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ten books that changed my life

A friend tagged me on Facebook with one of those "list ten books that had an impact on you" memes. This has turned into more of a "books that were influential in my life" list, ordered chronologically; it verges on being an intellectual history and probably has way too much detail for most people, if indeed it's of any interest at all.

Short list: The Lord of the Rings, Latin in Three Months, Life: Cells, Organisms, Populations, an unknown year 9 maths textbook, Tactics of Mistake, The Peloponnesian War, Shardik, Community, Anarchy and Liberty, Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker, The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura.

  1. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

    I am not sure when I first read this. I have a memory of it being 5th grade (1980), but Jenny thinks we read it before our stay in the UK, so perhaps in the first half of 1979.

    Our parents had a nice three-volume hardcover edition (Allen & Unwin, 1966) though we read and reread it so often the volumes became a bit tatty. (When I came to buy a copy here in the UK, I bought the closest match to that edition I could find, wanting to recreate the tactile feel of the books and of the foldout maps.)

    We had read a fair bit of fantasy already, C.S. Lewis most notably (we were Narnia fans) and others as well, but Tolkien made that all seem like chaff. We went on to read The Hobbit (backwards, I know) and The Silmarillion and even bought the first four or five volumes of Christopher Tolkien's mammoth "print everything Tolkien ever wrote" History of Middle-Earth. I don't read that much fantasy these days but still have a fondness for the genre.

    The world creation aspect of Middle-Earth also had a serious grip on me through my teenage years. I had played the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (brought back from the United States by the father of a friend, David Eyland) before reading Lord of the Rings, but it was the latter which inspired not just my Dungeon Mastering but endless hours by myself, spent drawing maps and making up histories.

  2. Latin in Three Months (Hugo's Simplified System, 1975)

    My family lived in London in the second half of 1979, when I was nine turning ten, and my sister and I went to the local school. The school musical/play was about Anne Boleyn, and I had the part of a priest at her execution, saying the Lord's Prayer: "pater noster qui est in caelo ..." That got me interested in Latin, working through some of the Hugo book, and I went on to study it in high school (and a little at university) and to teach myself ancient Greek. With neither language did I ever get really proficient, and both are very rusty now. (I also dabbled in biblical Hebrew and Sanskrit. My sister and I cleverly arranged to divide up the universe so we didn't compete: I took mathematics, the sciences, the dead languages, and ancient and modern history; she took English, the modern languages, medieval history, art and art history, and so forth.)

    From our stay in London I also remember visits to Charing Cross Rd, and how exciting all those floors of books in Foyles were. The other significant interest I picked up then was chess, which I went on to play quite seriously until age 18. No single chess book springs to mind as that significant, however, though I have kept a few of the ones I owned from then.

  3. Life: Cells, Organisms, Populations (Edward O. Wilson et al., Sinauer Associates 1977)

    This was a present for either my tenth birthday or for Christmas in 1979 (I forget which, but the volume is inscribed, so if I ever get access to my stored books I can check) given to me by family friends Valerie Beral and Paul Fine. It was perhaps ambitious for a ten year-old, but I found it absolutely fascinating and if I hadn't already decided I wanted to be a physicist it would surely have convinced me I wanted to be a biologist. (And I still read more in the life sciences than in physics and mathematics.)

    Life was also the major source of my sex education: perhaps because it was a US college text in an era when many schools didn't cover this adequately, it devoted multiple chapters not just to the human reproductive system but to its context. (I have never had any formal education in biology, since I skipped Year 9 and that was when my high school taught all its junior school biology as well as its sex education.)

  4. an unknown year 9 maths textbook given to me by my 5th grade teacher

    Mrs Halliday — I don't even remember her first initial, was it a K? — was my 5th grade teacher at Lindfield Demonstration School for only part of 1980, since she left part-way through to take up a job elsewhere. But I was totally distraught when she left: I remember one sports afternoon when I had softball or baseball with her supervising, standing in the field trying to stop myself crying, wanting to say something to her but being too shy. (For some reason this is inextricably associated in my memory with the line "far far away, someone was weeping" from the song Any Dream Will Do, perhaps because we had sung that in class.)

    Anyway, Mrs Halliday gave me little booklets on vectors and probability, and whatever the standard NSW year 9 maths textbook was that year (possibly by Coroneos, but I remember it being newish and shiny), which I worked through, doing every problem. One important consequence of this was that I later had a blanket exemption from having to do any work in maths classes in the first two years of high school, so I got to spend a huge chunk of school time in 1982 and 1983 reading whatever I liked instead (see the next three entries in this list). I had had a precocious interest in mathematics from pre-school, but my parents never pushed it.

  5. Tactics of Mistake (Gordon R. Dickson)

    This and the other two works in the Dorsai! trilogy are a mix of military science fiction and space opera, still readable today. This was one of the twenty or thirty books in my father's science fiction collection — it is unclear when I started reading through that, but possibly around 1980 — and (since no one science fiction book had nearly the effect Tolkien had) it really stands in here for the whole collection, most of which I reread many times. This included: Frank Herbert's Dune, Children of Dune, Dune Messiah and The Dragon in the Sea; Joseph Green's Gold the Man, my first encounter with adult sex scenes; Jerry Pournelle's The Mercenary (in retrospect a fascist tract, which went as far as staging an artificial situation in which the mass murder of an entire stadium of unarmed civilians was justifiable); Asimov's Foundation trilogy and several other of his books; Barry N. Malzberg's Guernica Night; and so forth.

    I also read science fiction and fantasy from Willoughby Library's excellent collection, starting with Andre Norton, Heinlein's children's books, and so forth, then moving on to, in my early teenage years, systematically reading through every book which had a red dot on its spine. I have a reading list somewhere, started in my early teens, with thousands of titles on it — pretty much all the science fiction and fantasy of the first half of the 1980s.

  6. The Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner for Penguin Classics)

    Around the same time, I started reading my father's similar-sized collection of classical literature, which was on the same bookshelf in the hallway as the science fiction, at an accessible height. He had Herodotus, Suetonius, Caesar, Plutarch, Homer and a few others, but it was The Peloponnesian War that had the biggest impression on me: I can remember how upset I was by the ending.

    I went on to fill out the collection; I think I even had some long-term goal of eventually acquring every one of the black-covered Penguin Classics. At high school my pocket money was a then generous $10 a week, and paperbacks could be bought from Tyrells (the secondhand bookshop in Crows Nest I walked past on my way from school to St Leonards train station) for $2, so I could buy pretty much a book a day.

  7. Shardik (Richard Adams)

    A little later I started on my parents' large general fiction collection, which was on a shelf behind the television in the loungeroom. This was organised alphabetically, and (following precedent with the library's sf and fantasy) I started at the beginning. So among the earliest general adult books I can remember are Richard Adams' Shardik, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (the latter possibly borrowed from the library). There's still something about the opening passages about the bear in Shardik that makes me shiver.

    I never managed to get into Saul Bellow or James Baldwin — perhaps because I reached "B" when I was too young — but I did read William Faulkner, Henry James, Franz Kafka, Mary Renault, and a pile more. (I remember reading The Trial under the desk in German classes at school in 1984.) As with the classical literature, I started supplementing the collection by buying missing works — the rest of the Henry James novels, for example.

  8. Community, Anarchy and Liberty (Michael Taylor, Cambridge University Press 1982)

    I read this in 1987, for an essay on anarchism for first year Philosophy. I must have read twenty or thirty books for that essay, and I can't remember if this was the referenced starting point or just the work that I took to most. It sparked my interest in and awareness of political theory, but its content remains important to me in that I still consider myself an anarchist, at least ideally.

    No single book stands out from my equally extensive reading for the epistemology section of that course, but that was also quite formative. Most importantly, it destroyed the naively reductionist scientism of my teenage years. (I decided I could call myself an "instrumental realist" or "realist instrumentalist" pretty much interchangeably and that while the philosophical and historical contexts of science were important — and they continue to fascinate me — getting too worked up about epistemological foundations was a dead end.)

  9. Firewalls and Internet Security: Repelling the Wily Hacker (Cheswick and Bellovin, Addison-Wesley 1994)

    This is the second book I was ever sent to review and my review of it was reprinted in Linux Journal. Back when I used to review computer books and my reviews ran on Slashdot, I used to receive several books a week, pretty much everything O'Reilly published along with computing titles from Addison-Wesley and Wiley and so forth. (These days I have little interest in reviewing — or reading if I can avoid it — technical computing books, but the theory and history still appeal.)

    I don't ask for that many review copies these days — or I try not to — but I still get them from dozens of publishers: Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press and some other university presses, most notably, but also smaller publishers such as Pushkin Press and Dalkey Archive Press. It is no longer a significant motivation, but getting review copies and seeing some of my reviews in print was exciting back when I had just started.

  10. The Life and Adventures of Trobadora Beatrice as Chronicled by Her Minstrel Laura (Irmtraud Morgner)

    Read in 2002, this book wasn't so influential in itself, but it is the first of more than a score of entries in my reading diary where the source/motivation is marked as "+CR" - that is, I was inspired to read it by M.A. Orthofer at The Complete Review. I had read a fair bit of "world literature" already, but that site helped to spark a deeper fascination with it which has persisted since. (Somehow I ended up with a particular interest in Hungarian and Korean literature.)

    Another major influence on my reading has been Cosma Shalizi, not for fiction (where I'd probably use him as a negative indicator) but for a broad range of non-fiction: he put me on to The Nature of Computation and The Languages of China, among a score of other memorable books. Carole Cusack (especially for crime fiction) and Cameron Laird also deserve mentions here. And there's also been a strong influence from my family, of course, from my parents and sister and Camilla but also from my maternal grandparents, my aunt Gabi and my step-father Peter.

That's ten, so I'll stop there. For more about books, see my 1400 book reviews.


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