Apparently there is a meme on Facebook where people are listing the books that have stayed with them in some way. I first heard of this from The Tolkienist because predictably enough Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit make the Top 10 of those mentioned. (The data is pored over in a little more detail over at The Atlantic.)
I’m not much of a one for Facebook, but I am one for books. I think lists of this kind are both fun and illuminating, especially when it comes to seeing what your friends say.
Here’s my stab at identifying which books have stayed with me the most. Unlike the Facebook meme I’m not going to confine myself to fiction because plenty of non-fiction jumps out at me when I think about this.
So, in no particular order…
- B-Flight by Bruce Carter. You’ve probably never heard of this but it was one of the first books I ever bought for myself, circa age nine or ten. It’s a First World War tale and a love story, about a boy who lies about his age and runs away to join the Royal Air Force. I didn’t know at the time but the author was himself an RAF pilot in World War One, which is maybe what made the tale so vivid and compelling.
The Lord of the Rings – of course. Probably the book I’ve read the most number of times since I first came across it in my teens. It caught me at an impressionable age, and made a considerable impression, maybe helping to make me the person I became.
The Silmarillion, which I read a few years later and found even more haunting. The blurb on the back of my paperback copy has a remark by some reviewer about “How did one man given X number of years work become nearly the creative equivalent of a people?” Good question!
Here I’ll pass over some things I won’t include because perhaps they shouldn’t count as books. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was to me first a radio series, and though I’ve read the books and they’re great, I always think of it with the voices, the effects, the music from the show, which made a hilarious and mind-blowing whole. Likewise I’ll reluctantly pass over The Foundation Trilogy because I first heard it as a radio drama. Very reluctantly because I quite wanted to be Hari Seldon at one time! Who knows, he may have been responsible for my swerves into the social sciences.
Also I’ll pass over plays, even those that I first read before I ever saw them performed. Great ones include a bunch of Shakespeare (Hamlet and Othello especially), as well as Death of a Salesman and Endgame.
- The mention of Endgame makes for a nice segue, so onto a chess book. Think Like a Grandmaster by Alexander Kotov was a classic, especially in the way that the personality of the author and the players he talked about came through.
From Quarks to Quasars is the next non-fiction title. It’s a highly readable shortish book covering the vast sweep of modern physics, and I think the first time I had my mind boggled by coming across quantum mechanics. My mind stayed boggled for quite some time. Ok it’s still boggled but nowadays I don’t have much occasion to think about it. (After some years trying to figure it all out I decided I wasn’t going to be able to make the kind of sense out of it that I would find satisfactory and I better go think about other things instead.) I could also mention Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert, another great book on such things.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre. Probably the book I’ve read the most number of times after Lord of the Rings. Interestingly le Carre has compared himself to Tolkien saying that he has similarly created his own private fictional world. The perplexing thing is that his world seems to actually ring very true to reality, and in his own way he’s got as much to say about society, organizational life, politics and such as something like The Wire.
A Perfect Spy by le Carre also makes the list. Powerful to the point of being almost traumatic to re-read, and it seems it has a very large basis in fact.
There are quite a lot of books that stayed with me for a long time, but no more. I was a big fan of Graham Greene at one point, and The End of the Affair for example would definitely have made this list at some times in my life. (It’s tempting to list some things that are more literary so I can appear less of a lowbrow geek, but I will resist that and skip them. Also it was tempting to pass over the science books for fear of seeming a pretentious dork, but there you go.)
- Thief of Time is my favorite and most read Pratchett. I could chuckle to myself endlessly about codfish. I’m like that.
It occurs to me that there are various categories of books that have been hugely influential on me without it being easy to pin down actual single books that were important and which stayed with me. For example I considered mentioning The Life of Gandhi by Louis Fischer, but while the topic is one I’ve pondered a great deal at various times, it’s hard to say that one book was all that important in itself.
So as I’m at risk of spinning off into an endless list of books and media that were collectively hugely important, perhaps it’s time to wind down and end this list.
I might return to the topic in future. In the meantime, I’d love to read other people’s lists.