There was a meme I saw ages ago where people posted a list of ten books that were important in their lives. I like this better than trying to pick ten 'favourites', and meant to post it at the time but never got round to it. So, here goes (in more or less chronological order):
- JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
- My Dad used to read this to me and my brothers as a long-running serial bedtime story. So it was a very important part of my childhood. Then as soon as I was old enough to read it for myself (about nine or ten I think) I started reading it every so often, and it's been with me my whole life. I always get something different out of it every time I read it. It inspired me to read linguistics textbooks that my grandfather had lying around and generally to be interested in language. The imagery very much frames my experience; for example, when I've been deeply unhappy I've sometimes had nightmares about Frodo and Sam in Mordor. It's always a point of reference for me.
- Rudyard Kipling: Puck of Pook's Hill / Rewards and Fairies
- Another of the books my Dad read aloud when I was a kid. I learnt a fair amount of English history and mythology from Kipling. I'd say this was the main thing that opened the way for me to read fantasy later on. Gaiman, for example, would make a whole lot less sense to me if I hadn't grown up with Kipling. Kipling was also my gateway to poetry; his stuff is rhythmic and accessible and it was through Kipling (helped by my Dad) I got into people like Chesterton and Shelley and Tennyson and Betjamen and Masefield. A lot of Kipling at an impressionable age really primed me to appreciate both nineteenth and twentieth century poetry; I can't think of anyone else who straddles both eras so successfully.
- Lynne Reid Banks: The L-shaped Room
- This was the first 'grown-up' book I ever read, when I was maybe 12 or so. The sex in it really isn't as explicit as it struck me as being at the time, but it's a book that deals with genuinely adult themes and relationships, as well as including sex. The characters are beautifully drawn, and the human drama is poignant without descending into soap opera.
I had a tremendous crush on the love interest, Toby Coleman, for absolutely years, and have tended to date people who rather resemble him. I think Toby just happens to be my type, rather than my entire relationship history having been directly influenced by this book! In general, Reid Banks writes women who experience sexuality in a way I can strongly relate to, and I've not come across any other descriptions of this particular aspect of existence which resonate so strongly with me.
- Larry Gonick & Mark Wheelis: The cartoon guide to genetics
- Spanish M gave me this book in 1993. I was already fairly obsessed with molecular genetics by that time (indeed, I was already obsessed with genetics by the time I started school), but this bridged the gap between the level of knowledge I could pick up from reading every newspaper and magazine article I could lay my hands on, and actual high level academic specialization. The book was out of date by the time I started studying biochemistry at university, but in terms of level it was good through at least first year undergrad. And it's incredibly accessible, with its cartoons and silly puns, but never misleadingly over-simplifies.
It's a large part of the reason why I continued biology (three quarters of which I didn't like very much at GCSE) through A Level, and that in turn allowed me to discover that there is a whole field of biochemistry which is as fascinating as genetics. So that led on to my choosing to study biochemistry rather than chemistry at university, and you could well say it determined my whole future career.
Besides, M wrote a short letter in the front cover of this book which completely changed my life. She'd been in my class at school for the preceding term, while her father was teaching at Robinson College where he was a visiting fellow. And we'd sort of been thrown together because she arrived in the middle of the year and everybody else was already in fixed pairs for all the stuff where we needed to work in pairs. I was the odd one out, not because I was desperately unpopular, but because I was everybody's friend but nobody's best friend. So I ended up pairing with M quite a lot. We got on well, but I was totally in awe of her and didn't imagine we'd ever speak again after she went back to Spain. But she gave me this book and wrote in it how much my friendship had meant to her in the previous couple of months, and this was where she first proposed what became the dream of my teenage years, that she and I would be best friends and eventually professional collaborators who would "try to save the Humanity in the science field". So this book was the beginning of my incredibly precious and life-defining friendship with Spanish M.
- Chaim Potok: The Book of Lights
- I can't entirely remember why I first read this book now. I think it might have been for a Jewish book discussion group or something. Anyway, it's one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Its portrayals of people and relationships are absolutely outstanding, and it's also full of all kinds of philosophical and theological ideas. Potok writes better than almost anyone else I know about deep friendship, and the friendship between Gershon and Arthur is perhaps the most wonderful example of this (even though The Chosen, which is purely about friendship, is perhaps better known). There's also a lot of stuff about Kabbalah in The Book of Lights, and without it I would have had almost no interest in the Jewish mystical tradition at all.
- Simone de Beauvoir: Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée
- I was totally in love with Simone de Beauvoir in my late teens, at least with the image of herself she creates in her autobiography. It was this first volume that spoke to me particularly, because it covers her childhood and youth when she was someone I could relate to, before she became a world famous writer and philosopher and started name-dropping about all the other famous people she used to hang out with.
She gave me a framework for talking about things that I want to talk about. She discusses the nature of consciousness (in a non-technical, human rather than philosophical way), and what it means to relate to other people, and the experience of being 'other'. She talks about sexuality openly and without being prurient. Living my own story of intense, passionate friendship, I loved the way she describes her friendship with Zaza. I really admired and aspired to her passion for knowledge and understanding. Then there's her relationship with Sartre which begins towards the end of the first volume; it was the first description I'd come across of an non-traditional relationship, where the people involved make their own rules and what matters is their faithfulness to eachother, and not what society expects. This was long before I'd heard of any such thing as polyamory or similar politically organized groups, but the idea that there are other options than traditional monogamous marriage and celibacy was a powerful one for me.
- Steven Rose: Biochemistry(republished as The Chemistry of Life)
- I read this book in one of the old Penguin blue non-fiction editions, somewhere towards the beginning of sixth form. It was badly out of date by then, (and even with my high school biology I could tell it was), but it gave me a key concept, namely regarding cell biology as being about information. It explained the original meaning of cybernetics, before the cyber- prefix simply became a pretentious way to refer to computers or just anything 'futuristic'. Also, it made me realize that lots of other aspects of cell biology are interesting in the same way that molecular genetics is interesting (the particular example was about the molecular cascade which allows cells to respond to hormone signalling by changing gene expression).
So I've been thinking about biology in ways inspired by Rose ever since. As I've specialized I've always gravitated towards areas such as cell signalling which fit in best with Rose's informational paradigm. I can trace a direct route from reading this book to where I ended up for my PhD. So yes, a very big influence!
- Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach
- pseudomonas convinced me to read this when we were going out in 1998 or thereabouts. It gave me various tools for thinking about things like consciousness, formal logic, and particularly language and meaning and analogies, and helped to make sense of a lot of other stuff that deals with similar themes but less accessibly (Penrose, for example). Also, I was reading something of Hofstadter's, either Metamagical Themas or Le ton beau de Marot when I first met lethargic_man and he was so impressed that I had read and enjoyed and could talk intelligently about Gödel, Escher, Bach that he ended up asking me out several years later! Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it did contribute to my making such a strong first impression on lethargic_man, which obviously had a big influence on my life.
- Karen Armstrong: A History of God
- I am the biggest fan of Karen Armstrong. I love the way she combines a rigourous historical approach to religion with a strong sense of the numinous. And she puts across very complex ideas about religion and theology and all the related topics pertaining to the meaning of human existence in a very clear and readable way. Reading this has given me a lot of ways of thinking about the hard problems of religion, and is probably the key influence which has made it possible for me to approach religion in a mature way rather than a set of cute stories for Sunday school children.
- AS Byatt: Babel Tower
- The main reason I count this is because it's a fantastically good novel. I read it fairly recently, and have therefore only reread it a couple of times. But it's given me a lot to think about, there are loads of layers to it, and it ties together all kinds of themes that I find fascinating, such as genetics and language and Tolkien and gender and relationships.