As a book lover what’s more difficult? Walking past a bookshop without going in or trying to pick five books from decades of reading? Clearly steely self-discipline is required for the former, something that in my case is in very short supply, whilst the latter’s difficulty lies in the sheer scale of numbers. In the end, rather than pick favourites, I decided to go for books that had made a particular impact on me in terms of my writing.
So, after much thought, this is my list. The five books that, in my opinion, influenced me the most. (For the purposes of this blog trilogies count as 1!)
Hurrah for the Circus by Enid Blyton: The first book I read by myself in bed. As I got toward the end I remember being upset when told to turn out the light and finish it the next day. Apparently I cried and told mum that if I died in the night I’d never know what happened. It was a good try, (I was five at the time) but, as I recall, I got short shrift. I bought another copy recently, along with The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. Two old favourites to read to the grandchildren.
The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K Le Guin: The books that made me want to be a writer. After reading these when I was about twelve I wrote a sort of fanfic loosely based on the first volume, A Wizard of Earthsea. Mostly produced while lying on the living room carpet my first foray into creative writing was about 100 pages long and complete with maps and illustrations. Although the text is long gone, I can still remember the name of the main character and the premise behind the story. I have the originals on my bookshelf to this day, along with all the Earthsea books that have been published since.
The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien: My first serious read of choice, outside of what we were given at school (that famous comedy duo Lawrence and Hardy in my case). My father’s family were always great readers and I can recall my grandmother watching the TV and not only knitting but reading a paperback that was balanced on her knees. It wasn’t unusual to enter a room and find everyone in it reading. I guess it had to rub off.
My father had a special liking for the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and when he’d read all of these, probably at least twice, became a devotee of Fantasy novels regularly bringing home books by Raymond Feist, Robert Jordan and David Eddings, among others. His bookcase became a garden of delights for me, my sister and my brother. It was from Dad that I first learned of hobbits and other such wonderful creatures.
When I was fourteen and well known for always having my nose in a book (on one occasion getting into trouble with the PE mistress for taking one on to the tennis courts during a games lesson), a friend, whose father worked at George, Allen and Unwin, gave me the LOTR paperback set for my birthday. That was forty years ago and, like the early Earthsea books, I still have these. Much loved and faded but with all their pages intact, if a little loose.
Possession by A S Byatt: One of the books I can read over and over and never fail to get caught up in the magic. Maybe it’s because it’s about historians, or research, or the caricatures of academia, I have no idea. I first saw it on a friend’s bookcase and she told me to borrow it because she was a slow reader and I’d probably be done with it in a week. She was right.
There’s a real atmosphere about Byatt’s story that sucked me in and wouldn’t let me go. A frisson of excitement at having made the sort of discovery, both in terms of the book itself and in what writing can achieve, that gives you goosebumps. It encouraged me to work harder on my characters and to get deeper inside their heads.
If I could create atmosphere and people even half as good as those in Possession, I’d be very happy indeed.
The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village by Eamon Duffy: The book that made want to study history seriously and led to my non-fiction writing. I followed this up with Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, another inspiring read, if not quite so personal.
Morebath is a village on the southern edge of Exmoor in Devon, and the survival of the records of Sir Christopher Trychay (pronounced Tricky) the parish priest from 1520 to 1574, allow a rare glimpse into rural life during the Reformation. For a social historian it’s a gem and it gave me the desire to tell the stories of ordinary men and women using contemporary documents. I’m going to start looking at the records of the village where I live very soon; well, as soon as I have completed all the other projects I am currently involved in!
So these are the five books, out of hundreds, that I feel have led to me to where I am now. Maybe next I should do a list of the five places that have most influenced my writing.