What does the future hold?
One of my top ten influential books you’ll see on this list is Conversations with God. Not long ago, I finished reading a book that has gathered some critical acclaim (which I’m not so sure it deserves) along similar lines. Next Friday, I’ll be discussing my thoughts on Wm. Paul Young’s, The Shack.
But without further ado…
In response to last week’s posting with author and friend, Brandon Schrand, here are ten books that had a major influence on my life, listed alphabetically by author (it’s easier than trying to arrange them by importance). I always hated having to find all of the information for a true Works Cited page, so this is only really a Works Cited in name.
And just so you know, this is not a discussion of the books so much as why they are significant in my life, kind of a mix between memoir and book report, one of those lists that some of us just scan for familiarity, skipping the rest. But if you read them all and want to know more about the plot of one of these books, I would hope you would pursue further.
The Great and Secret Show– Clive Barker- Category: Horror
This was the first horror novel that took me beyond just ghosts or monsters or maniacs. Barker has always been a fan of exploring the hazy lines between apparent opposites. He delved into this in the original Hellraiser film, taking on the taboo of pain so bad it’s pleasurable, but I think the gore drowned out the theme. However, in The Great and Secret Show, again he takes the reader into dimensions of our own world that are beyond our understanding (without all the hooks and chunks of flesh… eww). It was surprising, for example, to find in the midst of the rest of the chaos of the novel, the calming sea of Quiddity where we all visit and float three times in our life. With the exception of a glaring mistake which you probably won’t pick up unless you’re a Mormon, it’s a must read for horror fans. I didn’t pick up this mistake until my second reading, but while it shows that he probably should’ve done his research on this particular matter, in the realms where there is no tangible research, the worlds that he creates intertwined with our own, I find enough to make this one of the top horror influences in my past.
Fahrenheit 451– Ray Bradbury- Category: Science Fiction (Fact?)
I think this book addresses the fears of many of us writers in an increasingly digital age, in a society of which, at last count, only about a quarter of the population reads. Add in the fact that it was written not long after the introduction of the television about Bradbury’s vision of the future, a future that looks remarkably like our present day, and you get a great mix of a classic and cautionary tale. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I didn’t read this book until two years ago before I taught it to tenth graders, but I’ve since decided that it’s never too late to read a great book, and in this case, wonder if we should be hiding that great book before someone tries to take it away from us… or put it on a Kindle (for more on this last comment, see my second post To ‘e’ or Not To ‘e’). There’s nothing like teaching a book to really appreciate the finer nuances, and after three readings, it made my list.
The Stand – Stephen King- Category: Horror
If you know me (or read my first introductory post, Why do I like to write horror stories?), you know that I might’ve been a little scarred by a youthful fear of the impending apocalypse, but more of a manmade end as opposed to a theological one. And The Stand definitely panders to that fear. A scene that I will always remember was when the normally verbose King very quickly and curtly details the amazingly rapid spread of a military super virus. And after re-reading the novel in the Uncut edition [SPOILER ALERT], I was further affected by the first serious horror novel I had read that didn’t end with the “bad guy” being completely vanquished (my wife would claim this is because I was reading too much Dean Koontz at the time). But even before reading the uncut edition, I was in awe of the cast of characters that he assembled, and I still wonder if I’ll be able to pull off that many distinct voices in one book.
The Poisonwood Bible– Barbara Kingsolver- Category: Literary Fiction
My wife introduced me to this novel. Actually, in the early days of our marriage she would read it to me before we would go to sleep, a ritual of ours which comes and goes depending on what else we might be independently reading at the time and a ritual which can cause some unusual interpretations to tired eyes which will lead to hysterical laughter at potentially inappropriate moments (such as “tse tse flies” transforming to “testes fleas.” Much nastier fellows). But those moments aside, this is a novel that I believe every writer should read. Each chapter is narrated by one of the five very distinct voices (and points of view) of the women in the Price family, the wife and daughters of Nathan Price, an overzealous (read: “crazy”) missionary in the Congo in the late 50’s. Kingsolver does an amazing job of weaving their voices, experiences and interpretations of those events together in a way to which I think most writers would aspire.
Into the Wild– Jon Krakauer- Category: Biography
It’s funny to me that Eddie Vedder did the music to the film adaptation of this book, seeing as I believe, much like Pearl Jam, this was probably a novel that appealed so much to me as a young man in many ways simply because I was a male (my wife would agree with me on this one, by the way… at least as far as Pearl Jam is concerned). Much as I was attached to civilization in college, I wanted to consider myself counter-culture, and Into the Wild spoke to that desire to leave society behind, to cast off the taint of humanity. But more than that, it spoke to a personal wanderlust that I’ve carried through my life. I could relate to McCandless. I haven’t seen the movie (but I love the soundtrack), but one thing I really liked about the book is that Krakauer allowed you to relate to McCandless (and to Krakauer himself in many cases), but didn’t glorify the way he did everything. So even though McCandless’s story didn’t end well, it was still okay to want to do what he tried to do.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being– Milan Kundera- Category: Literary Fiction
I would say that this book would best be described as: “more than I was ready for at a time when I thought I was ready for it.” It was probably the first serious literary fiction that I read, and it was during my first bout with college when I was reading mostly genre horror stories. Kundera is pretty heavy, but he caught me at a somber time in my life (or was rather given to me at a hard time by one of my good women friends), and as they say, misery loves company. Not that the characters were all miserable (at least so far as I recall, but my recollections are hazy. See again my first sentence.), but they weren’t all painted over with happy faces (or in the cases of most of my genre reading, horrified faces). This was reality. And reality isn’t all pretty. Again, my recollections of this book are vague, but it impacted me enough to know that I want to read it again. And I don’t say that about many books. Not even all of the ones on this list.
Life of Pi– Yann Martel- Category: Literary Fiction
Another one my wife introduced me to, and this story found me at just the right time and appealed to me on multiple levels. As a child, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and even after letting go of that idea, I’ve still always loved and been fascinated by animal science, so I loved the zoo and animal behavior discussions. And I could relate to the main character’s quest for a god, in his case through an interesting choice of the combination of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I liked this idea so much that when I taught the book at a school for troubled teens, I combined it with a crash course of multiple discussions of various world religions. But beyond all of that is a captivating story about an Indian boy, the son of a zookeeper, stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. The ending is a beautiful and poetic slug in the stomach. Besides the novels I’ve taught in my English classes, this is the only book I’ve read more than twice (I’ll have to think about that one, but I’m pretty sure it’s the case).
The Road– Cormac McCarthy (and most of his other stuff)- Category: Literary Fiction
As an English teacher, Cormac McCarthy makes me crazy with his lack of punctuation. And sometimes as a reader, too. But never as a writer. As a writer, I have a pretty serious man-crush on him. Because he knows how to tell a story. And in his dialogue are voices so strong that I liken his talent to Hemingway, who could go pages without dialogue attributes (he said, Mary said, she whispered) without losing the reader. The Road again played to that apocalyptic fear in me, but there was so much more to find in the story. And much as the horror writer in me wanted to know more detail about how the craziness went down, what I love is that you really never find out, because this is not a story about the end of the world so much as a story about a father and a son trying to make their way through it. His other stuff is very different story-wise, but I’ve enjoyed everything else of his I’ve read since. And by the way, if you’ve only seen the movie version of No Country for Old Men, it is an absolute must for you to read the book. The book gives sporadic first person chapters from the point of view of the Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) which add amazing depth not only to his character but the whole story. Without giving away the ending, I had a hard time justifying the Sheriff’s decision in the movie, but after reading the book, it all made sense.
Breakfast of Champions — or — Goodbye Blue Monday– Kurt Vonnegut. Category: Fiction/Science Fiction/Satire/Comedy/Tragedy.
I blame the beautiful hippy. She was the type who would look at you when you were talking as if no one else in the world existed, giving you all her attention, listening intently while seeming as if she already knows what you are going to say. And when she spoke, she said things that my young college mind had never thought of before. Naturally, I was in love. And naturally, she had an amazingly cool boyfriend next to whom I couldn’t hold much of a candle. But she left her impression in my life through Vonnegut. So much so that the summer after reading it, I noticed that I was peppering my horror with his trademark “And so on.” I loved this story, which I couldn’t really even start to explain. But don’t worry, it has pictures. And it introduces one of my favorite characters, Kilgore Trout, a writer whom all writers can relate to and are terrified of becoming at the same time. This was actually the first story I read aloud to my wife (she read Poisonwood Bible to me next).
Conversations with God– Neale Donald Walsch. Category: Spiritual
I’m not sure if Twilight has surpassed it, but at last count, The Holy Bible still ranks at the top of the list of the most read books in the world. It’s interesting to me to look at this list of books and see how many have strong elements of some sort of spiritual quest (for more about why these common story elements fascinate me, see Why do I like to write horror stories?). I don’t know that I was necessarily looking for a God when this book was given to me by my parents, but I think I found mine in these pages. As you might have gathered by my reactions to these other books, if I were to claim a religion, it would be a hodge-podge of bits and pieces of other religions along with some creative ideas and interpretations of my own. I’ve been pretty comfortable with this for some years now, but thinking back, I probably hadn’t been following this new vision of separating the spiritual from the religious for more than a couple of years when I got this book, and whether or not you believe what this guy says (essentially that God spoke through him), the things that he says struck me as the closest thing to the Written Word of Paul D. Dail at that point in my life. Not to mention there is a lot of playing with language which appealed to me as a writer.
So there you have it.
What do I want from you?
As I mentioned in my previous post, I stole this topic from my good friend Brandon R. Schrand (if you haven’t already, go back to the previous post and read the excerpt from his second memoir, soon to be published). However, for the sake of brevity (and because as I told him, coming up with ten of the most influential books might be a push for people who aren’t big readers), I’m just going to ask you for three of your favorite books, alphabetical by author.
And don’t forget to check back next Friday for my discussion of The Shack.
Also, I stumbled on a blog recently (www.worldsinink.blogspot.com) that had a fun idea. His idea was to do a monthly post of what’s “On my bookshelf,” listed alphabetically by author. This month is A-B. It seemed fitting to do it here, so here are a few from my bookshelf that match that description.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven
Bantock, Nick. Griffin and Sabine
Barker, Clive. The Great and Secret Show
Barry, Lynda. Cruddy
Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine
Breathed, Berkeley. Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things: A Bloom County Collection