Paris Conte tagged me on Facebook to list the ten most influential books in my life. (And he listed my Dark Conspiracy role-playing game as one of his, by which I’m both flattered and flummoxed.)
Given that I’ve devoured more books than I can remember since first learning to read, any list of ten is going to neglect many, many excellent titles. But a challenge is a challenge, right? So here goes, in rough chronological order of my encounter with them.
- Robinson Crusoe: I read this in third grade (by my own choice, not as an assignment), and I still recall the sense of loss at reaching the end, as if a friend had moved away. I vowed then to someday write things other people would feel the same wistful longing about.
- Dandelion Wine: A chapter from this—the one about working part-time after school for a pair of sneakers—was assigned when I reached junior high (which is what they called “middle school” in my day, kids). Bradbury’s lyrical prose seduced me into reading everything else he’d ever written, including The Martian Chronicles, which is probably my favorite (or maybe The Illustrated Man).
- The Screwtape Letters: At roughly that same time, my brother Steve and I spent a summer memorizing 100 Bible verses for a contest at our Independent Baptist church. For our efforts, we each won a $100 gift certificate to a local Christian bookstore. Frankly, I had a difficult time finding anything interesting in the shop, so I spent most of the money on pencils, stickers, and other geegaws. But I did encounter this “demons” book by C. S. Lewis, along with his Perelandra Christian sci-fi series. Screwtape’s advice to his nephew Wormwood set my feet on some very practical ground, and I ended up reading everything Lewis ever wrote, which helped temper my fiery Baptist upbringing. In the end, I feel Lewis betrayed us all with the broken promise of A Grief Observed, but I can’t deny his gentle influence on my thinking.
- Stranger in a Strange Land: During my teens and twenties in particular, I read tons of sci-fi, and this one stands out for the word “grok” alone. The Zen quality further tempered my fundamentalism.
- The Bible: Let me be clear, if I had one magic wish, I’d spend it erasing religion from the planet. I think people would be better served living this life than for a hypothetical next one. But I steeped myself in this book for years, read it cover to cover, and certain verses still resonate as strongly and comfortingly as ever. (Plus, I’ll admit a perverse pleasure in citing scripture to certain people who claim Christianity but don’t actually read the manual. That’s a habit I should probably grow out of.)
- AD&D 2nd Ed. Dungeon Master’s Guide: What can I say? Gygax’s insights into game design peer through this text again and again. Just encountering the bell curves of dice probabilities was worth the price of admission. In this book, he set my feet on the path of both game design and its cousin, poetry.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals: I don’t think most people realize it, but that first title is really just a prequel to the second. And Lila really delivers! Beyond that, I’m grateful for Pirsig introducing me to the Tao Te Ching, my new “Bible,” in effect.
- The Poet’s Guide: It’s odd to list such a practical text in what’s mainly a list of heady literature, but this book is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the creation of Popcorn Press, and everything I’ve published under that banner. I originally bought the book for advice on submitting poems to editors, and it seduced me into starting my own publishing house. Ten years later, it’s still my go-to text for advice on getting published.
- War and Peace: Okay, I read this sort of on a dare. It’s infamous for its length (though Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Atlas Shrugged are both longer, if I recall correctly [she was Russian, after all]—and yes, I slogged through those in high school: Rand, I want two wasted weeks of my life back). But I list War and Peace here because the philosophical interludes wrestling the concepts of free will and predestination have had such impact on my thinking. In the next few days, I’ll post my sonnet “A River Does Not Choose” as an example.
- The Alchemist, 10th anniversary edition: If you read nothing but the introduction of this book, it’s worth it. Seriously, stop whatever you’re doing right now, go to Amazon.com, open the free preview of this book, and read that introduction. Coelho’s explanation of the four hurdles that keep us from our personal legend is honestly that good. Here’s a book I’ve bought for nearly everyone in my family, as well as several friends.
Honorable Mentions: Speaking of books I’ve often gifted to other people, let me recommend M. John Harrison’s The Pastel City and its sequels, and Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave. The first is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever read repeatedly (every bit as good as The Lord of the Rings, I think); the second explains much of the turmoil we’re currently facing, as human society goes through it’s third major paradigm shift since the Stone Age.
That list of recommendations should keep you busy for awhile.