Books of Influence
Watching the first episode of the TV version of Catch 22, the novel by Joseph Heller made me realise how much of an influence that book has had on shaping my world views. I suppose I was around twenty when I first read it. I loved how it used bullshit to cut through the bullshit and showed how bureaucracy can tie people up and defy obvious logic. I loved the dry humour of it, too (and the same when for the mixed up film version, which many don’t like, because it follows a similar loop to the Catch 22 and is wildly non-chronological. (My name, Gary, means ‘Spear’ and is characterised by the holder ‘getting straight to the point.’ I once had a work reference on which my manager pointed out that one of my good characteristics was cutting through the ‘waffle’ to get straight to the heart of the matter. Maybe that’s what I liked about the book.)
Anyways, this got me thinking about which other books may have somehow shaped or developed me in my younger days.
So I made a list. It’s not exclusive. But it’s here:
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkien, all of which I read whilst still at school. They appealed to my belief in the mystical, but I also think (especially the three longer novels in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) that they helped develop my love of (and ability to follow) the narrative. I also believe that Gandalf appealed to, and strengthened my belief in, a mystical embodiment of ‘goodness’.
Also whilst at school, I read To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, which I am sure, strengthened my opposition to racism and discrimination. Oddly, as a child, I also read a series of 24 books by Anthony Buckeridge, The Jennings series, about the humorous escapades of J.C.T. Jennings, a schoolboy at Linbury Court preparatory school in England. This now seems quite odd, as the characters were all privileged children of the wealthy. But they were ‘decent sorts’ and had fun. I used to read these in bed before sleeping, which I think was an early prompt to my love of reading and fostered some good reading habits.
The same also goes for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. Again, these were about children I had nothing in common with, but they were intriguing mysteries with intelligent narratives.
In contrast, I also read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I loved his cheeky, but often principled adventures and the mysterious world of the Mississippi really appealed to me. I also loved that Mark Twain took his pen name from the shout of the Mississippi steam boat men. I didn’t know its exact meaning, but it was appealing. (It means "Mark number two", the second mark on the line that measured depth, signifying two fathoms, or twelve feet).
Around the same time, I entered another couple of mysterious worlds, but this time with a more magical quality as I discovered Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. The sense of mischief and ‘oddness’, I think, are character traits I still possess, along with a love of the ridiculous.
In a more serious vein, as I prepared to leave school, I discovered Charles Dickens. The poignancy and morals of A Christmas Carol appealed to, and perhaps contributed to, an empathy with the ‘poor and wretched’ and a concern for their well-being, whilst A Tale of Two Cities brought to life for me the noise and chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, subjects which I later studied at University.
As an adult I discovered Terry Pratchett and his intelligently woven Discworld books. My first was The Hogfather, which I put down after a few chapters on my first reading, but came back to and ‘got it’ the second time round. Again, I think his slight bending of reality and pointing out of the ludicrous appealed to me, (and still does).
This ‘bending’ of the actual is something that colours (or perhaps blights!) much of what I do in life and how I view the world.
I suppose these books and others (Picture This, by Joseph Heller, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams) have made me who I am today – good or bad, and embedded in me a love of literature and the absurd.
I almost forgot about Dirk Gently. I must tell you, it fostered my firm belief in the holistic nature of life. Dirk believes that if you are not sure what to do, for example or you get lost, you should simply follow the car in front of you. You may not get where you wanted to be. But you will certainly end up where you ought to be.
Try it sometime.