My Back Pages: The Most Influential Books I’ve Read

First of all, credit where credit is due:  I’m totally swiping this from N.E. White’s blog.  Seeing as how she stole it herself, though, I don’t feel too bad about committing some bloggy larceny.  Besides, it’s a damn good idea.

Even those of us who don’t read much have at least one or two books that had some kind of effect on us.  Unlike movies and TV shows that just spelled everything out for us, books made us create the images ourselves, whether we read the words or had them read to us.  There might have been a book that introduced us to a new author or genre, or made us think differently about things, or was given to us by someone who meant a great deal to us. Books can be both art and memento, with the literal meaning of the words inside and an emotional meaning that may have nothing to do with what the author intended.  And there’s just something comforting about them.  Even in this ever-increasing digital age, we’re still wired to the idea of books lining the shelves.  Nobody is sitting around bemoaning the fact that we don’t have CD cases on display anymore, but it’s hard not to find someone holding forth on the value of physical books.

So here’s a list of books that mean all sorts of different things to me, in the order in which I discovered them.  Some are bound tightly to the stories they tell, others more to a time or place or path they represent.  But all would look really good lined up on a shelf.

1.  The Monster at the End of This Book (Jon Stone and Michael Smollin, 1971)

This holds the honor as the first book I remember.  I started reading early, first pretending to read the TV Guide when all I was really doing was looking at the pictures.  But eventually I got around to real books (well, as real as books for toddlers could be), and this was literally a real page-turner, despite Grover’s pleas for us not to.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my introduction to breaking the fourth wall, sneakily getting me ready to appreciate things like Monty Python years before I even knew about them.  And to this day, I still feel a little guilty for having put poor Grover through all that, even if it does turn out okay in the end.  I feel like someone should just tell him right off on Page 1.  It would save him a lot of grief.

2.  Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien, 1971)

At 240 pages, this was the first “grown-up” book I ever read.  And it probably explains my enduring fascination for all things Redwall and Mouse Guard.  But beyond that, this showed me that fantasy could exist beyond fairy tales and picture books.  I didn’t have to leave that behind as I got older.  I still have the same paperback copy I got back in elementary school, much worn and dog-eared, sitting on a shelf in my bedroom.  It’s almost a totem by this point, significant more by its continued existence than by its content.  I just feel good knowing it’s there.

3.  The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937)

And here we have my road to Damascus, part of that amazing watershed year of 1977 that launched Star Wars into my brain.  Later that year, I saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit.  I’d never read the book, and barely even knew it existed, but I remember seeing the characters in a TV Guide article and becoming instantly enthralled.  I had to see them, and the world they inhabited.  When I did, it was love at first sight.  My mom bought the book for me on the way home from work a few days later, that classic Ballantine edition with the Tolkien artwork on the cover and the stark black letters proclaiming it, “The enchanting prelude to The Lord of the Rings.”  “You mean there’s more?” I thought.  And that was pretty much that.

4.  Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I came across Watership Down in the great voracious feast that followed my exposure to Tolkien.  I was looking for anything that reminded me of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and “rabbit” isn’t too many letters removed from “hobbit,” so I figured I’d give it a go.  Watership does share some of Tolkien’s themes, like the idea of simple rural courage standing up against unfeeling progress and might, and a hero who earns a spiritual reward for their suffering.  But it’s very much its own thing, and finding it was a revelation in the sense that there could be more to this fantasy thing than just epic quests with elves and dwarves.  Who knows, if I had found Watership first, this list would be all about The Plague Dogs and Shardik.

5.  Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965)

I wasn’t even remotely ready for Dune.  I was drawn in by the evocative paperback cover, a classic 1970s-era piece of artwork that jumped out from the spinning metal rack at the library.  I’d bring home stacks of books from there, more than I could possibly read in the time I was allowed to check them out, but I tore through Dune.  I didn’t understand huge chunks of it — the philosophy, the religion, the sociology — but I grasped the plot, even as I knew there was something deeper there just beyond my grasp.  I read it again later in junior high, and it all finally clicked into place.  I got it, and came to admire it as world-building on the level of Tolkien.  I’ve always been more of a fantasy guy than a sci-fi guy, but Dune almost reads like a fantasy that just happens to take place on another planet. It’s a shame Herbert’s son just can’t seem to let his father’s legacy stand.

6.  The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth (Robert Foster, 1978)

This is basically an encyclopedia, and I can’t remember how many times I checked it out from the library and read it cover to cover.  It was Tolkien’s entire world distilled down to one book, a way to simply overdose on all things Middle-Earth.  It appealed to my developing sense of order and organization, everything alphabetical, everything indexed, everything distilled down to its essence.  It wasn’t a substitute for reading the actual books, but it added a sense of importance to The Lord of the Rings.  It went from something to be read to something to be studied.  And it was tangible proof that something I loved wasn’t just mine.  I was part of something bigger.

7.  Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (Gary Gygax, 1978)

Herein rests the germ of pretty much every creative endeavor I’ve indulged in over the last thirty years.  Oh, I’d made up stories before, but something about the Player’s Handbook tuned me into the idea of the power of story.  A small group huddled in a circle telling a tale in which they all had a part, one filled with wonders and terrors, and from which we could all safely return.  There was an alluring sense of immersion to this strange yellow-spined book, one that fired my imagination before I even played the game.  I didn’t have to be content reading about other authors’ worlds.  I could build worlds of my own.

8.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1979)

This was the first time I felt like an author “got” me.  I was an awkward 9th-grader, I’d just been rezoned to a new junior high school, away from a bunch of friends I’d known for two years, and along came this crazy, irreverent little tome that I could call my own.  Adams wrote like Monty Python sounded, with an articulately complex sense of humor that seemed smart while it was being really rather silly.  My friends took this book — and the BBC TV version that seemed to air constantly on PBS that year — to heart, making it the core of our shared knowledge.  Practically nobody else knew about it, just us geeks, and we clutched it to our breasts and treasured it as our thing.  To this day, when I get on a roll with a humorous piece of writing, I’m taking my cues from this book.  It’s an unkind world that took Adams away from us as early as it did.

There have been more recent books that have meant a lot to me, like Microserfs and Tigana, but they all caught me when I was more or less formed, when any influence would be of a complementary nature rather than a formative one.  But that string of books I encountered in the 70s and early 80s really set the tone, opening doors that I gladly ran through, content to lose myself in what lay beyond.  I wouldn’t be who am I today without them.


One thought on “My Back Pages: The Most Influential Books I’ve Read

  1. I was about to put Watership Down, but I wanted to include some more recent reads of mine that had just as much impact, but just not as early in my life. Still, that’s a good one.

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