The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

I’m happy to announce I’ve just passed a small milestone. This post marks my 200th post! About time, eh? 🙂 While I know it’s not that many posts, considering I wasn’t sure if I would continue blogging that long ago reaching 200 posts is something I’m quite pleased with.

I’ve known the 200 was coming for some time and it seemed like a good time to change my blog as well. I’m now self-hosted. After several experiences on WordPress, I felt it was time for a change; I have less time for blogging and this way I can enjoy writing at my own pace. I’m looking at it as a chance to explore some new ideas, so I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

I wanted to do a special post for my 200th and decided to save the second part of my books project for the occasion. I’m quite happy with how it’s turned out so far. It’s been fun revisiting these books again.

This second part is more about the books that have shaped my philosophy. There’ll be one last part to end the series next week, a profile of the three books that have had the biggest impact on my life. Let me know if you’ve read any of them. I wonder which books have changed your life?  😉

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
American Pastoral is one of those novels that leaves you reeling. On the surface it’s about two parents whose idyllic life is destroyed when their daughter sets off a bomb to protest the Vietnam War. But beneath that Roth examines the morality of objectivism (Merry becomes a Jain, concerned about murdering germs while oblivious to the deaths she caused) and the bond between fathers and daughters. Swede’s world falls apart and Pastoral left me wondering how far we’ve really come in 40 years. Which is Roth’s point.

The Speaking Land by Ronald and Catherine Berndt
I’ve been interested in Aboriginal mythology since I was young, particularly the stories of The Dreaming and the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginal culture dates back over 50,000 years and The Speaking Land is the best collection I’ve read; it gives a real sense of the beliefs behind the myths, the reverence Aboriginal people have for the land and the spirit. It showed me an Australia I didn’t know, one I wish more people could see.

God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
God Said, Ha! is remarkable in that it deals with big issues like cancer and death in an honest way and never feels depressing. In the mid 90s Julia Sweeney had just begun to look forward to a new life, but then her brother was diagnosed with cancer. As she started to care for him her parents moved in – and then Sweeney was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s a sad memoir and yet incredibly funny and insightful. It shows how laughter can get us through even the most difficult of times.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
I first read Nietzsche in high school but didn’t try again until a few years ago. As a critique of society Beyond Good and Evil is still relevant but it’s Nietzsche’s development of the “will to power” I find interesting. It’s often interpreted as violent (or fascistic) but that wasn’t what Nietzsche meant; rather it’s about overcoming individual weakness, explaining the motivations of individuals and societies and their actions. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read and has influenced my writing many times.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I first read Kafka at about the same time as Nietzsche and I loved the absurdity of Metamorphosis. The idea of waking up one day as a giant insect makes the story so surreal but also very human. Kafka is less interested in the science of the transformation than in how Gregor tries to adjust to his new life. In the end it’s a very sad, tragic story, and yet darkly funny. Which makes its critique of society and our loss of humanity all the more poignant.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End was one of the first SF books I read. It’s about an alien race that suddenly appears on Earth, promising to help humans reach their full potential; and yet reaching that potential means losing everything that makes us who we are. Clarke uses the story to explore the idea of utopia and what the loss of inspiration means for society. The depth of ideas in the novel is staggering and it leaves you both a little wiser and sadder for having read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale the first time I read it; I was too young but I was stunned when I reread it. It’s a moral fable, a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism, and it has a feel of history to it that makes it all the more troubling. Set in an America where women are property and the Handmaids’ only role is to have children, Handmaid is eerie when you think about the role of women in some countries. Atwood’s other novel Oryx & Crake is almost as powerful.

Animal Farm by George Orwell
It’s hard to decide which is the better novel between Animal Farm and1984 but Animal Farm, with its complete disdain of power and those who abuse it, has always left more of an impact on me. As a novel critiquing social and political power it’s unparalleled, but also in the way it continues to raise concerns about the way we exploit animals and their conditions. In the end it’s a pessimistic novel but it’s ironic as well that by turning Stalin and Trotsky into animals, Orwell actually succeeds in making them more human.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Of all of Hemingway’s works it’s The Old Man and the Sea that I’ve always related to the most. It’s exquisitely written and such a simple idea, a battle of wills between an old man and a marlin… yet it’s so much more than that. It represents the maturity of Hemingway and his writing; how rather than have Sargasso return victorious as a young Hemingway might have written, instead he returns with no more than a skeleton. It’s a lesson about life and courage and I’ve learned more about writing from Hemingway than any writer.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Like Childhood, The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first SF books I read. The story revolves around Genly as he tries to convince the inhabitants of Winter to join the Ekumen, but it’s really about gender and friendship. The Gethenians are hermaphroditic and the friendship between Genly and Estraven forms the heart of the novel. Darkness was one of the first SF novels to create a world convincingly, with believable characters. It influenced much of my early writing and still does today.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger had a huge impact in the 1960s, introducing “grok” to the English language. It follows Mike Smith, who is raised by Martians after a failed mission to Mars. When he returns to Earth and learns about humans, Mike begins to spread his Martian philosophy, forming his own church, causing others to begin to see him as dangerous. Stranger is a brilliant idea-driven novel and one of the few SF novels that’s genuinely literate; reading it is like getting a high of ideas and the scope of the novel is breathtaking. It’s the kind of novel I’d love to write one day.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I’ve always enjoyed old myths and my favourite myth is the legend of King Arthur. When I first read White’s version what struck me about it was the tone; it starts playfully but by the end it’s mirthless. Yet that’s what makes it so strong. White uses the legend as an allegory for World War II, filling it with the realities of war and an examination of communism and socialism. It’s as much about human nature as chivalry, Arthur struggling to find a philosophy that fits his (and our) world. It’s a sad, beautiful novel, one I reread regularly.

7 thoughts on “The Books That Changed My Life (part two)

  1. love the new sight cj! congratulations on your 200th post! I can’t believe you thought of discontinuing blogging. NO! the blogging world needs you in it CJ. I have read through your list of books and sadly i have not read any of them. I do plan on reading God said HA! lately i have really been enjoying reading autobiographies. The last few books i have read were augusten burroughs. I also read a book titled “what happy people know” which i found to be very insightful. Allowed me to learn a little bit about myself. Congrats again!

  2. Hi LJ, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you liked the list. It was fun to write and I think it gives a good snapshot of my influences so far.

    I found Beyond Good and Evil difficult to read but very rewarding as well; it wasn’t what I expected or remembered as a teenager. Hope you get a chance to read it. 😉


    Thanks WR! It’s been a lot of work but I’m really happy with the design; it feels like my blog’s all grown up! I don’t know if I was that serious about wanting to stop blogging; it was more a health problem and I just needed a break. I’m happy to be back now.

    You know, I was just thinking there are so many books I’d love to read as well; I just never have the time. Running With Scissors is one; I’ll have to check it out. Autobiographies are great, aren’t they? They give you a real look into someone’s life and you learn a lot about yourself too.

    I think you’d really like God Said Ha; it’s very inspiring and makes me value what I have all the more. Hope you enjoy it. 🙂

  3. If you haven’t read Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and especially “Song of Myself” I recommend it. Also, Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle” are priceless. Notably absent (for me) was Dostoevsky as well.

    I love Nietzsche’s BGE but really I prefer “Human, all too Human”.

    I’ve been meaning to read Heinlein for a while.

    Nice list.

  4. Glad you liked the list, Mike. I haven’t read that much of Whitman; I’ll have to look for Leaves of Grass, it’s one I should read. Vonnegut was brilliant, though. I love Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s a bit like Catch-22, using such dark humour to protest the horrors of war.

    I wanted to limit these lists to 25 books; Dostoevsky was on my shortlist, as were Heller, Steinbeck and Hosseini. Crime and Punishment in particular is a novel I love; it just didn’t influence me quite as much as the others.

    I love Heinlein. Stranger is a good place to start; The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Podkayne of Mars are great too if you get the chance to read them. Thanks for stopping by. 😉

  5. Many congratulations on your 200th, cj. It’s really quite a milestone. Your new blog is beautiful; self-hosting agrees with you. You must have put a lot of thought, care and design into it. Your book list is fascinating. You have such wide-ranging interests. You’ve introduced me to some, and reminded me of others I’ve wanted to read. The Roth sounds interesting. I’ve read others of his; he’s quite a bold writer. In fact, I remember sneaking into the “adult” section of the library to read a certain one. The Sweeny sounds good too. I’ve read Nietzsche, but not for years. My perspective has changed and I wonder what I’d make of him now. I’ve read the others on your list except for the Atwood, and I’d agree with all except for that darned Old Man and the Sea. I’ve never been a big fan of Hemingway, although I’m aware many think he’s a master. This particular one nearly did me in, or, at times, I almost wished it did! Perhaps it’s just because I was made to read it in school. Great list & great blog; best wishes to you.

  6. Thanks, Muse! It’s only a small milestone but I’m happy to have got there. Being self-hosted will help me to explore some new ideas as well, so hopefully it’s just the beginning. 😉

    I wanted these lists to reflect my outlook on life and I suppose it’s natural that would reflect a number of tastes. I’m not sure how many would be among my favourite books (there’d be more thrillers and SF on that list) but they’ve all helped to shape who I am. It’s been a fun project to work on.

    American Pastoral is wonderful. It’s very dark but it has Roth’s humour as well that makes it very readable. Everyman is a good one too. I’m still working my way through Nietzsche; perhaps I remember Beyond Good and Evil more fondly than others because I chose to read it, rather than was forced to. It was an interesting introduction to his ideas.

    I know some people feel that way about Hemingway; that his prose was slow and depressing. Personally I’ve always liked it; I think there’s a lot to be said for saying something simply! But then I didn’t like Across the River, so I know where you’re coming from. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

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