Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ten Books that Influenced Me

One of the blogs I read is Smart Football. It’s written by a lawyer (I think) who also knows a great deal about the game of football--he's really into the "Xs and Os" and it's all good stuff. His most recent post is titled “Books that have influenced me most,” which is an idea he got from someone else and is something he encouraged others to do. [n.1] I encourage you to participate—I’d love to read about yours.

Here’s my list, compiled off the cuff and without deep thought or extensive reflection (I’m sure I’m missing something):

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read it for the first time as part of a seminar in college, and I read it again two or three years later. It was the first “big book” I ever read. It blew me away and taught me so much about families, men, relationships, doubt, faith, and religion. I was raised in what someone might now call a “secular” household—I’ll call it nonreligious—and the book’s detailed discussion of faith and doubt, particularly Ivan and Alexey’s conversation in the chapter titled “Rebellion,” really interested me. It had a profound effect on me.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. OK, so I just finished reading this two months ago, which might cause you to wonder how something I read recently and so relatively late in my life could be much of an influence. Here’s how: Infinite Jest struck me deep in my soul. It made me think and feel things that no other book has come remotely close to making me think or feel. It taught me an insane amount about fiction, how it works, what it can do, why it is important. It also showed me why contemporary and “post-modern” fiction does what it does, sort of. Since I’ve read it I’ve had this incredible explosion in interest in reading all sorts of things—my already incredibly long books-to-read list has grown massively in the last month, due almost entirely to the light Infinite Jest has shown on my reading world. I have a separate post that deals with my obsession with Wallace and why I love Infinite Jest.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. I read this in my residential college’s “core course,” and it, like all the books in that class, had a great impact on the way I view some of contemporary society’s most notable issues. [n.2] Obviously the issue presented by Invisible Man was racism. As a boy who grew up in a very, very white town bursting at the seams with closet (or not so closet) white supremacists, Invisible Man was a vital part of my early education. That, and it’s very beautifully written.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. I read this in high school, and I absolutely loved it. There was something about fantasies of frightening dystopian futures that I really dug at the time--Orwell's 1984 could also have easily made this list. It taught me about corruption, vengeance, totalitarianism, rehabilitation, and the horrors of violence. Burgess’s prose was also often beautiful, and his creation of the Nasdat slang language was absolutely amazing to me (though, of course, I’ve since realized it was far from a unique achievement).

Philosophical Investigations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein. I was a philosophy major in college (actually a “double” with Politics, but I’ve always felt it was cooler to emphasize the philosophy), so I read a fair amount of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to contemporary thinkers like Lyotard (whose name I always got a kick out of) [n.3]. I, frankly, don’t remember pretty much any of it. Well, OK, I do remember little bits of Plato from the Symposium and The Republic, but I read plenty of Nietzsche and Kant and can’t tell you the first thing about what those guys talked about. I guess I had other priorities at the time… But, so I did one of my “exit” seminars (two special seminars needed to earn the degree) on the Philosophical Investigations and it was a real eye opener. Maybe it was because of the slow and deep look we took at everything (we read very few pages for every class, but we had to read them very closely), but I actually kind of started to get it. Before that I loved my logic classes, and enjoyed some of my other philosophy classes, but I never really got what the point was until Wittgenstein. In the Investigations, L.W. writes about language, symbols, categories, and such, and it’s all incredibly interesting.

Where I’m Calling From, by Raymond Carver. Raymond Carver showed me the beauty of the real. He showed me how, in the right hands, a very short story could quickly and completely rip your heart out. His stories “Cathedral” and “Beginners” (which is titled, in the book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but I prefer to use “Beginners" to distinguish the longer version of the story (which is in Where I’m Calling From) from the much shorter, Gordon Lish-isized version [n.4]) are so masterful and beautiful they break my heart. If you need further proof of my adoration, how’s this: I named my son after the guy.

Letters to Felice, by Franz Kafka. I read this during my senior year of college, not for a course but on my own. It’s sort of a strange pick for this list, but I read it at what was a very sensitive time for me, personally. I had just broken up with my first and, at the time, only girlfriend, and I was also madly in love (or so I thought) with a friend of mine with whom I had a very odd relationship. The book is a collection of letters Kafka wrote to his love interest, a woman named Felice, to whom he twice became engaged before fate made clear it had other plans. The letters are…shall I say it?... Kafkaesque. They are love letters, yes, but they are also dark and frighteningly sincere. So I was reading these and I decided that sort of correspondence was charming and romantic, so I started writing daily letters to the friend I was enamored with. I should add that at that point in my life my prose was wildly influenced by whatever I was reading at the time, so my letters were…Kafkaesque. In hindsight it is perhaps unnecessary to say that these letters did little more than totally freak out my friend. And thus the entire course of my life was changed, or so I thought at the time.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie. I read this during my first quarter in college, at the urging of my mother. I’m of mixed heritage and “white” by appearance, but I always identified as an Indian. I’m a member of my tribe, my mom grew up on the reservation, but I was raised in a white, middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. I knew my mom was a tribal member, and that I was too, and I cared about that. I also attended the "Indian heritage training" my schools put on (something in hindsight I am shocked that school district had). But for the most part my childhood involved being a visibly white boy in a white suburb of LA. It wasn’t until I first read Alexie that I experienced art about Indians that wasn’t Dances with Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans. This was incredibly important to the development of the way I viewed my identity, and how I understood my mom’s.

The Selected Works of Oscar Wilde (I can’t find a link to anything close to the book I own, which is very old). The physical book itself is important to me, as it was a lovely gift given to me by my first girlfriend. But the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol were both very powerful to me. Wilde taught me about how witty wit can be, and he also taught me how beautiful prose can be. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, should also make my list for teaching me how incredibly beautiful English can be. Lolita has the most beautiful first chapter of all time, but then “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis. If that’s cheating, then just The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. My sixth-grade class read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud. It was probably the first time I got really excited about fiction. By the time I got to the other books, a few years later, I blew through them at a rapid pace, which was something that was previously unheard of for me.

Note 1: Chris’s (Mr. Smart Football) are interesting, but most of the guys he links to have some frightening lists. I’m being honest with mine, even though I might want to replace some of the books with something “cooler,” but I’m surprised how many of those guys have Ayn Rand (the “fifth rate Nietzsche”) on their lists. Now *that* is embarrassing.

Note 2: A Green History of the World, the first book we read from for my core course, and the first book I wrote a college paper about, would have easily made this list if I had read more than two chapters (we weren’t assigned the whole thing).

Note 3: Lyotard taught at U.C. Irvine. I can’t imagine a place less suited to deep thinking in the humanities than Irvine.

Note 4: The relationship between Carver and Lish is something that I care about. It deserves its own post.


  1. Great blog!
    I love the "fifth rate Nietzsche" comment - classic! She wasn't even a good story teller, but was certifiably batshit crazy

  2. Thanks very much brophy! I appreciate it.

    I have to admit I stole the "fifth rate Nietzsche" line. I got it from a Slate article by Johann Hari (he actually wrote "fifth rate Nietzsche of the mini malls," which is even better--I had forgotten about the last part). You can find it here: