About a week ago I ran across an interesting posting over at Brona's Books. It was about her Top Ten Most Influential Books. Ever since then I have been giving it some thought -- keeping in mind that the word "influential" is different from the word "favourite".
As I think of how the question pans out for myself, here is what I have come up with.
Tess of The D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.
One end of semester when I was in college, several millennia ago, I had some time between final exams and my trip back home. I had always been a "reader" of fiction, but fairly sporadic. With some free time on my hands I found myself at a certain mall in Peterborough, and picked up a copy of Tess. Went back to my dorm room and immersed myself in Hardy's fatalism. The book drew me in so thoroughly that I found myself glued to it. And what it accomplished was that it renewed my love of fiction. Since that time I have been an insatiable reader. Tess put an end to the sporadic nature of my former reading regimen. I have since re-read the book, as well as almost everything else the author has written. Tess remains a favourite, as well as being profoundly influential, for me.
Blindness, by Jose Saramago.
In May of 2002, I read my first Saramago novel. Blindness. For those of you who have not discovered Jose Saramago, reading him is like… learning to read all over again. He has his own rules of punctuation, a style that could be copyrighted it is so unique. He is like no other author, ever. He stands alone. He hears a different drum. Blindness is not only an incredibly fascinating read, but, in my opinion, it is the perfect entry point into the world of Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author who passed away in June of 2010. I recall exactly where I was when I heard of his death. I stared into space for maybe a solid hour, and just tried to picture a world without him in it. I felt profound grief. Again, I went on from Blindness to read all of his works, and sadly miss him. My signed copy of Blindness is one of my treasures. I briefly met him, shortly before his death. Whereas Thomas Hardy taught me to love literature, I think Saramago made me realize the limitless nature of it.
Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis.
I think it would be fair to say I have read almost everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, but when I first read Till We Have Faces I was shaken to the very core. It is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In Lewis's book these are two sisters, named Orual and Psyche, and the extremely fanciful story is set in a world where gods exist. It is, at one and the same time, a study in beauty and horror. A meditation on the deep effects of jealousy. The main theme is love, one love that is possessive and horrible; the other being pure, sincere, liberating, and well… lovely. The reader is forced to come to terms with where they themselves fit into that picture -- at least this is the way I have read it. And I've done so four or five times, and plan to do so again. I am somewhat of a collector, owning six different copies of it, one a first edition I stumbled across at an antiquarian bookfair and paid an outrageous amount for. Why is it so influential to me? Because it nails the most important topic in the world -- love.
The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck.
This was the first book by M. Scott Peck I ever read, and it signaled for me the importance of non-fiction, in one's reading diet. It is perhaps the one book I would pick, were I told I had to choose one for the entire world to read. The subtitle is "A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth". It is so practical, so useful, so relevant. And it begins with my favourite first sentence of all time: "Life is difficult." Peck knows that it is. His own was. Again, when I heard that he passed away in 2005 -- I just stared at nothing for a long while with a big huge "What?" in my mind. Disbelief. It is influential to me because Peck taught me that when one is bewildered at the state of things, the first place to look is within. At yourself. Never mind everyone else. Think of how much shit is wrong with you.
I've read pretty much everything this man went on to write, and The Road Less Traveled is the perfect starter. The world is less without him in it.
The Beginning of Wisdom, by Leon R. Kass.
The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur.
I am linking these two books together because each of them are like defibrillator jolts to anyone struggling with the intellectual problems that can accrue from a disconnect between fundamentalist ideas of the Bible/Christianity, and… reality. These books literally changed my life in the sense that they, in tandem, were the catalyst for me in my coming to terms with how I interpret the Bible.
Kass's book, sub-titled "Reading Genesis" is a commentary on that first book of the Bible -- every verse of it. I was entranced. I ate it like manna. For the first time ever -- as in, after achieving a degree in Theology, I, for the first time, began to ask questions that would have seemed forbidden, prior to the reading of this book. In fact, of all the hitherto mentioned influential books, this one should really be listed at the top, before Tess. But in a completely different realm, and for such a different reason. Leon Kass brought to life the stories of the Bible -- made me, for the first time, interact with the people found therein, as people. Not legendary heroes, but real people. And in doing so, he made me realize that so many of them are legends, in the mythical sense.
Then I followed up with reading The Pagan Christ, by Tom Harpur.
Is he the most eloquent author ever? No. He can be crass and somewhat unprincipled, even. Thing is, again -- this book revolutionized my thinking about Christianity. The subtitle is "Recovering The Lost Light". Harpur's premise is that a lot of what has ended up in the Bible is borrowed from other cultures, most notably the Egyptians -- and is therefore not as "original" as it may, at first, appear to be. Reading The Pagan Christ was tantamount to unscrewing the top of my head and pouring cocaine inside there, directly on the most fact-hungry lobes. I wanted to learn more and more. And I did. I went to see the author speak at events, twice. Again, is this a "favourite" book? No. I've read far better ones, since. [Like those of John Shelby Spong]. But it was profoundly influential. When one finally realizes that the Bible does not necessarily have to be read as a "literal" document, it is like the difference between a bird in a cage, and a bird in the trees. Any tree. I am now the latter, thanks to these two guys.
Questions About Angels, by Billy Collins.
This was the first book of Billy Collins's poetry I read, and it revolutionized my own approach to poetry. It was sent to me as a gift from a dear friend, and I am ever grateful. Ever since then, I have been unleashed in the freedom of writing poetry that is not concerned with being "good" or "bad", but more concerned with being "existent". Rhyme shmyme! Whatever you are thinking about, write it out. Break it up. Explore it. Am I suggesting this is what Billy Collins does? No. He's better than I am, at it.
But he allowed me to do it. From an influential perspective, my hat [which I do not even wear, and hey -- there is a poem in there somewhere] is off to him. Billy Collins writes about what he feels, and he taught me that this is the most important thing about poetry. If you feel it, it is worth words. If no one likes it, the importanter thing is, you do.