The Books That Made Me (...and a Driving Lesson)

on Saturday, September 11, 2010
Is there no end to my nerdy bookishness? As if spending every spare minute reading wasn't enough, I've taken to listening to literary podcasts while I drive. Ok, so to be honest I first tried reading while I drive, which worked for a while until I cruised through a red red light late one night and got taken out by a drunk driver. Not my finest moment. Thankfully everyone was ok. It did, however, force me to rethink my driving habits, and so I discovered the magic of the book podcast (I have yet to make the leap to Audiobooks. I'll save that for when my diabetes sends me blind).

Now, I'm not going to harp on here about the various podcasts I listen to - I'll save that for another day - but I do want to make special mention of The Guardian's new pod-series "Books That Made Me". In each episode, an author of note nominates the five or six books that have most influenced them, not just as writers, but as people. There have only been three episodes thus far, but the series has already proven a little treasure trove of literary trivia, whimsy and, at times, deep artistic reflection. The authors profiled, China Mieville, Michael Rosen and Penelope Lively, have all picked an interesting array of works, some well-known, others painfully obscure; some of which I've wanted to hunt down and others that have just brought a befuddled smirk to my face.

Somehow I doubt that The Guardian is ever likely to approach me for my list, so I've decided to give it a go here on Bait For Bookworms. It's a difficult task. It doesn't mean picking my favourite books. I spent a whole month recounting those when I started off writing this blog. No, these are books that, at various stages of my life, have really shaped my greater worldview, or set me on a particular path. So dear readers, Kindle addicts and editors of The Guardian newspaper, here are the books that made this bookworm:

1. The Encyclopaedia Brown Series. Damn that Brown kid was smart. I guess with a name like Encyclopaedia he was never going to be a muscly, steroid-munching jock. For primary school me he was the perfect companion, helping me pass the friendless playtimes while teaching me that the search for truth and justice could be an intellectual joyride; the perfect fodder for the a kid destined for a career in public criminal defence.

2. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier. The only one of my 'favourite' books to make the list, I Am The Cheese still blows me away every time I read it. It shattered my cosy, private school view of how the world worked and taught me to question authority. It also kick started my love of 'mindfuck' novels. It was a small step from Cormier to Kafka, Perec and Beckett.

3. Cahoots Macbeth by Tom Stoppard. Back in high school, I played the part of the Inspector in a production of this brilliant play and managed to win the Best Actor award in the House Play Competition. Go me! Stoppard's tale of an underground Czech theatre group secretly putting on plays in defiance of the oppressive Communist rule not only gave my love of theatre a serious jab of adrenalin, but also got me thinking about the transcendent power of creative art, the importance of artistic freedom and the peculiar (and funny) nature of language.

4. The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe/In The Penal Settlement by Franz Kafka/Bontshe The Silent by I.L. Peretz. Ok, I'm cheating. Rather than nominating a single book, I want to put in three amazing short stories. As examples of the form they stand above anything else I've read. As introductions to three great writers, they are quite simply perfect. Each is an emotional uppercut in its own right - distilled lessons about justice, consequences and humility. They say more in a few pages than the vast majority of books I've suffered through in the past thirty-odd years.

5. Baddenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld doesn't catalogue the horrors of the Nazi machine, preferring his stories to inhabit the margins and silences. Baddenheim 1939, set in a snooty health spa just as the transports to the East were beginning, is all the more powerful for its evocation of denial and the ominous atmosphere of dread that pervades even the most frivolous activities. It is Holocaust literature of the most refined, devastating variety.

6. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. Throughout my twenties I searched high and low for a rational explanation of organised religion. Turns out there isn't one but hey, if you want a good religious satire, you have to check out Small Gods. It is a brilliant spin on the whole 'higher being' schitck and remains the most logical religious text I've ever encountered.

Comment or E me the books that made you...


Jana said...

This is a very interesting read; I love hearing about what books influenced people. Now I can't stop myself in my delusion of grandeur and must spontaneously type up my top ..uh...4:

1. Stephen King - Carrie; not so much for its content but because this was the first "real" book I read (at 10 or 11 years old) after all those damn Enid Blyton books about them twins. It's what got me hooked on horror studies in the first place, and is pretty much to be blamed for many a thing I did later on, like my doctoral dissertation (but not the drunken destruction of a street lamp)
2. The Lord of the Flies, William Golding. I dunno, its just me and my fascination for abberrant behavior and crowd psychology. Wrote a paper on it in high school too.
3. In the Penal Colony, Franz Kafka. Read it during my last year of high school, marvelled at it, and later used it for my master's thesis. Am still convinced the movie Cube is an indirect remake.
4. Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, because it's just a beautiful novel.

But.. this is all coming from the girl who put down "Infinite Jest" after 110 pages saying, "Bah, I don't get it."

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