I never knew its name, but it was the first book I remember handling. The bookshelves go all the way to the roof, but the first row of books rest on the floor. I reach out to the top of one and it falls into my lap as I sit cross-legged. Dark green cover that doesn't bend but I can make it turn one way then back. And inside its all white with black lines. And the lines all end at the same place. But before they end they are all different. They have bits that are the same but they are in different places.
"Who makes these?"
"People. They sit down and write them."
There's a pencil in my hand. On the other side of the green it's white. I draw black lines on it, like the inside.
So many books have turned me into what I am, but this begs many questions. Did the whole book change me, or just part of it? For how long? Am I still in thrall to the book now? What does "turned me into what I am" mean - and how do I know I have been changed? Is it likely anyone else agrees? And so forth. There are single sentences or a paragraph or so from books which have struck deep into my imagination and feel as though they have changed me just as the burn I accidentally inflicted on myself a while back still shows a purple mark. Most of these texts would be considered significant by most people, but not all. Let's see how many of you agree with me (the majority won't make it to the end of this post...).
On with the books.
On with the books.
I'll always remember lying on my scabby bed in my grandmother's house in the 80s reading "Seeing Green" by Jonathon Porritt. It was like listening to a mind-reader telling me what I thought I already knew, but putting it more clearly than I could ever have done. It's not a political book. It's a book of common sense, written with humanity. Porritt talks about work, peace, co-operation, alienation and simplicity… yes, it's idealistic, but not unrealistic. I realised that my own politics weren't mad — others thought that way too. For the next twenty years I believed it was only a matter of time before the world cottoned on… Well, I don't believe that bit any more, but Porritt was right, and the world missed its chance. It was a sad moment when he himself .
"To Kill a Mockingbird", which I read in English literature lessons, as it triggered a revelation. A question posed in class was why did the jury, which was all white, declare the negro defendant guilty. Racism was the obvious answer but I needed an examination, not just one word. At the time, I thought racism was an unreasonable and unjustifiable bias when balancing evidence about a person. As I re-read the trial section, I could not find one piece of prosecution evidence that was not wiped out. There was no evidence that a juror could claim outweighed the evidence for innocence. As I queried the teacher about this, his reply was a black man was accused raping a white woman. Then I realised the accusation was enough and evidence had nothing to do with it. People are quite prepared to make serious judgments, especially about race, and not give one thought about whether it makes any sense.
"Jarhead" by Anthony Swofford. In my early teens, after reading far too many Alistair MacLean novels, I found the idea of joining the military very attractive and was (somewhat seriously) considering it as a career path. I picked up Jarhead when I was about 14, expecting it to be a Bravo Two Zero style tale of derring-do and heroic feats. It's actually an extremely cynical, very well written, account of a war in which very little happens to the narrator. Swofford does a great job of conveying the sheer mundanity of military life - he's an elite Marine sniper, but spends most of the first Gulf War in a base doing nothing. He very accurately describes some of my own testosterone driven feelings at the time, the desire to fight, the aggression that is part of being a young man (something that I think is almost completely ignored by our society today)... but also the childishness of it all, and the reluctance to pull the trigger when push comes to shove. Like a lot of people, I am still curious about how I would cope with the intense situations that being in the armed forces - and yes, a warzone - involves, but after reading Jarhead I realised some of my ideas about that world had probably been dangerous fantasies. Needless to say I didn't join up.
"Dracula - Bram Stoker". I read the original at twelve and it showed me how different the original was from the transformed cultural trope it had become (Bela Lugosi, etc...) Also, it was obvious to me even then that it dealt with far more human psych. themes than the watered-down stories I had been told. Taught me for good how ideas can be subverted for personal (and usually prosaic, dull) aims. I then insisted on reading the originals of Gulliver's Travel, Don Quixote, etc. Intellectually, this extended to the sciences as well and encouraged research into original work and not just the (journalistic?) precis that we so often are fed.
Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree, when I was very young, captured my imagination and made me the sole reader in family that values things over stories.
"Jackaroo", by Cynthia Voigt, was a book I picked up as a young teenager and inspired a feeling that nobody is without power to change things.
Orwell's "1984" made me thirst for knowledge about how the world works, and how power structures are formed, and made me apply for a degree course in Politics.
"The Outsider" by Albert Camus. It's about many things, but taught me one thing: It taught me that there is no right or wrong way to react to the death of a loved one. Camus didn't just say it, he illustrated why, he demonstrated the reasons, and he created a character for whom doing what came naturally wasn't just the easy way out, it was fundamental to his existence. Camus' words were something of a revelation, as well as a relief. I've genuinely never been the same since.
WG Sebald, "The Rings of Saturn". It had been recommended to me by an elderly barrister at the Faculdade de Direito where I studied English literature (Faculdade de Letras) at that time. He knew I was pining for East Anglia, and that I liked to read, and mentioned the book so often - and with such a melancholy sort of passion - I thought failing to read it would be a discourtesy. I'm nothing if not lazy, and put it off for a while, until finally I fell into it. It'd taken a better writer than me to do it justice - in fact, I have never seen its power properly conveyed! - but it changed me as a writer and reader:
1. That prose can be simultaneously spookily stark and hypnotically lovely
2. That it is possible to seem to be writing about herring, but actually to be meditating on the great crimes of the world
3. That, yes, events in books may well be murders & affairs and untethered hot-air balloons, but they can also be sudden thoughts, or memories, or changes of mind, or flights of fancy, which - done well, as by God he did! - can be as shocking and compelling as a car-chase.
4. That there's no labyrinth as deep and dark and complex as the human mind and no spire as grand and high.
When I was a kid I loved to read SF, beginning with Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Phil Dick, through Gene Wolfe, to Tolkien's Middle Earth, after which I found it hard to find SF that measured up. I avoided Fantasy, though, because it was either too fantastic, and pulpy and short on science and just not exciting enough. Then I found a two-volume in a vintage bookstore entitled "A Treasury of Great Science Fiction", edited by Anthony Boucher. These volumes included four novel-length stories and a number of shorter stories, and they absolutely captivated me. There were a couple of clunkers, but there were amazing stories by Wyndham, Bradbury, Heinlein, Dick, Sturgeon, Anderson, Van Vogt, Clark and Bester, among others. I couldn't get enough. When I was finished, I went to the library and tracked down all the books I could find by these authors. Then I tried other authors that were mentioned as being in their league, like Asimov, Vonnegut, Le Guin, Wolfe, and Card. I don't read only SF today, but when I am in the mood to read something gripping, entertaining, and mind-expanding, I always turn to one of the greats of the genre, and I am rarely disappointed.
"Steppenwolf" by Hermann Hesse. And I'm sure that it would change many other people's lives, views and perception, if only most people actually finished reading it and it wasn't for the stigma the book has had for decades (ever?) of supposedly narrating the story of one-dimensional, black-and-white, angry at himself and society man. It does no justice at all to the great novel and, in reality, the point of the story is quite the opposite (contrary to what members of 60s counterculture might have liked to think). I read it at the age 14-15 (being also one of the first "proper" novel I read in English as well, since it is not my native language, as much as I've always loved it though). It took me nearly 3 months to actually finish it and 4 more books by H. Hesse (Demian, Narcissus and Goldmund, Beneath the Wheel, and The Glass Bead Game) to finally get a grip and come to terms with what the author really meant and Steppenwolf was about - partly due to the usual teenager perception and stuff, and partly due to personal circumstances - since I had quite a white-and-black conception of many things at the time, which luckily and in big part thanks to the book I don't have anymore. Anyway, it's a great novel, so do give it a try when you feel ready for it; it is true that the rather lengthy narration of "the big come down" can be rather misleading of the book's narrative intention, easily misinterpreted - that is why I felt the need to point that out - and somewhat burdensome, but it surely is worth reading. Besides, the great part is that many people who come to read the book in order to reinforce their reductionist perception of life (just as so was my case, too) come out with quite a different vision of things.
"A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf. This is, in my view, the most beautifully-written nonfiction book of the last 100 years, if not more. I read it at university, and I was immediately entranced by the language - I didn't know you could write sentences like this or use words in this way. So, on a fundamental level, this book changed how I view, read, and use the English language. But, in addition to the language, this book was also revolutionary for me, in terms of its ideas. Woolf begins with a simple question: why are there so few women writers in history that we know of? To answer this question, she narrates, simultaneously, a speculative history of an imagined woman writer in the past and her own experience of writing the essay. The book made me realise how some people are included and excluded from history, why it's important for women to have their own income, how structural inequality persists and accumulates over many generations, how material comforts influence creativity, and so much more.
When I was very small I was punished and sent to my room and in my fit of defiance picked up a book series that had sat on my shelf. JR Tolkien's "The Hobbit". And read the entire story cover to cover. I was a poor reader until that day. Poor grades in school never participated. After that I read constantly. Anything that resembled Mr. Tolkien's world. I began to draw his world and never stopped drawing. It opened my mind, my imagination, my skills, my lust for knowledge and good story. It changed me forever.
Peter Weiss's "The Aesthetics of Resistance" - even though only one volume has been translated (excellently, I must add). Reading it was an epiphany of sorts - it's a novel that revolves around the strained relationship between art and politics, a relationship I've become increasingly interested in, and even obsessed with, ever since I read it. It was (among other reasons) what drove me to read Adorno, Foucault, Luckas, and even Marx... I don't think one can read a novel like this and remain unchanged, even though - yes - it's not a light read for the uninitiated.
"Flowers for Algernon" was unforgettable. Memorable because the story of a man with learning difficulties, given a drug to increase his intelligence, realises with an awful awareness that too much knowledge is not a good thing. It's such a sad, beautiful and poignant story. I thoroughly recommend it. It portrays the innocence of not-knowing as an emotional purity un-hindered by the agenda-based workings of our logical minds.
"The Stand" which was made into a not-bad but slightly hokey TV series. The tale itself however looked at the hierarchy of humanity (and evil) in the event of a global disaster. It's a massive book with a simple story. Disease, death, (the devil possibly) and the aftermath. King argues that even if we were to destroy ourselves, those left would go onto build similar structures and societies (because it's in our nature) and in time would end-up causing familiar destruction.
James Joyce's "Ulysses". I hesitate purely and simply because in popular culture it has acquired the reputation of being so difficult and impenetrable as to be unreadable, and therefore the classic choice of the pseud, the aspiring intellectual who wants to be seen to have read that incredibly difficult book that almost nobody else has ever read just to show how clever he is. Well, I'm not especially clever but I actually have read it (all of it, start to finish) and no, while it demands constant application and attention (I was helped endlessly by an annotated edition), it wasn't, and isn't that difficult. I still put my hand in the air and say it's the greatest work of fiction ever written anywhere by anybody, ever, bar none. As for it changing me: it was the one book, the first book, the only book which made me aware of what fiction can be and can do when you take the brakes off - when you rip up the rule book, piss all over the rule book, spray lighter fluid all over the urine-soaked pages of the rule book, set fire to the rule book, stamp on the ashes of the rule book and bury the ashes of the rule book in quicklime. I'll risk being thought of as a pseud and say that in terms of fiction there's absolutely nothing else even remotely as magnificent. There wasn't before and, since it was a mold-breaker, I can't see that there ever will be again.
Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars trilogy" had a massive impact on me - how I view people, how I view the world, and also how I understand politics. I started reading Red Mars when I was very young; it was massively beyond my comprehension ability but easily inside my reading ability. Nonetheless, I reread it numerous times while growing up, understanding it to greater depth each time. It made me ask the deep, really important questions. The ones we don't ask often enough, in my opinion. You know, the really deep why's and what's - why do we have this culture? Why this society? What is important? What happens if we change the system? What are we really entitled to? What should we expect? What's the minimum expectation of compassion from one human being to another? Why don't people listen to each other? What makes people hide inside themselves and be surprised that nobody ever knows them and they are always alone?
"When Evils Were Most Free", by George Gabor. A first-person account of World War II and the Stalinist era by a Hungarian Jew. His stress on the importance of poetry for him in prison camp life made me understand that literature is in no way an extra, but can be the strongest and most important thing about human life. That extends to other art. I don't know why this is true, but it's true.
"The Collected Poetry of W.B. Yeats". A strong, clear, imaginative presentation of a man who was "silly like us," as Auden said, self-aggrandizing, a believe in foolish things, who could do great things.
"Descartes' Error" by Antonio Damasio. A far-reaching reexamination of the relation between reason and emotion.
"Reveries of a Solitary Walker" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I read this in the period when I was trying to find some meaning and purpose in my life. Rousseau's philosophical musings, the exultation and suffering bound up with his observations were aspects of his wayfaring that I readily empathised with.
"The First Circle" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A book that opened up my eyes to life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The trials and suffering borne by countless citizens in the gulags and the deliberations on life of the intellectual elite. Intense and claustrophobic in a way that reflected Solzhenitsyn's long captivity yet it was a liberating read for this awkward youth far away.
"The Woodlanders" by Thomas Hardy. I became transfixed by Hardy's characterisation and poetic language. I'm sure that we all aspire to emulate a famous writer's style and Hardy was my role model. An enchanting, sad book about lost love, the English countryside in all its glory and untimely death.
"The Stars Look Down" by A.J. Cronin. You won't see Cronin on bookshelves today but he was a wonderful storyteller in the old fashioned way. I read all of his books as a teenager but this touching story about a missionary priest in China is inspiring and life-affirming.
"Pennington's Seventeenth Summer" by K.M. Peyton. Thank you to the school librarian who recommended this to my disaffected and skeptical 15 year old self.
"Son of The Morning Star" by Evan S. Connell. Like many other contributors, there is one book that encapsulated a love of history and this was the one that did it for me.
"Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. The start of a lifelong love of sea-based literature.
"The Road To Wigan Pier" by George Orwell. Still a must read, surely?
"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" by Robert A. Heinlein for suggesting our world is darker than we can imagine.
"The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" by Robert A. Heinlein for suggesting our world is darker than we can imagine.
"The Decline of the West" by Oswald Spengler. Spengler is quite well known outside of the English speaking world, but less so in Portugal. I'm pretty sure my university professors don't even know that cyclical theories of culture even exist.
"Rebel Sell" by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. This is the book that analyses our contemporary culture and once again, is one of the few books that actually make sense. It argues that rebellion against the mainstream has been the main selling article of the mainstream commercial culture since the 50's and that any movement which aims to "destroy the system" is always absorbed by it.
"Short Stories" by H.P Lovecraft. Back in the day I was a SF reader and reading Lovecraft really changed my life. I suddenly realized that not all horror is about ghosts and vampires. You can create your own mythology and it gives you endless possibilities.
"History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell. This is where it all began! Ahem! Don't roll your eyes, I know that there are better introductions to philosophy. There are many faults with this book; Russell is not particularly objective, and he certainly enjoys spitting venom at some of his predecessors, nonetheless this was the first time I enjoyed academic reading. It's one of the few books I can go back to anytime and never be bored. I would attribute my reading of HWP as a gateway drug to a lifelong interest in the humanities. It's not a good personality quirk to develop if you want a decent job, but it sure kills boredom and makes you appear more interesting than you actually are dinner parties!
"Silent companions of the lonely hour,/ Friends, who can never alter or forsake... ". The reading of a book may change you; it may change your view outwards; it may change your view inwards ... "The Clan of the Cave Bear", sensationalist, but reveals to us, or reminds us of, or gives us, a long view backwards- origins, culture and ethnic differences, discoveries, and life forces.
Doris Lessing's novels of interwar Africa. Doris Lessing's post apocalypse Africa novels, reminding us the probable survivors will almost certainly not be us in middle class Europe...Portugal had lots of colonies in Africa, so I know what it meant to read her at a tender age.
One that changed my outlook and behaviour, even as an adult, was "Walden; or, Life in the Woods" by Henry David Thoreau. It's an account of Thoreau's self-imposed seclusion in a small cabin that he built for himself in the woods as an experiment in self-reliance and living a simple life. I found that the philosophy behind his writing crystallised a lot of my own thoughts and feelings and gave me a kick towards simplifying my own life.
"Middlemarch", by George Eliot, because nothing finer has ever been written about the ordinary human spirit finding its place in an indifferent world.
"Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" by Anne Tyler for its wisdom and elegance and humanity.
"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell, for sheer glory in words and invention and dynamite readability.
"Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens, because Dickens is amazing anyway and this is the finest thing he wrote, with his characteristic flaws barely in evidence and his brilliance in full flow.
"Emotionally Weird" by Kate Atkinson, because it made me laugh and laugh. "Wise Children" by Angela Carter for similar reasons.
A shout out for some of my other favourite authors: Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Rohinton Mistry, William Trevor, Tim Winton, Anne Donovan, Margaret Forster, Patrick Gale, Richard Yates.
And few other books and authors as well (I can't stop writing...):
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
If This Is Man/The Truce by Primo Levi
Naomi by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Sirens Of Titan by Kurt Vonneghut
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky
The Power To Punish by Michel Foucault
Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi
Have I mentioned Shakespeare as well...?
Have I mentioned Shakespeare as well...?
(work in progress)