A marvelous writer, Steven Barnes, recently wrote about a book that changed his life, and that inspired me to do the same. But I can’t possibly pick just one, I just can’t. I’ll give you four. And that is not at all an exhaustive list.
One, and this won’t surprise anyone at all who knows me – “Lord of the Rings“. Yes, I know. There are people out there who curl their lip and mutter “Tom Bombadil” and turn their backs.
But this book… this book…!!!!
Lord of the Rings. coverIt created a world, and the world lived; the world spoke its own languages; the world had a rich history going back millenia; the world had elves, it had ents, it had magic. And it had the Shire. And it had Lothlorien. And it had Rivendell. And it had Osgiliath. And it had… oh, it had EVERYTHING.
The first time I read LOTR I devoured it whole, or more precisely I allowed it to devour me. I honestly think this was the first book that showed me that it was possible to do this – to create another world that was so real and so THERE that it was hard to return from it to the one I actually lived in. The one book to rule them all.
It was this more than anything else that set the cornerstone to my worldbuilding chops as a writer in the years that followed. Tolkien walked before me, and showed me the way. He changed the way I see the world, the way I see ALL the worlds, forever.
Tigana coverTwo, and this is a book I proselytize for, Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana”. Visceral, brilliant, true. One of his best characters EVER lives in this book – the complicated, wounded, scarred, passionate Dianora, the woman who is given impossible choices time and time again and who has the strength to make them, and to make mistakes, and to live with those mistakes. That is huge.
But over and above that, the central conceit of the book was an arrow that went straight to the heart. How this mild civilized Canadian writer knows what it is like to lose a country, I do not know. But he does. He UNDERSTANDS.
“Tigana” – while as and of itself one of the most perfect books ever written and a story of its own – is also an elegy for my own lost birth country which has been ripped from the maps and atlases of the world, a ghost lost to history. I was born in country that doesn’t exist anymore – nobody not born there can ever hear that name spoken again and understand it. Just like the Tigana of Kay’s novel. That scene where Dianora’s brother is goaded into saying the name of his land to people who cannot hear it and who says it proudly even though it will get him broken – that scene sings to me. I don’t know if anyone who is not like me will get the same depth of reaction to this novel, but even if you don’t, it is STILL the most perfect book ever written. Go read it. Go read it NOW.
les Miserables set of booksThree, “Les Miserables”. It is what it is – a 19th century novel with all the warts that this entails, and occasionally the writing style makes this 20th/21st century reader yelp with impatience and skip entire sections (the infamous digression into the habits – both literal and metaphorical – of the nuns who give sanctuary to Valjean and Cosette as they fly from their enemies is a case in point – Victor Hugo appears to have inserted that didactic portion of the novel with coldly deliberate malice right in the middle of a nail-biting chase and the modern reader is left flipping through the pages impatiently going yes yes yes yes but what HAPPENED TO THEM.
Yes, all that. But. I haven’t been able to read the last page of that novel, ever. Because I
can’t see it. I am usually crying too hard. This is in its purest form a story of how to reach transcendence, even through the worst of suffering, and in the end the glow of that is so pure and powerful that everything else pales into insignificance.
I could not see how they could ever transpose this story into a stage musical but when I
first went to see Les Miz on a London stage that too took me and carried me. This is a transforming story. it can’t HELP but be one. It showed me the worst in people, and the best. It showed me humanity. And Hugo’s light on humanity is empathetic, and bright, and pitiless. I learned from this book.
Four, and once again this might not carry the same weight for people who are not me or of my past, Ivo Andric’s “Bridge on the Drina”. This is my own history, my own past. It hurts, because of that.
One of the highest compliments I ever received for my writing was when a New Zealand writer who also came from the Old Country called me on the phone after having read ‘Letters from the Fire’ to tell me that she thought that my little book was ” ‘The Bridge on Drina’ of our times” – more than telling me my story was good, she was comparing it to the iconic.
There is a scene in “Bridge on the Drina“ where the conquering Turks take stolen boys away from their families, stuffed into panier baskets on the sides of mules and horses, to be taken away forever and forcibly changed into something else entirely – into changelings who will have to change their culture, their personalities, their faith, and to serve a cruel master as faithful servants even if that means obeying orders to return to the places of their birth and turning on their own families.
But in that moment of departure as the stolen boys are carried away their mothers run behind them on the dusty roads, arms outstretched, dust concealing on the tears streaked on their cheeks, calling out the boys’ names – which they will shortly lose forever – and sending them away with, “Remember this! Remember your name! Remember who you are and where you came from! Do not forget me!” It’s killing.
This book makes me understand exile and what loss means – loss of your past, loss of your memories, loss of yourself. If you or your people have never known such loss, count yourself fortunate, and you may never understand this book. But you should probably try, if you are ever to understand the people who DO viscerally understand it.
Oh I could go on. But there you go. Four books.
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