As some of you know, I don’t as a matter of principle get involved in blogging awards because, being a bit of a maverick, I’d much rather be composing an original post than feeling constrained by the questions that inevitably accompany these awards.
But a recent literature-based question posted by Ola on receiving a blogging award for the Re-enchantment of the World blog rather appealed to me and had me scurrying to my bookshelves. Here then is the question, followed by my answer — even if I have no intention of nominating anybody else as I’m invited to do by the rules of the award:
Name (and, if you wish, describe) up to 11 books which influenced you the most.
I drew up a shortlist, but only had to delete one or two titles to get to my eleven; they appear in no particular order except that in which I noted them down.
1. The Lord of the Rings (1954). Yes, rather predictable I know but honest. I first read this in 1968 when a student, in the year the one-volume edition came out, and ever since then I’ve reread it every decade or so. My first copy eventually fell apart so for my fourth read (and now my fifth, due soon) I acquired a more robust secondhand copy. Do I need to justify this choice? I think not, though I may give some thought to it when I start on the revisit. I think though that being marginally older than Tolkien was when LOTR was first published (1954-5) may provide an interesting perspective.
2. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863). In ‘Kingsley’s Riddle‘ (my review of this Victorian children’s book) I try to hint, not with total success, at what has intrigued me since I read a bowdlerised version as a pre-teen. I’ve also read it at frequent intervals and despite its faults nearly always find something new and interesting to consider.
3. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995) captivated me as soon as I read the paperback edition. Like The Water-Babies it had a rich hinterland to explore, helped by the plentiful literary guides which I delved into after I’d read the His Dark Materials trilogy. Magnificent themes and a rumbustious protagonist proved to be a winning combination.
4. Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight (1980) appears at first sight to be one of those conspiracy theory books that proposes a solution to historical inconsistencies that has somehow stymied experts in the field. Chaucer’s parfit, gentil knyght was, Jones argues, nothing of the sort but in fact a cold-blooded mercenary. Like so much in The Canterbury Tales the portrait of the soldier pilgrim is shot through with sly humour, a concept that nobody appears to have noticed until this study. I thought Jones, best known from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, made a persuasive case — certainly compared to bogus ‘studies’ I’d read (such The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, published around the same time).
5. All But a Few (1974) was my introduction to the marvellous Joan Aiken, way back in the seventies when this collection came out in paperback. Her magical modern takes on traditional tales entranced me back then, since when I’ve never ceased to be under her spell. And, incredibly, I’ve barely explored the foothills of the mountain range that is her collected works!
6. Beowulf and its Analogues by G N Garmonsway et al (1980) opened my eyes to the direct and indirect links that join great works of literature in a virtual web (in the case of Beowulf contemporary historical events, folktales and other sagas) and confirmed to me why it’s such a powerful work in its own right. I was also struck by Arthurian parallels and how it continues to influence modern writers (such as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes in their SF novel The Legacy of Heorot and its sequel).
7. Though I skipped huge chunks of C G Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963) when I first acquired a paperback copy (in, I think, the early nineties) I have continued to dip into it from time to time. Those mysterious linkages between one’s perceptions, waking and sleeping, as modulated by time have always fascinated me, and I was intrigued reading how Jung’s theories on them developed and evolved over his lifetime. The brain is a wonderful thing, and Jung’s authorised autobiography reveals his own psychology by what and how much he chooses to reveal about himself.
8. More literary detective work caught my attention in John Livingstone Lowes’ The Road to Xanadu (1927) when it came out in paperback in the 1970s. The American author ran a fine-toothed comb over Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan and teased out how interrelated are works of literature and their context. That principle of contextualising has continued to influence me as I even now read and review fiction, though I of course in no way compare myself to Lowes’ brilliant scholarship.
9. From the sublime to the ridiculous, perhaps, but arguably not so different, is my next literary influence: Edgar Rice Burrough’s forest romance Tarzan of the Apes (1914), which I reviewed in ‘African Heirs and Graces’. As a weedy kid I was impressed not only by his physical prowess but also by the sense of his otherness, being in the grey areas between ape and ‘civilised’ human, aristocrat (as the titled Lord Greystoke) and white African, British (his ancestry) and French (his first leaned human language); perhaps I felt that sense of otherness from my own upbringing and early rootlessness.
10. Another literary figure which drew me like a magnet was King Arthur, but mainly because there was a disconnect between the legend and what little I knew of the historical period from which he allegedly hailed. Confirmation of this disconnect coalesced in The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (1968, edited by cultural historian Geoffrey Ashe) which drew together specialists in history and archaeology in an attempt to re-forge those disconnected links. Despite my involvement with some of the actors involved with this publication I feel that the then enthusiastic response to it reflected the zeitgeist of the period but that many of its conclusions and hopes have not stood the test of time and further research. That’s not of course to deny its own place in history.
11. Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). I can’t remember when I read this, my first Le Guin book, but it was definitely towards the end of the last century. She singlehandedly recast my view of what science fiction was about and what had left me feeling empty about what I’d read up to then: the interest exhibited by this novel in psychology and anthropology, along with an anticipation of gender fluidity issues, was very different from the ‘hard’ SF themes I was mostly familiar with (as with Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov or even John Wyndham, for example). Her speculative fiction is also ‘hard’, but in a different way from the mostly nuts-and-bolts novels her male contemporaries wrote: it required engagement with humanist values and environmental issues, how politics could systematically destroy the individual, and how that individual might find the inner resource to survive, all issues that at once distanced the reader and also brought home how they might apply in the here and now.
These then are my current eleven picks. (Why eleven? Why not, I ask — it’s as good as ten or twelve, fifty or a hundred. And it’s what was stipulated.) Tomorrow I might pick some replacements; yesterday my mood may have resulted in different choices. They’re not all what I would have gone for ten or twenty years ago but a couple of titles would have definitely featured. (I hope that this is what you expected, Ola!)
Have you tried an exercise like this? They’re not unusual — listopia is a common meme these days, principally when it’s about books. If you feel the desire to flag up your own choices I’d be pleased to read them. But I shall not be awarding awards — not even this one below!