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?