I was tagged the other day for one of those ‘challenges’ that seem to float around social media whenever people’s brain space isn’t occupied by being Outraged by whatever Bad Thing is popular that particular week. Normally I would decline to participate(cue strains of ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’)but this one is something I actually have thoughts on being that it enjoins me to talk the 10 books or authors that have most influenced my life. Plus I thought I could make it serve double duty as a post. So here we are.
The Bible – First and foremost, number one with a bullet. No other book ever written has influenced my life the way this one has, either by it’s presence or by it’s absence. There is not a single word in there that is not true, and there is not a single word in there that will not be relevant to your life at some point. It handily answers the old philosophical question “How then shall a man live?” Recommended works: All of it. But if you’re pressed for time, start with James, or Romans and move on from there.
William Shakespeare – Classics are classics for a reason and Shakespeare is the classic. Shakespeare is so famous, he’s made other people famous. The only reason Marlowe or Bacon are remembered to the extent that they are is because they were his contemporaries. He had such a grasp of the fundamentals of human nature that his works are just as relevant and accessible to modern audiences as they were to Elizabethan ones. You add to that the beauty and the poetry of his language and it’s no wonder his works have survived for 500 years. If you ever get a chance to see one of his plays performed live, take it. If not, you’ll have to settle for just reading them but as second place finishes go, that’s about as good a one as you’re ever going to find. Recommended works: Henry V, Macbeth, Coriolanus
Rudyard Kipling – When I was about eight or so, my father gave me a collected edition of Rudyard Kipling’s works. This began my love affair both with collected editions and Victorian literature. I read that book cover to cover more times that I can count. Then I looked for works of his that weren’t in my edition. I found that he had written poetry as well and that began my education in poetry(as well as solidifying my distaste for poems that don’t rhyme.) Looking for similar authors led to me to at least one other author on this list. Recommended works: Stalky and Co., Plain Tales From the Hills, Barrack-Room Ballads
A.C. Doyle – Someone I found thanks my interest in Kipling was Doyle. I started with an ‘illustrated novel for children’ version of ‘The Speckled Band’ and took off from there. I went through all of his Holmes stories and novels and then looked around for what else he had written. I read his historical fiction and his short stories about the medical profession in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and his non-fiction work on the Boer War and spiritualism. These last lead to related works on the subject and on the phenomenon of the latter in Western civilization. Recommended works: The White Company, The Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, The Great Boer War, A Study in Scarlet.
H. Rider Haggard – When I was twelve or so, my parents rented a movie called ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ from a video store. It starred Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone. I was absolutely enthralled and watched that movie so many times I could practically recite. Having since gone back in my adulthood and revisited that movie, it is truly terrible in almost every respect but it did lead me to the book it was made from(well, shared a title with, anyways). Haggard spent most of his life in the Crown Colony of S. Africa and it shows in his writing. His writings were the archetypal Victorian adventure novels, full of Great White Hunters, Lost Cities, Noble (and Decidedly Un-Noble) Savages, Sudden Reverses and Daring Escapes. Like Kipling’s India, Haggard’s Africa comes out through the page via his prose and it’s a shame he’s not more widely known. Recommended Works: King Solomon’s Mines, She, Allan Quatermain.
The Screwtape Letters – I come back and re-read Screwtape every year or so and there is always something new in there, or some point that Lewis makes that I had forgotten. Although on the surface it appears to largely address the problems and concerns of pre- and mid war British society, once started it will reveal itself as still relevant to a good deal of modern society. If you pick up a copy, make sure you get one that also includes Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
Republican Party Reptile – When I was 13 or so, I spent a dime and bought a book from a library sale that had an alligator wearing a suit and holding a drink on the cover and it was entitled ‘Republican Party Reptile.’ In terms of value given for money spent, that was one of the best dimes I have ever spent. The book in question was a collection of satirical essays by P.J. O’Rourke. Written from a libertarian perspective, that book blew my 13 year old mind. I went and looked up some of the people he mentioned and then some of the people they mentioned. It was though that collection that I found and read F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and J.S. Mill. It’s also how I found William F. Buckley and National Review.
P.J. O’Rourke – Republican Party Reptile deserves special mention, but once I found that I also looked around for what else P.J. had written. A good many of his books are still on my shelves and they have gone a long way in shaping my own thoughts on politics and the general role of the government in society. And like I said up above, his books proved to be, in the way that all good books do, gateway books to other authors and other books. Recommended Works: Republican Party Reptile, Parliament of Whores, Eat the Rich
Robert A. Heinlein – One of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction. Heinlein is one of those authors that you can read when you’re 13 or so and enjoy it for all the space opera heroics and then you go back and you read him as an adult and you discover whole new layers to his writings. What you thought was just pulp fiction space opera is still that, and still enjoyable on that level BUT it also becomes an elaborate illustration of a philosophical point or a treatise on how a society might be ordered. Recommended Works: Starship Troopers, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Glory Road, The Puppet Masters
Bernard Cornwell – I wouldn’t say he’s influential in the same way that Haggard or the Bible has been, but I’ve read almost everything he’s published, so he makes the list. Cornwell is quite possibly the best author of historical fiction writing today. His books are always meticulously researched and his bibliographies always lead to other interesting books as well. He writes through several different eras and viewpoints and his books are always worth the read. Recommended Works: Richard Sharpe series, The Saxon Chronicles