I was recently challenged by a couple of friends to name the top ten books that influenced me the most. I found the task much harder than I thought it would be, not because I was spoilt for choice, but rather because I don’t actually read a great deal anymore. In the end, I had to reflect on my entire life to come up with the list below. As such it made sense to put it in chronological order rather than make any attempt to rate by preference.
1) The Norse Myths (no idea who compiled the edition)
I can’t remember how old I was when I received this thick, fancily bound volume from my grandmother, possibly six or seven. She herself had won it in a contest when she was young and had kept it carefully ever since. Due to my age, I didn’t quite understand that a book published and printed sixty years ago deserved careful handling, I just wanted to read it. Even now I retain my fascination with mythology and love the simplicity of the stories. They’re short, awe-inspiring and unashamedly brutal. Not to mention the gods involved are always as badly behaved as the humans.
2) Small Gods – Terry Pratchett
Now, if this were a list of my favourite books, I could have easily put almost any Discworld book on this list. However, I’ve picked Small Gods because as a thirteen year-old, overly obsessed with thoughts of faith and religion, it was this book that neatly summarised the difference between the two for me. Turning classical mythology on its head, it is the tale of a man who guides a small and vulnerable god through the wilderness and together they achieve, not enlightenment, but mutual understanding.
3) The Drawing Of The Three – Stephen King
I’m a massive King fan. The fullness of every character he creates (whether they survive for an entire book or a single paragraph) astounds me, especially given how outlandish his subject matter is. Once again I struggled with which book to choose and was tempted to say ‘Different Seasons’ (which gave us ‘Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption’) but in the end, it had to be the second book of ‘the Dark Tower’ series. As epic journeys go, how better to start one than have a giant lobster permanently cripple your lead character? After that, perhaps he can pull travelling companions through doors across time and space, all the while fighting against the mob, a disabled woman with a split personality and a psychopath with a fondness for pushing people into traffic. Only Stephen King could give us the above, while simultaneously creating four painfully real characters who we will want to follow for five more books until their journey ends.
4) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – David Hume
Hume is, without a doubt, my idol. His works have affected me deeply and I sing his praises to almost everyone I meet. Ostensibly, his ‘Dialogues’ are a dissection of the standard arguments for God’s existence, however, despite having put each in its place by the end, Hume can’t help but admire the wonder of the world and note within himself a desire to believe that it was designed. I suspect it was probably this work that made me decide to switch from philosophy to psychology during my undergrad. Having decided that my own beliefs were sound, Hume’s uncertainty, despite his reason assuring him that he was correct, made me question why it is that we believe what we do. This is something that still motivates my academic interests and my writing.
5) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
By the time I read this one I’d been a fan of Victorian England for most of my life. There’s just something about the aesthetic that I adore. With the addition of gentleman magicians and an increasingly surreal narrative, I remember thinking that Susanna Clarke had written a book solely for me. From her consciously affected prose, to her meticulously researched settings, to her boundless imagination, there was nothing about this book that I didn’t love.
6) Watchmen – Alan Moore
If I’m allowed to cheat and sneak a graphic novel into the mix it would have to be Watchmen. There is far too much to unpack and summarise, suffice to say that it gave me a whole new perspective on ethics, theology and the human condition. If you sneer at the thought of comics and superheroes, this is the book that will show you how wrong you are.
7) The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli
Despite it being a satire, I found much sage advice in Machiavelli’s slim volume. This is because although I’m a utilitarian of the Millian variety at heart, I struggle with the latter’s assertion that given the choice, humans will seek out the ‘higher pleasures’, referring to pursuits that will benefit society such as academia, literature, invention (often summarised by his ‘…better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’ quote). As it is from this principle that Mill derives social liberalism, I can’t help but think that Machiavelli’s brutal practicality might have its place, perhaps even supplanting Mill. In summary: If man is wise, reach for Mill, if he is foolish, reach for Machiavelli. The fact that I’ve included the latter on this list rather than the former speaks of my current opinion on the matter.
8) Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine
This was given to me by my cousin in 2009, although I didn’t actually read it until 2012. After I did I was incredibly ashamed as, despite her sometimes off-putting political tone, Cordelia Fine does a fantastic job of dissecting the science behind biological differences in gender. Specifically, she demonstrates that the numerous claims that differences in performance and mental abilities between genders can be explained by differing neurobiology, are at best unfounded and at worst downright sexist. Having been lectured in gender by Simon Baron-Cohen, after reading this book I literally re-evaluated my entire worldview. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
9) The Complete Robot – Isaac Asimov
For someone who claims to enjoy sci-fi, I read Asimov far too late. But, better late than never. Whether long or short, funny or tragic, his stories are always engaging, thought-provoking and very, very human. Required reading for anyone who works in AI or fears a robot uprising. I merely wish that ‘The Bicentennial Man’ had received a better film adaptation.
10) Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
After a couple of years in the wilderness (well, Birmingham and Bournemouth) it was this book which reinvigorated my interest in academia. Kahneman gives a detailed but easily grasped rundown of how we think, in particular, the heuristics that bypass slow and methodical reasoning. I was so incredibly happy when reading this book as it reminded me that the question that had been bugging me for years (why we believe what we do) has an entire field dedicated to it. To give you an idea of how much I’ve been influenced, as I write this post, I’m a week away from rejoining that field.