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.


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!’


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 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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

You won’t like this

Many of us spend our lives trying to figure out how to do only the things we like, only the things that feel good, while leaving all of the other stuff behind us. An entire industry—retirement planning—has been built on the belief that if we can put up with the stuff we don’t want to do for a bit, then we can spend the rest of our days comfortably doing only the things we want to do.

Thus, what I’m about to ask you may sound crazy or counter-intuitive.

Have you given any thought to doing something you don’t like?

We read books that match our world view of the way things should be. We see movies and watch television shows that fit comfortable patterns. We hang out with friends and in places that work with our vision for ourselves. But with all due respect to those things and people, these choices limit us.

I’ve read a variety of business books over the years, and I found a number of authors who I think are pretty intelligent, so I read everything they produce. But what dawned on me a couple of years ago was that rather than simply expanding my understanding of how things worked, most of these books really just helped rationalize what I already felt to be true—or at least what I felt ought to be true. (I’m looking at you, Seth Godin.)

I first noticed the inverted reasoning when I read a book entitled Be Unreasonable by Paul Lemberg. His basic thesis was that companies run into trouble because they only do things that would be considered reasonable or expected by their peers and their customers. This behaviour, he holds, severely curtails progress and practically kills innovation.

It is the old “madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” scenario.

His response was to be unreasonable, to do the unexpected, to pretend the box doesn’t even exist. He was quite forthright in his demands on his readers to change their habits, demanding we make specific changes in our behaviours, which I will not go into here.

In principle, I agreed with him, but when it came to actually doing these things, I balked. The things he wanted us to do were completely unreasonable. Ahhh. And there it was. His thesis, slapping me upside the head, or perhaps more accurately, holding the mirror of smug superiority to my face.

Most of what I did was within the normal boundaries of my work or family life. And when I did step outside of those bounds—much to the angst of my bosses or family—my actions were still within the bounds of my personal beliefs, and were thus still limited.

In the years since, I have tried to be more unreasonable as a way of expanding my universe, even if it makes me terribly uncomfortable or those around me nervous. On the macro scale, I quit my job to try to become a working screenwriter…still an effort in progress. At a more micro level, though, I have explored new foods, lifestyles, arts and communities.

Image Dance class, hunh.

I recently watched Anime—Japanese cartoon—for the first time. Don’t see the appeal, but I’m willing to try a few more to see if I can understand the art form better. I listen to a broader selection of music and speak with a broader assortment of people to see what makes them tick and understand how they view the same world in which we both live.

So, I ask you to try doing something unreasonable with your life, however large or small.

If you like rock music, take in a live opera performance.

Gather a few coworkers together and brainstorm the hell out of a work problem…and then present your ideas to someone senior in the management chain.

Rather than go on that golfing weekend, run guns with Somali pirates across the Gulf of Aden (okay, I can’t advocate that one with a clear conscience).

Just because you’re dead certain you don’t like something still doesn’t guarantee you won’t or that you can’t do it. And in doing it—whether you liked it or not—you will have opened up another space in your universe and may find ways to expand your Art.

Approaches not panaceas


As I said in Birth of a Reader, I am addicted to books. But even with my addiction, I must admit that every now and again, I wish there were no books on writing and most specific to me, screenwriting.

I say this not because the books available are particularly badly written, but more because they are well written by the author but often poorly understood by the reader; readers who more often than not are looking for the One True Way to screenplay writing.

The same is true in business books. If you tell me your favourite business author, I can tell you how—and possibly what—you think.

Seth Godin. Philip Kotler. Clayton Christensen. John C. Maxwell. Each of these authors has their own approach to various aspects of business, and the more you engage with each, the more your mind thinks in those directions. (It is probably more that they help you rationalize where you were going anyways.)

Linda Cowgill. Chris Vogler. Robert McKee. Michael Hague. Paul Joseph Gulino. Dara Marks. Each of these authors also has a trigger onto which student after student latches, like a remora on a shark, looking for their next artistic meal. Each offers an approach to screenplay writing that he or she found particularly useful.

Unfortunately, too many students miss the point that these are approaches or ways of thinking about screenwriting and not road maps to success. Each book offers one or more lessons that a writer can incorporate into his or her work today to make it better, but none of them are the One True Way.

In fact, too close a focus on any one author and you will never find Your True Way.

Too much focus on Dara Marks’ Inside Story and you will find yourself in a tailspin about Theme, as you struggle to force-fit your characters’ actions and dialogue around a theme that may or may not be true to your story.

If you find yourself able to quote Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you’re likely describing your characters in terms of mythic archetypes a la Joseph Campbell and drawing parallels with The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

I’m not saying that novice writers should avoid these authors. I am simply saying that each should be approached cautiously as the novice writer—or seasoned writer, for that matter—can’t hope to achieve everything these authors discuss. The authors have the luxury of looking at a screenplay as a completed item and so discuss aspects and approaches for which you and/or your screenplay may not yet be ready. There is a reason that you will still find many of these books on the shelves of seasoned screenwriters…because they continue to find new lessons in old books as they develop their craft.

The authors and their tomes are more like a screenwriting buffet, offering you a variety of flavours that hopefully provide nourishment, but can also cause artistic indigestion.

So, sorry folks. The books offer no clues as to the One True Way. It doesn’t exist. And like everyone that came before you and will likely come after, you will continue to struggle as you search for Your True Way.

PS I own and have read books by all of the authors discussed here (and in Book larnin’), and every time I reread them, I find something new to apply to my screenwriting—including, interestingly enough, from the business writers.