6 Books: Dava Sobel

On Radio National’s Books and Arts Daily program, they have a segment called Top Shelf, where they ask well known artists, performers and writers to list five artistic works that have touched or influenced their own life and work. It’s quite fascinating.

Today I caught a fraction of the segment as I drove around, featuring author Dava Sobel (download the audio from this RN page), who somehow managed to sneak in an extra item into her list of books that ignited her passion for space, scientific exploration and adventure:

1. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
2. The Accidental Indies, Robert Finlay
3. The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin.
4. Endurance, Albert Lansing
5. A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin
6. The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes.

I’ve read two of those (#1 and #3) and I’ve heard of #5, I’m rather intrigued now to know more about the other 3.

Some of the books that made me look differently at the world around me are so long ago that I’m not sure I can find the author for some of them, but I still remember them clearly.

  • Anne of Green Gables taught me that I wasn’t the only girl who loved books and language and theatre and poetry and landscape while feeling an outsider.  She wasn’t the only heroine I like to read about (I still have a soft spot for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories, along with the far less complicated Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew), but Anne was the one who felt most like me most of the time.
  • A Pageant of History (published by Collins: “THE REIGNS OF OUR KINGS AND QUEENS FAMOUS PEOPLE AND EVENTS IN OUR HISTORY “) was in our family bookcase, taught me to appreciate the sweep of centuries of British history, and probably awoke the Anglophile.  Combined with my great-uncle’s comprehensive collection of Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, which I threw myself into whenever we went to visit my paternal grandmother, my fascination with history began to burn brightly.
  • The same great-uncle’s equally comprehensive collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (not just the Greystoke books, also the Mars books) and H. Rider Haggard novels introduced me to vivid action stories with improbably marvellous backdrops (as did my dad’s collection of C.S Forrester and John Wyndham), which led me on to the fantastical embrace of Heinlein, Asimov, LeGuin, Dick, Zimmer Bradley and more, and thus to my continuing love of both cheesy action films and well-paced sociologically rigorous speculative fiction – the future-histories  and what-if alternate histories.
  • Many Paths, One Heaven by Nuri Mass, which I’ve previously described on this blog as a basic comparative religion primer which I read at age 11, that got me questioning my unthinking CofE affiliation, thinking about the nature of the religious urge and ultimately led to my militant agnosticism (I don’t know whether a creator God exists and neither does anyone else).
  • Three books on the life and times of Cardinal Richelieu that I borrowed from the school library for a French history assignment in year 9, which added to the bare bones of the pop culture knowledge I already had from Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. They each had such a different opinion of him, and presented the same series of events in such contrasting lights, that I learned an important lesson about how history is unevenly harnessed to competing cultural narratives, which led me to just want MOAR HISTORY BOOKS.  This was the point where my previously uncritical Anglophile perspective on history broadened to encompass more viewpoints, and most importantly, ask more questions.
  • It wasn’t long after that when I first read Greer’s Female Eunuch and its litany of the constraints imposed on women throughout history.  I haven’t stopped asking questions ever since.

It’s hard to cut the list down to just a handful.  I’ve focussed on histories mostly above, because that lent itself to something approaching coherence as well as reflecting a major way that I filter my understanding of the world generally, but by my mid-teens I was also discovering Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen and the Brontes, Shakespeare, Wilde, Wodehouse, Hemingway, Du Maurier, Dickens and more giants of the general literary canon who displayed such a variety of virtuosities that an appreciation of the power and weight of words has never left me.  I haven’t even got started on the science books I also devoured!

I still remember the shock of discovering that Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr were all pseudonyms of Eleanor Hibbert, and that I’d never even suspected that all those books I devoured as a teen and young adult had been written by the same author. What a clever woman.

So, what are some of the books that were ignition points for you?

Categories: arts & entertainment, fun & hobbies, history


5 replies

  1. Gulliver’s Travels. It’s meant many different things at different times to me, so I guess it’s taught me how the same thing can be interpreted in many ways.

  2. Which Witch by Eva Ibbotson.

  3. +1 Alice – love of language. Have you read The Red King’s Dream? It analyses the Carroll books in the context of his Oxford community and speculates about who each of the characters was inspired by.
    +1 Anne.
    A Wrinkle in Time by Madelene L’Ongle and The Changeover by Margaret Mahy as entrees to sci-fi.
    I also loved all incarnations of Eleanor Hibbert which means I now can’t help reading Philippa Gregory.

  4. I’d need to expand this from books to authors, and also include online text to get the full range.
    So, my key authors would have been
    Anne McCaffrey – I read Dragonflight at about age eleven or twelve, and devoured the rest of the Dragonriders of Pern series in quick succession. It was the first of my mother’s books I’d borrowed, and it really caught my imagination. I suspect I probably would have got interested in reading fantasy anyway (heck, I’d started out with the Narnia books), but McCaffrey was the one who made me realise that fantasy could be for grown-ups too.
    Robert A Heinlein – Dad had a copy of The Number of the Beast as well as a few other late Heinleins sitting in his collection (they were on top of an old wardrobe, so I suspect we kids weren’t supposed to be reading them; this is probably why I grabbed them in the first place). I read it, missed most of the references, and got hooked. I then ploughed through Stranger in a Strange Land and a few of the other later Heinleins that Dad had on hand, although I stumbled on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress the first time I tried to read it because the language was so strange. I’ve never agreed with Heinlein’s politics as expressed in his books, but he could and did write a damn good adventure story.
    J R R Tolkien – I include him because he was my first example of a writer that everyone else loved to bits, but that I couldn’t really get into. For years (starting at about age twelve) I’d try and read through The Lord of the Rings about once a year, and every time I’d get all bogged down by all the faffing around in the Shire that filled the first seven or so chapters. It wasn’t until after the movies came out that I realised things actually picked up speed around about chapter eight, and then didn’t decelerate until the end of the third book (at which point things landed badly). But either way, Tolkien was the author who taught me to keep plugging away at something – maybe I’d be able to enjoy it later. (Frank Herbert was the author who taught me that sometimes, there are just going to be series and books I don’t get – and there’s nothing wrong with that).
    Simon Travaglia – the author of the Bastard Operator From Hell series of IT tall tales and revenge fantasies. He’s the first writer I actually followed online, and one of the major movers in getting me interested in this whole “working with computers” thing as a professional interest. Oddly enough, one of the people I bumped into in one of the earliest IT professional decompression spaces (the scary devil monastery) was this bloke by the name of Charlie Stross, who wrote some really interesting stuff, and had some rather brutal metaphors at times. About five or so years later, I was in an airport bookstore looking for something to read on the plane, and I noticed a novel called Iron Sunrise by one Charles Stross on the shelves. Curious, I bought it, and about ten to twelve pages in, I realised that yes, this was the same Charlie Stross I’d run across in the monastery (he’d reused a metaphor which had really stuck in my mind at the time).
    Agatha Christie – I got into her stuff because Mum had purchased a set of them via some mail order thing. They were there, they were occupying shelf space, and I was bored one day. Also, I think they were playing some dramatisations of some of the short stories on the ABC at the time. Either way, I got started, and discovered I liked them. I also quickly discovered I enjoyed Ngaio Marsh, and the Dick Francis thrillers Mum had lying around as well. Now, at the time a lot of my literary taste was being shaped by my Dad (he was the one with the strong science-fiction interest), but Agatha Christie got me started reading Mum’s books as well, and that’s how I discovered Georgette Heyer.

  5. George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I was lucky enough to buy the first edition in English, and solve the room-order puzzle before the subsequent edition came out, which gives the game away. But it’s a favourite because of the effect of the ending on me, the most powerful effect I’ve had from a work of art. And the fact that a single book can both be full of stuff for math-y puzzle loving geeks, and Serious Art.

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