Influential Books

Ross Douthat of the NY Times posted this in his March 25 column in that paper’s Opinion section:

“More than a week ago, Tyler Cowen kicked off an irresistible blogospheric listing exercise: In this case, the theme is “10 books which have influenced your view of the world.” You can find Matthew Yglesias’s list here, Will Wilkinson’s list here, Matt Continetti’s here, and many more at this link. My own follows below. Note that these are not my 10 favorite books, nor the 10 best books I’ve ever read, but the books that quickly came to mind — I was following Cowen’s “go with your gut” admonition.”

In the last few days I’ve seen other lists. Here’s mine, done in true-to-the-idea, off-the-top-of-my head style:

YA series: the Winston SF series and the Hardy Boys series  –  These are what really got me reading, reading in a way that became a lifelong habit and love. They were interesting, exciting, introduced me to the genres of science fiction and mystery. I never looked back.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle  –  I loved these stories the first time I read them: the setting, the characters, the plots. I still love them and reread them frequently, along with the rest of the Holmes canon.

The Blue Train by Agatha Christie  –  The first British traditional mystery, and the first “cozy” I read. I’d not read any mystery fiction in a decade or more when I read this, being snowed in at a cabin with nothing else to read. I loved it and went on to read all of the Poirot books and most all of Christie. I didn’t just read these, I bought them, which began a whole other process.

Pickup on Noon Street and Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler  –  Okay, so it’s two books. Sue me. The short story collection was my introduction to hard boiled, and what an introduction! Then I read the rest of Chandler, then moved on to Hammett, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Bill Pronzini…

The Man Who Counts by Poul Anderson –  Besides being a real favorite, this is as good an example as I can think of when it comes to a story set within a big SF saga (in this case the Psychotechnic League stories and novels). This got me thinking about galactic empires, the economics and politics of empire, fighting in space, and intelligence trumping strength.

Shogun by James Clavell  –  I’d read big thick novels before, and I’d read historical non-fiction, but this particular novel combined it all with incredible characterization, setting, plot and I learned a little Japanese in the process. I just couldn’t put this novel down, and – unfortunately, since few other things measure up – it’s the standard by which I compare all such books.

Watership Down by Richard Adams  –  I’d read comics in which animals talked, and there were the children’s books when I was little, things like The House At Pooh Corner and especially The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, with it’s wonderful Ernest H. Shepard illustrations, but this was the “talking animal” novel that woke me up. Here were animals with real believable lives and threats. It reinforced the reading I’d done in the past of what I call nature fiction and led me to read and enjoy more of it. I still do.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein (also The Lord of the Rings novels)  –  Who knew fantasy could be so involving, vast and well done? Not me until I read this. I’d enjoyed fantasy before this, but had no idea the genre could provide anything with so much background, so researched and inventive. Wow.

Silent Spring by Rachael Carson  –  I’d always been drawn to nature, but this opened my eyes to the environmental damage we were wreaking upon the world. Written in 1963, I read it a year or so later. Things here on ol’ Mother Earth certainly haven’t gotten any better, but this book was a revelation to me and altered my thinking and habits.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman  –  I’d been rasied with books and being read to, and I loved the rhymes and poems in everything from Mother Goose to an especial favorite, When We Were Six by A.A. Milne. I think it was my early encounter with this book and a general collection of American and British poetry, which cemented my love for poetry of all kinds. I read and enjoy poetry to this day.

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupéry  –  This memoir, published in 1939, was among the books on the shelves when, as a child I was looking for something to read. I have read it perhaps a dozen times since, and each reading is a moving experience, reminding me of the beauty of the world and the necessity to see it, and of my admiration for acts of simple bravery.

So there you have it. As others have said, tomorrow it might well be a different list, but for now I’ll stand by these.

About Rick Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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20 Responses to Influential Books

  1. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Terrific list, Rick.

    I felt exactly the same about SHOGUN. When I finished it I felt I knew quite a few Japanese words and phrases, almost all of which I’ve forgotten in the years since, but I haven’t forgotten the book.

  2. I found SHOGUN an amazing book! Even though the book was over 1000 pages, Clavell keep the pages turning. An incredible performance!

  3. Richard says:

    No Shakespeare, Trollop. James or Falkner here, though I have read and enjoyed all those, these are the books that just came to mind. I’d probably reread any of these in a second, except the Carson book, which has become pretty dated though still relevant. Shogun seems to be a unanimous choice for a big-time favorite.

  4. Carl V. says:

    A very fun exercise! If I didn’t think too much about it I would definitely find a lot of science fiction on my list, much of it the kind of stuff that would make people question my literary tastes, though honestly I don’t care much. So much of what influenced me then continues to do so today as they are books that continue to fuel my love of reading.

    By the way, couldn’t get the very first “this” link to work.

  5. Richard says:

    Carl – thanks, I fixed the link. I’d love to see your list!

  6. Bill Crider says:

    I no longer read long books, but I really liked SHOGUN.

  7. Let me join the parade. SHOGUN was the first long book I ever read. Leery of one over a thousand pages(this was even before Lord of The Rings), I can’t remember now what made me give it a try, but I enjoyed it so much that I never flinched again at the length of a book. On that basis, i guess it was influential with me.

  8. Pingback: George’s Meme: The Ten Books That Most Influenced Me

  9. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I thought about this last night in bed, Rick. I’ll be back after breakfast to give you my (current) list.

  10. Patti Abbott says:

    I should have included Silent Spring, for sure.

  11. Jeff Meyerson says:

    OK, as promised:

    1. The Hardy Boys — Rick has already mentioned this, I believe, but it’s the first time I got interested in a series, in collecting, in reading books in order (not that it mattered).

    2. Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. Our library used to have “summer loans” so you could take out books for 2-3 months if you were going away. I picked this. “I am Edmond Dantes!” This got me interested for teh first time in injustice, and payback, and the bad guys getting what they deserve.

    3. Douglass Wallop, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. You may recognize it as its adaptation as Damn Yankees. My mother subscribed to Readers Digest Condensed Books and I picked this off the shelf to read. It also made me want to read unabridged versions.

    4. (General) Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. First time I can remember reading a book after seeing a movie, a practice that continues to this day.

    5. Osa Johnson, I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin & Osa Johnson. Another summer read, this exciting story of the Kansas-born husband & wife adventurers was pretty exciting to a kid in Brooklyn.

    6. Richard Wright, Black Boy. One of the few books we had to read in school that has really stayed with me for over 40 years. Really vivid writing, a tale of incredible abuse and perseverance.

    7. James Clavell, Shogun. I’d read and loved his earlier Tai-Pan but this one just blew me away.

    8. Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter. I can still remember reading this late at night in 1975 after my wife was asleep and it scaring the crap out of me.

    9. Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song. This introduced me to a world I never knew. A brilliant job by Mailer.

    10. Jack Finney, Time and Again. The first – and one of the best – of many time travel books I’ve read. Yes, if given the chance I’d do it.

  12. Great list, Jeff! I think THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG is Mailer’s best book.

  13. Oh, and by the way, Jeff, have you read the Robin Buss translation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO? It’s fabulous!

  14. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I haven’t read it since the 60’s, so no.

  15. I sent a copy of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO to Bill Crider a couple years ago. If I can find another extra copy down in the Bat Cave, I’ll ship it off to you. Robin Buss’ translation is excellent!

  16. Richard says:

    Terrific list, Jeff, and a couple of things I haven’t read, one I hadn’t even heard of (I Married Adventure: The Lives of Martin & Osa Johnson). I read and really liked COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, though I’ve never been sure if it’s about righting a wrong or the sweetness of revenge – probably both.

    Like you, I’d read TAI-PAN before SHOGUN. and later read both KING RAT and NOBLE HOUSE, which wasn’t as good. I have but have not read GAI-JIN. One of these days.

    I’m enjoying this meme more than most, and would love to see more lists!

  17. Patti has linked a bunch of lists on her blog, Rick. Plenty of books to add to the pile!

  18. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I got GAI-JIN from PaperbackSwap, Rick, but so far have been daunted by its sheer bulk.

    Some day.

  19. Evan Lewis says:

    Some great picks, Rick. Lots of folks are mentioning Chandler, and rightly so. Leaves of Grass is a great book. Much as I enjoyed Shogun, Tai-Pan had more resonance thanks to the sequel Noble House. Gai-Jin was a major disappointment. And I’m glad to see some Dumas here. The Three Musketeers would have been number 11 on my list.

  20. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I wish I had taken a little more time to think as I forgot Leon Edel’s 5 volume biography of Henry James, which I bet George has read.

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