“The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King. Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them. I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before. Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books. If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path. The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory. The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.
- The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché. The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing. Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction. However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time. What I discovered there was interesting and exciting. It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before. Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being? The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is! And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits! What to make of all that? In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life. I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her.
- “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course. These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own. But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential. It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so. But this is about the personal influence these books had on me. As a writer, this can’t be understated. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing. I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building. I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia. While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task.
- The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately. Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales). Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it. As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion. It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading.
- “The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight. Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books. And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it). It was heart-wrenching. Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series). Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day.
- “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World. For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series. These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them). Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong? And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing? In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing.
- The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title. These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature). I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out. Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them. In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above). Can you spell hypocrite? Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England). One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books. I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change. It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public. The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”. But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.
- 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school. It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read. Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now. Seriously. I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”? Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration. And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency.
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin: Le Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes. My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books. Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father. I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books. I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read. Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini:
This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list. Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to. Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner. These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction. And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”. Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence. That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face. Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father. A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day. This book is beyond being a mere classic. Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather). As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper. What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.
The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.
Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between. My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question. Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories.
Wikipedia: It’s not a book. But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins. (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)