Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

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DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

asimov

Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

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Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

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Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

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The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

Stupid is pretty smart

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I find it interesting that most people seem to be less afraid of being stupid than they are of looking stupid.

I say this because of the inordinate amount of stupid material I find every day—the people posting this stuff obviously don’t think it’s stupid—and yet many of the brightest people I know (and not just those with whom I agree) are paralytically afraid of saying anything lest people think they’re stupid.

Now, I appreciate that stupid is subjective, but this is not a condemnation of stupid, it is a call to embrace our personal stupid and use it to move forward to brilliance.

If you watch a group of children as they age—not literally moment-by-moment; that would be stupid—you will see that they start out unfiltered and unhindered by subconscious voices that make them edit themselves. They are free to create amazing things and proudly display those things on refrigerators around the world.

As they get older, though, those subconscious voices creep in and you find the children become less enthusiastic about their art. They become more self-conscious about being seen as stupid, and so the refrigerators of the world become increasingly barren.

That is incredibly sad, and not just because the typical refrigerator is a featureless, oddly coloured box with little inherent fashion sense. It is sad because it creates a population of adults who are incredibly repressed and overwhelmingly self-conscious.

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As I have mentioned before, I have numerable friends who want to write, but they are routinely stopped from taking any action by an infernal firewall of what to write. They can’t just write anything. Writing just anything would be stupid.

No! No! No! Writing just anything would be freaking brilliant!

Writing just anything would make you a writer, rather than the non-writer you are now.

Write the word “stupid”. Write “stoopid”. Write “styupid”. Write “stewed pet”. And bloody screw AutoCorrect.

Let stupid be your creative scissors and run around the room not caring into whom you run or stab. Stupid begets intelligent, no matter how stupid that sounds.

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Besides, no matter how clever, intelligent or prosaic you are, someone is going to find your writing stupid. Stab them with your stupid scissors and move on.

I absolutely abhor the novel Crime and Punishment, routinely espousing that the crime was the writing of the book and the punishment is the reading, and yet many people find it a marvelous work of art. How stupid is that? (You can read that as I’m stupid or they’re stupid…I don’t really care.)

In King Lear (III, ii), Shakespeare wrote: “The art of our necessities is strange that can make vile things precious.”

As used in the play, this line has absolutely nothing to do with the point I’m making, and depending on how you read it, the line actually blows my thesis apart or completely justifies it. Now that is freaking stupid.

As Liam Neeson should have said in the movie: Release the Stupid!

You may just find that your stupid is pretty amazing…and even if it’s not, you’re one step closer to your brilliant.

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(Images used without permission. Pretty stupid, eh?)