Sunday 5 July 2015

Ten Books

From September 2014.

I like these “Ten books that influenced me” things floating around the internet. It seems a nice way to put together something approaching an autobiography. With that in mind, and in chronological order of me discovering them:

The Last Battle, CS Lewis
I'll start the list with a book that I couldn't stand. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Horse and his Boy were all huge formative influences on me (as I imagine they were on almost every kid from my background with a bookcase), but I bounced hard off The Last Battle's blunt-edged moralising and weirdly unappealing visions of paradise. I was about six, and this was the first time I remember disagreeing with the ideas in a book, or thinking that an author wasn't playing fairly; the stuff I got pissed off with here hasn't stopped pissing me off since.

Macbeth, William Shakespeare
There was a lot (books, films, music) that got censored from me when I was a child, which was fair enough, because I was prone to asking awkward questions and terrified of everything. But when you are eight or nine, no one's going to stop you reading Shakespeare, which was how I ended up with a minor childhood Macbeth obsession. It was gallumphingly entertaining medieval fantasy of the kind that anyone with a TV was used to, but it was also complicatedly, threateningly adult and linguistically impenetrable; it was nothing like anything I was getting from anywhere else. I still sometimes feel that the best thing about Shakespeare plays (and books in general, and people) is that they're confusing: at first, everything seems to fit into archetypes, but then characters start working in ways you can't expect or understand, and you can only hope that looking hard enough will help you know why.

The Pile of PC Gamer Magazines Under My Parents' Wardrobe
I used to read and re-read these things obsessively. Most of the time the writers would stick to the consumer-journalist brief. But every issue would have patches which descended into unexpected anarchy: jokes packed into the corners of pages, game reviews experimenting with stretching the edges of the form, references to obscure bits of science and philosophy and history... At it's best, you were watching a bunch of hypertalented journalists improvising gleefully in an arena where it felt like no one was watching. Anything could be taken seriously, and you could always make stupid jokes about the things you are taking seriously.

The Drawing of the Dark, Tim Powers
This is emblematic of a whole swathe of fantasy and SF I read as a teenager. Powers' thing is researching the hell out of relatively obscure historical periods, and grafting mad fantastical conspiracies on top of them. Here, a 15th Century mercenary discovers that the siege of Vienna is a front in a millenia-long shadow-war that encompasses Arthurian and Irish mythology as well as the legendary powers of Real Ale. I've long discovered that I can forgive almost any faults in a work as breathlessly inventive as this.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino
I mean, for a start, that's the best title for any book ever. It's also got one of the best first lines in anything (“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel any other thought.”) and one of the best plots ever put on a page (the first chapters of ten imaginary novels, interspersed with the adventures of a reader desperately attempting to finish these constantly unfinished books). It glides elegantly through dizzying switches of perspective and repeatedly unloads breathtaking flights of imagination. This is where I worked out that you don't have to tie your flag to the mast of genre fiction if you think that realism is a lousy way of interpreting the world, where I first saw that cool academic rigour was in no way the enemy of exuberance, where I learned that there is nothing more frightening than the sound of a telephone ringing behind the door of an empty house.

The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
When I was in Sixth Form, my English teacher gave me a crate of books to read if I wanted to apply to Oxford. If I hadn't read through that box, there's not a chance in hell I would have got in: not only was it was a crash course in the canon, but it was evidence that capital L Literature shouldn't ever be intimidating. It's not a surprise that so many SF and Fantasy writers use and reuse material from The Waste Land: scrape away the games of literary reference, the snatches of other languages, and the political posturing, and you're left with distilled atmosphere: rotting, decadent landscapes full of cheap tricksters, liars, the broken and the mad. With a swamp this rich, it doesn't have to mean anything. So it's a bonus that once you stare at it for long enough, it starts to mean everything.

The Revenger's Tragedy, Thomas Middleton (Probably)
I love the slick black nastiness of the Revenger's Tragedy. It's a gory, gothy, cynical farce, and one of the best things to come out of the 17th century. But that's not why it's on the list. It's on the list because I co-directed a production of it in my second year of university, which was the exact point that I realised that I was an independent person, just as capable of doing ambitious, complex, pointless stuff as anyone else. Put on a weird, self-indulgent, logistically difficult and kind-of-blasphemous play in a Victorian chapel? Turns out I could do that. I was an adult, dammit, and no one was going to stop me.

The Major Works, Lord Byron
Byron was the master of slipperiness. Again and again, he would reach beautiful epiphanies before deflating the moment with a cheap gag. He was a lifelong believer in Christianity who wrote some of most wonderful blasphemies ever uttered. He told endless stories about people throwing away identities and picking up new ones. He mercilessly satirised the beliefs he would eventually die for. You are left with a world of masks, wherever everything shifts, slips, changes. But although he plays the game of insincerity, he is almost never insincere. The (fantastic) jokes hit their mark, the beauty is still (wildly) beautiful, everything is true in the moment it is being said – it doesn't matter if it is undermined a few lines later. I got properly obsessive about Byron at university, but even now he feels like unfinished business. He always moves too fast to pin him down.

The Man who was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton is wrong about absolutely everything, but reading him is like having a highly satisfying two a.m. argument with an old friend: warm, trusting and generous to its enemies. Of course, what two a.m. arguments *don't* have are swordfights, elephant chases, an almost ungainly number of plot twists, sparkling witticisms every few pages, and lightning-quick somersaults between genres. I'm not sure if this book has influenced me in any noticeable way, but it's the finest and most exciting comedy/spy-thriller/nightmarish-religious-allegory available, and if people ask my for a Favourite Book, this is almost always the answer that I give.

Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
Not Wallace's best book, but it was the first one I read, and it broke me out of a self-indulgent miserablist funk. Wallace achieved the seemingly impossible: staring at everything with a high moral seriousness, but doing so by plugging directly into a culture he saw as frivolous and easily distracted. So here, in a collection of essays touching upon Porn, and Dostoyevsky, and Sports Biographies, and John McCain, he barrels into huge, messy subjects with shaggy-dog stories, autobiography, jokes and academic research, using warped, looping sentences you didn't know the English language was capable of. His fiction is sadder, stranger, and almost certainly better. But it's difficult: best attempted after reading his non-fiction, and watching him grapple with his brand-new ways of communicating ideas.

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