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Thread: Books that changed your life: writers talk

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    Default Books that changed your life: writers talk

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    Howard Jacobson

    I'm not sure that any book has ever truly changed my life in the sense of dramatically altering its course, but I can think of one that determined it, and that's Palgrave's Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. It was my mother's book and she read to me from it, as I imagine, in the dark. It was from Palgrave that I learned that literature had a sound, that language mattered more than story, that rhythm haunted the imagination, and that love and grief and loneliness interested me more than any other subject.

    Zoë Heller

    A couple of novels that I read in my teens - Middlemarch by George Eliot and Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens - made me want to be a writer. But the only book I can think of that effected a large and immediately felt change was My Secret Life, the Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman (author unknown). I discovered it on my grandparents' bookshelf at the age of 10.

    Jacqueline Wilson

    I'd have to choose Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, which I first read when I was 13. My dad bought it eagerly but gave up on it a few chapters in. My mum had a go then, but found Nabokov's baroque style irritatingly impenetrable. I asked to read it and my parents said absolutely not. I didn't waste my breath arguing. I simply waited till I had the opportunity to whip the distinctive yellow dustwrapper off Lolita and rejacket it with the Catherine Cookson novel I was reading. I spent the next week reading in the bath, in bed, at playtimes, at school. It was a total revelation to me. I hadn't realised you could use language in such a rich and elegant way, and I was amazed at the subject matter. I thought it the most wonderful and exciting book I'd ever read. I realised that literature could be outrageous and mind-stretching and utterly extraordinary.

    Anthony Horowitz

    It would have to be Dr No by Ian Fleming. It was 1967. I was about 12, trapped in the weird and miserable bubble of prep-school life where my experience of sexual desire and violence edging on sadism was largely restricted to my French teacher. The book introduced me to a whole new world. Even the Jamaican setting seemed impossibly exotic.

    DBC Pierre

    Forming an outlook on life isn't all beer and skittles. By the time you've wondered what parts of a world view should be instinct or intellect, asked yourself if all perspective isn't just a product of bias and dogma, and then worked out that, in any event, the viewpoint you ended up with is no longer in service, nobody can blame you for seeking strong drink. This was roughly my position when I came upon Lila - Robert Pirsig's follow-up to the 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig continues his philosophical exploration in the form of a yacht journey down the Hudson river, accompanied by an easy woman - though her virtue is also open to argument. Written in everyday language, with searing disrespect for academia, this meandering holiday was a life-changer for me, both as a novel and a thesis.

    "When the pupil is ready, the master will appear."

    In a yacht. With a prostitute. Or is she?

    Antonia Fraser

    I was crazy about history from the age of four and a half when I read (to myself) Our Island Story. But I had no precise idea of how to direct this passion until I came across my parents' copy of Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, at the age of 14. I had just become Catholic and was attending a convent. I was deeply excited by reading Strachey, especially the essay on Cardinal Manning. What the convent library did contain was the official two volume life of Manning - just the kind of Victorian number Strachey had written to debunk. Immediately I began to compare the two versions with critical zest, beginning to form my own third one: here it is, I thought, the life for me.

    Kamila Shamsie

    I don't remember who wrote the book that changed my life. I don't even remember anything about its plot or characters. But I remember vividly finding a musty old hardback novel called All Dogs Go to Heaven on my grandfather's bookshelf. And I remember weeping - copiously - as I read the book, weeping for my pet dog who had recently died. I also recall my best friend, Asad, coming over and, in response to my "You must read this - it's set in dog heaven", saying, "Why don't we write a book set in dog heaven?" So we did. It was called A Dog's Life, and After. I was 11, and I never stopped writing after that.

    William Fiennes

    I first read Moby-Dick on a bicycle trip round southern Greece. I was 21, on the brink of my last year at university. In the evenings I sat in tavernas writing my diary and reading about Ishmael, Ahab and the white whale. I found it exhilarating - not just the quest, but Melville's language, which was so alive and stirring, with the rhythms and image-richness I already loved in Shakespeare but had never encountered in prose before. I was giddy with it. I kept stopping to lean my bike on harbour walls and stare at the sea, looking for disturbances in the surface of the water.

    Roger McGough

    The Beat Scene didn't change my life, but rather it confirmed it. In the late 50s, I was at Hull University and I had decided to become a poet, but I wasn't quite sure what that involved. In 1960, I came across The Beat Scene. It was made up of poems and interviews from the New York and San Francisco poetry scene at that time. There were well-known poets such as Corso, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg alongside others I hadn't heard of. I realised just how big the world of poetry was. It showed them reading their work aloud to audiences in art studios, cafes, bars - a million miles away from my idea of poetry being something confined to a library. What was I doing in boring old Liverpool when I could be reading at the Gas Light Cafe in Greenwich Village with Diane di Prima?

    Graham Swift

    No book, I think, has really changed my life, but a few books, at different times of my life, have made huge and sometimes lasting impressions. Certainly among these was The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, which I read in my teens when I was an aspiring writer. The most important influences aren't those other writers who necessarily affect your writing in any material way, but simply confirm and fire your desire to write. Babel did this for me. One of his stories is called Guy de Maupassant and is effectively the story of how Babel himself was fired by Maupassant. That story, in particular, has always been special for me, and the full story of how I was fired by Babel is told in my new book, Making an Elephant.

    Rowan Williams

    I read Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot when I was about 19, and it has been decisive in shaping my sense of what faith and ethics are and aren't. It was the first novel I'd read that dealt directly with the Holocaust. It was a novel about mysticism that challenged me profoundly about what I meant by God, and forced me to see as never before the link between the artist and the contemplative - but not in any conventional way, because it also set out as starkly as possible the difference between the holy and the merely good. And it offered an unforgettably frightening picture of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil", the evil that comes from dead minds, cliches, lying pieties.

    Giles Foden

    Practically speaking, the book that had most direct influence on me as a writer was Paul Muldoon's volume of poetry Meeting the British. It taught me how to bring my own imaginative territory to bear on politics and history. Or was it the other way round? In any case, The Last King of Scotland was the direct result of that encounter with Muldoon's work. He is a rare bird, extraordinary, and I was fortunate to pluck the most modest of his tail feathers. The danger is, you find yourself ventriloquising him.

    Melvyn Bragg

    The book that changed my life is one of those questions that send me into a panic. Was it the illustrated Kidnapped, The Tales of Robin Hood, the feast of comics, Wizard, Rover, Hotspur, Adventure? The best I can do is to offer the King James Bible. I started to go regularly to the local Anglican church when I was about six and joined the choir. At school there was a morning assembly, which consisted of readings from the Bible and hymns and psalms. Parables, wars, agonies, revelations - the panoply of history, metaphor, ecstatic literature and the words of a great faith seem to have accrued, and a good number of them are still there. It was the sweetest possible learning, because if did not come through as teaching.

    Alain de Botton

    Norman Mailer's Of a Fire on the Moon opened up a whole new way of writing for me. It's a piece of reportage about the 1969 Nasa moon landings, in which Mailer adopts a freewheeling tone that enables him to discuss himself, his recent divorce, fascism in America, race and technology - all with huge intelligence, humour and a crazed energy. The book showed that the barrier between being a novelist and a reporter are in the end rather flexible and that you can take the stuff of ordinary newspaper stories and turn them into something resembling art and philosophy. I couldn't have written my most recent book without this great book as inspiration.

    Kate Atkinson

    Looking back, I realise that probably the books that had the greatest influence on my imagination and sensibility were the fairy stories that I read as a child.I read them obsessively in my formative years and they introduced me to the idea that literature was transformative and magical. They also, at their heart, convey the message that girls are strong and wise and morally triumphant. The message that real justice always prevails in the end may not be true, but it provided me with a pattern for travelling hopefully through life.

    Simon Schama

    I'm someone who likes to look at footnotes or endnotes first when I pick up a history. This one began, "Bretons are said to be drunken and prone to use their fists or broken glasses or bottles ... Men from the Mediterranean will stab using knives or stilettos." This was Richard Cobb's idea of a report from the archive. This was the bloody and bloody-minded world of his French Revolutionary masterpiece The Police and the People. I had never read anything like Cobb's exercise in total immersion; the historian sunk into the world of ne'er-do-wells, vagrants, informers, runaways, suicidal pregnant girls. It smelled of humanity. That was the kind of history I knew I wanted to write. I still do.

    AC Grayling

    I'll reluctantly limit myself to three: Immanuel Kant's Critique Of Pure Reason in philosophical respects, Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in political respects, and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for what literature can mean and do. I first read the latter two when young and although I did not then, and do not now, agree or sympathise with everything in them, they stimulated ideas that have remained permanently significant to me. Kant came later, and although I do not accept most of his arguments, they likewise contributed greatly to the study of some of philosophy's deepest problems. None of them would mean what they do without their connection to dozens of other books that matter to me also.

    Martin Jacques

    Reading Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks transformed the way that I understood the exercise of power in western societies, indeed in any society. It remains enormously rich, offering a battery of new concepts. Although written in an elusive style, partly to avoid Mussolini's censors, it is like a treasure trove; each new reading yields fresh insights and a bunch of new thoughts.

    I can suggest no better place to start if you want to understand the nature and role of politics and culture. Hegemony, civil society, post-Fordism, passive revolution, organic intellectuals, it's all here and much more besides. Brilliant.

    Paddy Ashdown

    The book that has accompanied me all my life is John Donne's Collected Works. My wife gave me a copy when we got married. I was 20. It fell apart in the jungles of Borneo. But I've always had a copy since and it gives me continuing pleasure and solace.

    Ed Miliband

    At junior high school in the US I remember reading a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, about someone who is white and pretends to be black. As a kid living in America in a relatively integrated part of the US, it was an amazing insight into racial discrimination in America.

    Nicholas Stern

    India changed my life and RK Narayan is a writer who captures what's so fascinating about India in all its difference and pain and complexity of life. I give his wonderful book The Financial Expert to all my banking friends. It's a story about a guy who stands on a box outside a bank and always gives better terms than the bank. He's very nice and very reliable. Then one day he just suddenly disappears, with all the funds.
    The book that changed my life | Books | The Guardian

    I'm trying to think if any book changed my life. I think a number had a major impact on me, amongst them Portnoy's Complaint, Children on their Birthdays (technically a short story but still), Diary of a Mad Housewife, Diary of a Madman...there are quite a few.

    Anyone else?
    'Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.' Ben Franklin

    "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross."
    --Sinclair Lewis

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    I spent about 10 years of my life in my bedroom reading. I read everything I could get my hands on. I think this served me better than a lot of my formal education.

    I totally agree with Kate Atkinson's comment about the fairy tales. I had a used copy of Grimm's fairy tales that I read and re-read and generally loved. I love the non-sanitized, non-Disney version of those folktales. They still echo with me.

    I also read and loved series of books called "All About" on various topics, including science, medicine, archaeology, historical figures. It is probably why I am a medical writer.

    I can think of lots of individual novels and poetry that left its mark on me, too. It would be hard to pick one--there is something about reading lots of different things that is so eye opening and mind broadening. Though I would say The Idiot by Dostoevsky is one of my favorite novels.

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    Are you there God? It's me Margaret.

    Judy Blume. Thank you.

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    Elite Member McJag's Avatar
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    There have been so many! Starting when I was little Miss Piggle-Wiggle series,Nancy Drew series,Hardy Boys then onto the Agatha Christies,Sherlock Holmes. Auntie Mame-I discovered I was a lot like her at an early age! Confereracy of Dunces-I love that book. Harper Lee. All of the biographies. Tons of non-fiction. OH! All the Dick Francis books. A Year in Provence-loved that. A Taste of Provence. How to be Your Own Best Friend. So many confirmed it was ok to BE ME! Mother always told me that,but who believes their mother?
    I didn't start out to collect diamonds, but somehow they just kept piling up.-Mae West

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    Elite Member Grimmlok's Avatar
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    Freaking Hardy Boys! It was always about goddamned smugglers.


    That, and even as a kid I began to wonder if the boys would start suffering from brain damage, they were smashed on the head and knocked out at least once every book.
    I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.

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    I read so much and so widely from an early age it would be hard to pinpoint one that changed my life, but Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi managed to change my perceptions of the American political and social landscape and turned me into a feminist, where before I couldn't have really called myself one.

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    When I was a kid I read a few books that bothered me and/or introduced me to concepts that I hadn't previously thought about. The Lottery Rose and Summer Of My German Soldier are a couple of them.
    Everyone is entitled to be stupid, but some abuse the privilege.

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    Quote Originally Posted by McJag View Post
    There have been so many! Starting when I was little Miss Piggle-Wiggle series,Nancy Drew series,Hardy Boys then onto the Agatha Christies,Sherlock Holmes. Auntie Mame-I discovered I was a lot like her at an early age! Confereracy of Dunces-I love that book. Harper Lee. All of the biographies. Tons of non-fiction. OH! All the Dick Francis books. A Year in Provence-loved that. A Taste of Provence. How to be Your Own Best Friend. So many confirmed it was ok to BE ME! Mother always told me that,but who believes their mother?

    Oh my God! How could I forget Auntie Mame! But I'm more like her than you! Oh, and have you read *Little Me*? Same author and crazy funny/subversive.

    That, and even as a kid I began to wonder if the boys would start suffering from brain damage, they were smashed on the head and knocked out at least once every book.

    'Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.' Ben Franklin

    "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross."
    --Sinclair Lewis

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    soooo many books i don't even know where to begin.
    books were my happy place for as long as i can remember. i grew up the eldest of 5 and so didn't get a lot of privacy at home - books were my escape and the way for me to retreat into my own little world.
    there are so many, starting from nancy drew, the enid blyton books, anne frank, baron munchausen, watership down. charlotte's web changed my childhood too, for sure. of course judy blume. madeleine l'engle. all the paula danziger books. the adrian mole series (fucking hilarious).
    then as a preteen/young teen i discovered jack kerouac (starting with on the road, of course), the catcher in the rye, kurt vonnegut, sylvia plath, lolita, baudelaire and rimbaud (i so wanted to be a počte maudit), antonin artaud, camus, sartre. i think the really big ones in my teen years were kerouac and boris vian (i think i still know entire passages of 'l'arrache-coeur' by heart), i read and re-read all their books and tried to get my hands on everything they'd ever written.
    also around 16 or 17 i read 'the ogre' by michel tournier in school and that book has stayed with me since.


    Quote Originally Posted by Sasha View Post
    I read so much and so widely from an early age it would be hard to pinpoint one that changed my life, but Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi managed to change my perceptions of the American political and social landscape and turned me into a feminist, where before I couldn't have really called myself one.
    backlash was the first feminist book i ever read too, i must have been 14 or 15 and it really changed the way i thought too. and put into words a lot of things i had intuited.
    I'm open to everything. When you start to criticise the times you live in, your time is over. - Karl Lagerfeld

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    Elite Member McJag's Avatar
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    Oh,my goodness! Diary of Anne Frank!
    I didn't start out to collect diamonds, but somehow they just kept piling up.-Mae West

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    Elite Member calcifer's Avatar
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    in chronological order :

    - books about african wildlife. i still remember reading about a rare blue poisonous frog.
    - a book about oceanology. i thought the study of plate tectonics was the most fascinating thing ever. probably my first confrontation with science.
    - the hobbit. coolest adventure story ever.
    - the catcher in the rye. my mum gave it to me & said i would probably like it. i did.
    - shakespeare's sonnets. really interesting. i remember researching his whole life after i read a couple of his sonnets.
    - david copperfield. my dad pushed it into my hands one day. betsey trotwood was my heroine.
    - everything by ray bradbury. just love his work.

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    Elite Member McJag's Avatar
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    Leonardo da Vinci's Notebook. Once a teacher mention he had written it backwards I had to have it! I loved that little book.
    I didn't start out to collect diamonds, but somehow they just kept piling up.-Mae West

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    Elite Member Penny Lane's Avatar
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    Childhood was the usual stuff: Nancy Drew, Goosebumps/Fear Street, Judy Blume, etc etc.. then when I was about 11 or so I read "To Kill A Mockingbird," "Where The Red Fern Grows," "The Cay," in the span of about 6 months and it really opened my eyes to the joys of books. I was in advanced/honors english/literature courses in high school so we got to read a lot of the more complex books (I especially enjoyed "Crime and Punishment," "Fahrenheit 451," and "Invisible Man") and it just really gave me the desire to start reading more interesting books as the years went on.

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    The books that made a huge impression on me were the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary.
    I always felt terribly awkward as a child. Ramona was a character that I related to. I always felt better about myself after reading her books.
    mama mia*
    The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. - William Arthur Ward

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    ^^^
    i loved ramona!
    I'm open to everything. When you start to criticise the times you live in, your time is over. - Karl Lagerfeld

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