There have been several books which I consider fundamental to the way I read – and, for that matter, influence my writing even years after I first read them – and because the #booksthatchangedmyworld hashtag on Twitter forced me to examine the main titles in brief, I thought it would benefit some regular readers of this blog to know more. The idea of spinning a blog post out of the Twitter trend was, of course, already examined, by the wonderful Amy Bai no less, so you should pop on over to read about her influences. Mine are… Okay, I gotta admit straight upfront that the stuff which sticks in my head is less on the serious and important column, and more irreverent than most people would ever consider admitting to. Voice is important to me, as the writers who made me reevaluate books (in general) all have strong natural writing styles. It’s not essential that I can tell a writer by a few paragraphs of their work, but it helps, I believe, build a certain connection with the reader – which is essential if they want me to keep reading. The books which made my (short) list all have that in spades – and I’m going to go through them one by one. Just because I can…
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
When I was beginning to work my way through the library book by book, I found – for the most part – what I expected. That all changed when I discovered Ambrose Bierce, and especially The Devil’s Dictionary. There is a streak of malicious humor throughout the entries, rising to a crescendo in a few particularly barbed passages which, from any other author, would be considered petty or vindictive. He manages, with ease and clarity, to reduce the most serious professions to their base elements and throw light on things we think though might not speak of. Some definitions are beautifully crafted short stories, whilst others are merely descriptions twisted to suit the overall tone. And those “mere descriptions” are more than the equal of anything you will find in contemporary satirical publications.
The Devil’s Dictionary was my first exposure to Bierce, though I eventually found his other work. Then, probably seven or eight years ago now, began looking into his life. His life story is as remarkable as anything he laid down on paper, and the matter of his death continues to be of interest to me. There’s much more to his talent than the one book, but for me it remains his defining moment. It stands as an eternal warning not to respect the powers of office merely because they demand respect; it cautions against placing trust in things which are built on shifting sands; it cuts through hypocrisy, and revels in its’ own insights.
Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail 72 by Hunter S. Thompson
Some people devoured the contents of the other book first. The one which begins:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Some have been introduced to Doc through the film adaptation. I found the great man of Gonzo through The Campaign Trail ’72 when a teacher suggested it might be something I was interested in. I took the book and spent a weekend discovering why people revered the words which rattled forth, machine-gun like, from his typewriter. Reading through something so different to my usual fare was both an enlightening and unusual experience, showing – for example – that one could be part of an inner circle without being part of it. Thompson pierced the bubble of protective and “safe” journalism which I expected, and began me on a trail through other political works, though none of them could possibly live up to my heightened expectations having laid eyes on the way coverage should be done.
Okay, so on to the two which have shaped the way I write as much as the way I read…
Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
You might surmise that I have a special place in my reading time for the streak of dark humor and detailed research which Fraser made his own, but there is no denying the vibrancy and outrageous skill with which he weaves Flashman into the historical record. Though I had read a few historical adventures before picking up Flashman (I read the Sharpe books earlier f’rinstance), they were mostly along the same lines – heroic, square-jawed adventurer sets out to vanquish the enemy and succeeds in his goals. Flashman was different. He was a cheating, lying, lecherous scoundrel – and one who gleefully recounted his adventures by his own hand. There was no need for a companion (a Watson to Holmes’ adventurer) to soften the impact, because the “hero” of the story was nothing of the sort, and would have been much less interesting if shown through the perception of a secondary character.
This, more than any other book, and any other character, has filtered through to the way I write characters. Not really through the use of 1st person, because I find it too limiting, but in the way I craft the characters who stumble through the twisted and obscure locations I deem necessary to torture them in. They aren’t adverse to running away, or dealing with their foes, or any of the things heroes aren’t meant to do. I’ve never been overly fond of the archetypal heroic lead, and the way Flashman bluffs his way through the adventures he manages to get entangled in exemplifies the reasons why there are often better ways of creating a strong lead character.
The Stand by Stephen King
Have I mentioned that I overwrite everything? Yeah? Well, The Stand should shoulder more than a little of the responsibility when it comes to epic interweaving storylines which build to a crescendo. It was the edited version which first started me thinking about long narratives, but the uncut edition (of which there is a very shiny edition I am saving up for) is the ultimate expression of what I long to one day create. Without, as is my usual habit, sprawling off into dozens of new plots when and where I find them. King, for all his flaws, crafted in The Stand an almost perfect opening gambit, setting up events which would not play out for a few hundred pages. There are massive set pieces, character studies and clever plotting, despite a major shift halfway through the story. It would be unfair to spoil the surprise for those who have yet to discover the book, so I won’t elucidate on the culling-
Anyways – This, possibly more than the others, is the book which defined a fair chunk of my reading tastes once I found it. The Stand is like an old friend, a book I can return to time and again, discovering new facets and aspects to.
It’s okay, you can say it… Yes, my posts are getting awfully behind schedule, but y’know – LIFE. It sucks, but this is the best I can squeeze in between all the important stuff. I’ll make it up to you by posting weird stuff from my collection when I get around to fully cataloging everything. Be patient young Padewan…
Excerpt from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)