A roll of fallen literary heroes: John Updike, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, further back to Robert Heinlein and Paul Theroux, now, perhaps, joined by Haruki Murakami. Writers whose work once replied to inner urgent whispers, now induce a gelid indifference. Is it that the stream of human events, deaths, loves, sadnesses, journeys, alters our literary needs so that once cherished books cease to offer cathartic release? Or is our literary sensitivity attuned by a higher nutrient diet, purged by Samuel Beckett, J. M. Coetzee and Virginia Woolf? Who are your fallen literary heroes?
List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:
- Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
- Dicken’s Great Expectations
- Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
- Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
- Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
- Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
- Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
- Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
- J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
- Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
- Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
- Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
- Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
- Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
- Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
- Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
- Mann’s The Magic Mountain
- Woolf’s The Lighthouse
- Joyce’s Ulysses
- Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?
At the wonderfully named Dada doesn’t catch flies, one of my favourite bloggers has challenged me to share seven things things about myself. I normally shy away from such invitations but reluctantly accept the proposition, perhaps it will be therapeutic.
- A highly nomadic childhood and commuting long distance to various boarding schools meant accruing a lot of air miles. At eleven years of age I became the youngest recipient of the Cathay Pacific 100,000 miles flown certificate.
- Near my boarding school was a communist bookshop. Every Saturday for at least two years I stole a book, the first being Mao’s Little Red Book. Sometimes I fool myself that the owner knew and let me get away with my crimes. I still feel guilty. Sorry.
- The first author that inspired me to read his complete oeuvre was Robert Heinlein, followed closely by J. P. Donleavy.
- Inspired by J. P. Donleavy’s tales of his home country, I spent three months in Ireland, hitching north to south and east to west.
- For reasons I can no longer recall, as a teenager I was drawn to the Middle East. Setting out with three hundred pounds, I spent nine months hitching through Spain, to Morocco, and then through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, then to Cyprus and Greece. The current turmoil has resuscitated my fascination for the region.
- After returning from this supposed ‘gap year’, for all sorts of reasons that made complete sense at the time, I did not go back to university. I have regretted this at leisure. It is the source of my autodidacticism.
- My talisman book, that I have read so many times that, in a sense, I am always reading it, or thinking it, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.
My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.
During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.
Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.
Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.