Some Books which have Influenced my Life
Shall I save this, or not? the Dice will decide
Books which have Influenced my Life.
One of the factors which made me into a rather mediocre, yet prolific, journalist was undoubtedly the fact I have been an avid reader all my life. In fact, as a rough estimate, something like between 6 and 10,000 books have merited my attention to a greater or lesser degree. But rather like lovers, (although I can’t claim the same volume, I’m not Errol Flynn), few stand out from the, ahem, many.
The wheat amongst the chaff; the diamonds in the rough - whatever analogy you choose; out of all these stories and themes, only about 10 titles come to mind as subjects for this modest hub article.
You ought to all try this, it will tell you something about yourselves and growing up. I say this as I realize the books I read as a youth and young man have subject matter which still interests me today, yet the books I enjoy now, I would have thrown aside during my immature years, and most are forgotten even before I finish them. For example, for light reading today, I choose American crime paperbacks, especially those who feature recurring protagonists, such as Kellerman’s Dr Alex Delaware, Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and sidekick, the terrible “Pike,” and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Love of this genre began with the never-to-be-surpassed John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, aboard the “Busted Flush,” and all his derring-do. This marvellous author left us far to soon in 1986.
And there are quite a few more fitting into this category.
But I was a much more serious little sobersides as a teenager and young man between about 20 and 30. So to cut to the chase, here are some of the publications which I dearly remember and have shaped my life.
The first is a magic book that I used to read regularly from the age of about 8 to 12 or so. I say regularly, because my mother became so tired of checking it out for me from Lanes old bookshop in Broadstairs high street, (alas and alack, no more…the shop: Broadstairs is still with us), she made a deal with the kind librarian - might have been Mrs Lane - and bought the book outright for me. Well, it was almost out of print even by then as it was published in 1930 when I wasn‘t even a gleam in my parents eyes, in fact, they didn’t even know each other yet.
This was the first in the series “The Strange Old Man,” by Sydney Skaite, a well known South African ecologist and etymologist. It featured Bunty and her brother, who’s name I can’t recall, who met a strange old man in their village who was able to shrink them to the size of ants. He then led them on a series of adventures in the insect kingdom: inside ant’s nests, running from predatory spiders and riding on snails, etc., etc. But the creatures featured all behaved as they really do in the animal kingdom and the book was complete with photos of the insect protagonists and the miniature adventurers standing beside them. I was completely captivated and have never forgotten this amazing book in 50 years. Author Sydney Skaite lived from 1886 until 1976 and was responsible for much work in the ecology field in South Africa, as well as publishing two sequels to the book I had, “Among the Birds” in an plane, and “Under the Sea” in a submarine. Sadly, I was never apprised of the latter two books and reading them now might be asking too much of my aged and cynical credulity in 2009. The trilogy is available, at a price, on Amazon and elsewhere.
After this superb realism, I’m afraid Blyton was “blighted,” and you would have had to pay me a substantial ransom to read about “Swallows and Amazons” splashing around Coniston Water in the freezing rain.
I then jogged along trying to find a career I liked, sans parental advice, as they split when I was 12. I tried farming and loved the front end of all the animals but not having to collect what came out the other end and spread it around fields with a fork: Whew! Then it was the Royal Navy in which I discovered what swine the British privileged classes really were and are - (they are taught to be smooth, lovable, jovial and convincing at Oxbridge), but just try being cramped into one third of a bloody destroyer, swinging like a pupae in a hammock with 200 other deluded idiots, while 20 of the the upper clawses gambol in luxury on the rest of the boat and sleep in staterooms, with slaves catering to their every whim, doncha know!).
About then - and hardly surprisingly, - Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” came to my rescue, putting into unforgettable prose many of the unformed thoughts of this then 18-year-old deserter. (Yes, I went on the trot twice before they actually believed I wanted away from the military crap and threw me out).
What a tour de force this book was and still is. Like many men, I find it hard to enjoy books by female authors, they seem written for women, mostly, and have a really strange view of the men who make temporary entrance in their lines. You know what I mean:
“I wanted this man, Dr. Clefchinley, he was 6’4” tall, rugged, wide-shouldered and a slim-waist, with eyes the colour of the azure Caribbean, and had a wallet the size of Mount Etna.”
Dream on all you little word-misses who only put your initials on the author’s credits to fool us into thinking you’re blokes!
But Ayn Rand is nothing like them. This work is truly magisterial and eminently readable, as well as putting many establishment cows ( and what comes out of their mouths) to rest. If you don’t mind me mixing a metaphor.
Her view and solution for the dystopian America of her day has never been better expressed. As Galt and his followers withdraw, taking the leading minds of the day with them, we are reminded of the world in the Third Millennium as celebrities and government hacks, along with thieving money-crunchers, hog the limelight and receive all the material rewards, while the thinkers draw back into the shadows. But note, I am not attempting to review this - or any - of the books I mention today, the copies are long gone and I only have the shadows of their substance in my memory banks.
Then, as many young men do, with the libido running hot and the collective hunting desire burning in their hunter-gatherer psyches, I discovered good old Papa Hemingway. I read and enjoyed all his treatment of war, game animals and even gamer women. Probably enjoyed the heft of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” most, along with “The Sun Also Rises,” and “Farewell to Arms.” It took me another good 20 years to become disenchanted and weaned-off this macho and violent sabre-rattling. But what an end to a great author by any standards Hemingway wrote the last words of his life in the Mayo Clinic and put a big FIN at the end. He was true to his lasts right to the end…bloody fool!
It was during this time of my life I also found an even greater writer, John Steinbeck. In my opinion, his novel, “Grapes of Wrath,” although published in 1939, is, along with another book I shall shortly mention, in the top three works of fiction written in the last two centuries. (The Russian authors apart). For once - except for the ending - a decent film with Fonda in his best role ever was made of this gripping yarn, which is a do before you die read, if you haven‘t already. Like the other books I mention today, ‘Grapes…remains evergreen.
Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck’s other great books reminded me of the other novel I believe shares top place in the greatest works of fiction (often the description “fiction” doesn’t do a work justice, does it, because so much is true in some great novels; neither are they “non-fiction,” perhaps we need another sobriquet, such as “Semi-Fiction?” Or perhaps “Plot-Fiction,” which would indicate the rest of the content was substantially true to life).
I am talking about a book, published generations before anyone has got hold of it in the last 100 years, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” which hit the presses in 1831. (Please try to dispel your mental image of Gregory Peck in the movie, looking more out of place than a whale in the Smithsonian and shouting, in that great voice, “Whale, you whale!” as Moby turned an eye nearly as malicious as the disenchanted cinema-goers on his greasy quiff always hanging in one eye. Why was poor old Peck so often badly miscast? Who the heck gave the whale an eye like a were-wolf? Where was Kurt Douglas when we needed him?.
But the adventures of Capt. Ahab and Ishmael on the Pequod, especially the intellectual play between the too, was absorbing. Evidently, Melville got the inspiration for the novel from the real-life ramming and sinking of the whaler, “Essex,” by a huge sperm whale. It is a marvel that these huge mammals have evidently forgiven man for what we did - and still do - to them (Japs and Norskies), or more boats would be sunk by them, I would if I was a whale, wouldn’t you?
It was around the mid seventies when I received a copy of the “Dice Man” by George Cockcroft, (nom de plume, Luke Rhinehart), published in 1971
This book was immediately banned is several countries due to its ribald treatment of such serious social issues as rape, murder and infidelity. What a temptation, to live your life by the falling of the die each day! You absolve all responsibility “The dice did it,” and banish all decision making, “The dice will decide.” It’s hardly surprising the book has remained popular and enjoyed several surges in sales as people get more and more disenchanted with what their plans come to, and how life is ruined by what the idiots in various administrations plan for us.
This is the sort of hub you begin and then the dice take over and it goes on forever if you don’t put the brake on.
Which I will by winding up with a last choice, a novel by Nelson deMille and surely his best from a super range of titles.
This is “The Gold Coast,” about one man’s relationship with his wife after she is seduced by the power of the Mafioso who moves in next door. The setting for the novel is Long Island, hence the title, as this is some of the most expensive real-estate in the USA. The mobster, Frank Dellarosa, meets and befriends John Sutter, putting him to work for him and gradually seducing him - and then his wife - by the power of his money, lifestyle and corrupt sophistication. A book I could not put down and have returned-to twice, so far…and as I write these words, I want to read it again, as I am sure you will, too.
I can't wrap this up without mentioning the pleasure Bill Bryson's hillarious travel books have given me: I have read them all several times. My favourite is "A Walk in the Woods," as Bryson teams up with Katz to attempt to hike the Appalachian trail in the east of the States.
And for a more serious (and at times just as funny) set of travel books, Paul Theroux is the best there is today...maybe for any day. I keep a full set from both these authors in my small library..
Well, that’s it for this ‘fartical, as we used to call them in the trade. Happy reading of your special books.