I was challenged to write this. Here’s my long-winded response:
1. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve finished Lord of the Rings exactly once but have read The Hobbit about ten. Harold Bloom once referred to the style of writing in The Lord of the Rings as reminiscent of the Book of Mormon (and not the good Parker/Stone version) but The Hobbit never hits a false note from the opening sentence until the last. I especially liked the use of an intrusive narrator (when third-person narration is occasionally broken by first-person commentary) but Tolkien apparently hated it and regretted that he wrote the book that way. The first time I finished The Hobbit was in the fifth grade and, on some level, it’s what I measure every other piece of fiction ever since.
2. Retief series – Keith Laumer – I haven’t read any of the Retief stories in years but, when I was seventh grade, I checked out one of Laumer’s books from the library. Today, I still have over 50 of his books and have read a dozen or so more. I don’t think any single book had more of an effect than any of the others but collectively they made more of an influence than the work of any writer.
3. Night Mare – Piers Anthony. It’s easy to knock Anthony today but, when I was in grade school on vacation, I got a copy of Night Mare and deeply enjoyed it. More importantly, up until that point, I’d been trying to write stories of my own and was churning out pseudo-fantasy that was more like historic fiction without any knowledge of real history. After reading the Xanth series, I began writing with more imagination. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing but it was a major influence.
4. Meditations – Marcus Aurelius. I’ve read every word of The Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, and all the books in the Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and most other canons of the Bible, but none of them had an impact on daily life as Meditations. Marcus Aurelius hated Christians and persecuted them more fiercely than any of the early emperors besides Nero and Domitian (although you’d never know this from the movie Gladiator). Despite this, the early Church still had the good judgment to incorporate Aurelius’ philosophy into Christian theology. (Today, we had The Left Behind series–what went wrong?) I don’t think there has ever been a better book to help a reader endure the everyday idiots of everyday life.
5. Pericles – Any time some snob wants to show that he’s sophisticated enough to smear Shakespeare, he’ll inevitably pick on Titus Andronicus or Pericles. I’m not sure how anyone could think those are worst of Shakespeare’s work–Timon of Athens, King John, and Henry VIII are much weaker and I don’t think anyone likes his long poetry. I read Pericles after working on Live Nude Shakespeare. I started feeling guilty about Shakespeare’s plays that I hadn’t read so I set out to read them all.
Pericles’ plot isn’t the best and the characters aren’t in Hamlet’s league but I thought it was the funniest thing Shakespeare ever wrote. Part of the humor comes from rape jokes, and I think about the play whenever anyone analyzes Animal House, Trading Places, Revenge of the Nerds, or any movie that goes for a joke out of what would technically be sexual assault. I don’t feel guilty about laughing at Shakespeare’s rape jokes but maybe I should.
6. Ajax – Sophocles. Like Shakespeare, I was guilted into reading all of Sophocles and the rest of the extant Greek plays. It started when I was teaching Oedipus Rex and tried to make a point of how important Greek drama was. A student raised his hand and asked how many of the plays I had read. At the time it was only about five and I felt so ashamed that I made my way through all the rest of the surviving 45 plays.
Ajax didn’t stand out as Sophocles’ best but it does present the protagonist’s suicide on-stage, despite every literature text book that claims the Greeks never openly depicted death or violence. Whenever I hear someone give a blow-hard theory about literature with no understanding of it, I think of Ajax.
7. Hit or Myth – Robert Asprin. Fan fiction was always embarrassing at best but, before the Internet, at least it wasn’t so obvious. The first story I ever had published was in The Myth Adventures Fanzine based on characters from Asprin’s Myth series. I look back at that with a mixture of shame and pride, but at least it got me started.
8. Astro City: Confessions – Kurt Busiek. I’ve read thousands of comics and most of them were dumb. I can say the same with novels so it’s not an insult. Before 1986, for all their problems, comic books weren’t as joyless as they are today. I’m not completely knocking Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns–they deconstructed superheroes in a way that was probably overdue–but many writers after them thought that good = grim. Going Hegel with this, old comics were the status quo thesis for decades, Moore and Miller’s deconstruction was the antithesis that has lasted far too long, and Busiek’s Astro City is the synthesis, taking the flaws that M&M pointed out and dealing with them instead of endlessly harping on them.
I’m guessing most people would pick Art Spiegleman’s Maus or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for a graphic novel, but, when I think of comic books, I don’t think of cats wearing Nazi uniforms, I think of superheroes, and Busiek is one of the few writers today that doesn’t seem geared to teenage girls wearing black lipstick and listening to “Meat is Murder,” and/or stereotypical nerds who look at comics because they can’t work up the nerve to buy the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
9. Ulysses/Finnegans Wake – James Joyce. When I was at UC, the English Department gave me a list of 90 books to read for the Masters’ Exam. Three months before the exam, I learned that I was really going to be tested on 60 completely different books with an emphasis on eight specific works. When I did the math, I figured that I needed to read 213 pages a day to finish the list in time. Since one of the eight major works was Ulysses, I knew I was dead. Luckily for me, Dr. Wayne Hall took pity on the poor jerks in my situation and covered Ulysses with us chapter by chapter. More students failed that year than in memory but I passed. One slob only found out about the new list three days before the exam. Ah, UC.
I use Finnegans Wake in class when we talk about plot. I usually have a student read a page at random and they react like I did when I found out about the wrong reading list. I always mean to finish Finnegans Wake but, after 14 attempts, I always give up. Someday maybe. I wouldn’t have tried at all if it hadn’t been for Ulysses.
10. The Straight Dope – Cecil Adams. I first started reading Cecil Adams in Everybody’s News. Eventually I bought all his books and read his new columns every Friday. I didn’t realize it at the time but The Straight Dope marked the point when I shifted from reading almost entirely fiction to almost entirely nonfiction. In some ways that makes The Straight Dope the biggest influence of all.