the producers don't destroy her magnificent novel in the transition to film, I'll be there to see it.)

9. J.R.R. Tolkien.

I regard all the books in the Ring saga as essentially part of the same story, beginning with The Silmarillion, continuing with The Hobbit and ending with the three volumes of The Lord Of The Rings. I also love many of his shorter works, including Leaf By Niggle, Smith Of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles Of Ham. (However, I exclude the all-too-many volumes of his notes that were edited [after his death] and published by his son.) I think I've read the Ring saga every year since my very early teens, and The Hobbit earlier than that. I unhesitatingly classify it as the single most important work of English literature in the 20th century. It's shaped my approach to literature in a very powerful way. Tolkien's intensive scholarship and dedication (even developing his own unique languages for some of the races he invented, and doing so in such a linguistically correct way that the languages really do make grammatical and cultural sense) is perhaps unique. Also, of course, his philosophy, as expressed in the books (markedly and unashamedly Christian, highly moral, and personally challenging) both echoes and has influenced my own.

10. Barbara Tuchman.

This historian managed to tease new depth and meaning from her field in a wide-ranging series of books, always challenging her readers to look beyond the bare facts and consider their wider implications. She's a joy for any history buff to read, and makes one think more deeply about the era, personalities and factors influencing her subjects. I have all her books, and I've given out more than a few copies of several of them in an effort to inspire others to read more widely about history.

Well, there are the ten authors (or, rather, nine authors and one Book) that first come to mind, without glancing at my bookshelves. I could probably list dozens more just sitting here at my keyboard. I mean, having mentioned Heinlein, how about Asimov or Clarke or Anderson? Having listed Merton, what about Catherine of Siena or de Caussade or Foster or de Hueck Doherty or Mother Teresa or Theresa of Avila? Unfortunately, I have neither space nor time to list them all, so these will have to do.

I invite all my readers (particularly other bloggers) to name the ten authors and/or books that have most influenced them. Other bloggers will, I hope, post them on their blogs, and readers are invited to list their favorites in the Comments to this post. If you can't think of (or don't have time to list) ten, list two or three. It should make interesting reading!


* Been There, Done That.


RobertM said...

I'll definitely have to participate in this. Like you I'm going to have to list authors rather than individual books. Heinlein and Tolkien will certainly be two of them.

Sherm said...

Ten may be tough. In no particular order:
1. Mark Twain - Sometimes I just have to sit back in wonder at his use of language. He's always worth going back to visit again.
2. Barbara Tuchman - The Proud Tower and The Guns of August gave me a much wider appreciation of the beginnings of a century. A Distant Mirror showed that things haven't changed a whole lot over the centuries.
3. Shelby Foote - The Civil War was never better told.
4. The Book of Mormon - combined with the Bible it tells us God really is interested in us and our affairs.
5. Edgar Rice Burroughs - The right kind of adventure stories for a young boy.
6&7. Hugh Nibley & CS Lewis - Questions of faith explored and examined while laying out a path for answers.
8-etc. Individual books that have had an impact - Hiroshima by John Hersey, Mr. Roberts by Thomas Heggen, Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Story of English multiple authors, Connections by James Burke, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. that's 13. I'll stop.

Anonymous said...

Not in order:

1. Taylor Caldwell
2. Ayn Rand
3. Hermen Hesse
4. Tom Robins
5. Matt Christopher (little kids sports books, Excellent)
6. Shelby Foote
7. William Manchester
8. Tom Peters
9. Mark Twain
10. The "We were there series"

Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter for the chance to ponder those exposures to ideas that help chart our course.

ken purdy "kings of the road"
jack o'connor "Complete book of shooting"
richard feynman
sun tzu "the art of war"
tracy kidder "the soul of a new macine"
kahlil gibran
walt kelly "pogo"
peter drucker "Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles"
ray bradbury
robert persig "zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance"
harold c martin "The logic and rhetoric of exposition"
massad ayoob "In The Gravest Extreme"


Anonymous said...

from the younger uninformed peasant on the blog...

Stephen King - major works including his magnum opus "The Dark Tower"..which was his equivalent of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Neil Gaiman - some of the craziest and most thought provoking short-stories

Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne - for introducing me to the mind-blowing aspects of physics such as time dilation.

Jim Butcher - although not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the mind, his "Dresden Files" are fun, witty, and leave a good clean feeling after reading.

Douglas Adams - although he's an ardent atheist, "Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is a hilarious to read series albeit from the perspective that as a species we're pretty irrelevant to the cosmos as a whole.

Charles Dickens - Great Expectations

Christopher Marlowe - Doctor Faustus was quite an engaging read. Made me ponder the nature of redemption and hubris.

Alastair Reynolds - Captivating space opera from an actual physicist. His "Revelation Space" series is both dark and well thought out. I like how it highlights the technology involved in space colonization.

Neal Stephenson - "Quicksilver" and the other two sequels are historical fiction showing Europe around the time of the calculus wars...i have started the first book several times but never had the time to finish. Although this would generally suggest a boring book, I'd nevertheless recommended it to all interested in history, mathematics, or primitive tech.

J.R.R Tolkien - The Hobbit in my opinion is his best work

..there are just too many to choose from though...Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Doyle, Coelho, Coleridge, and William Blake to name a few...interesting to note that only a few were Americans...most are Brits