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.

Awake with love – Canada

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I have been a very lucky man.

I was lucky enough to be born in a great country. In my almost 50 years, I have not known war. When I have been sick, I have been able to find treatment. When I have been poor, I have been able to find support. When I have been lonely, I have been able to find friends. And a lot of that is because I live in Canada.

Canada is not a perfect country—it is no Shangri-La—but it is a good proxy. And today, July 1, it is 146 years old.

Being so free, however, I have often been complacent about how good things are for me. I have forgotten what went into creating this haven. Forgotten how my life has compared to those living elsewhere.

One of the great things about living in a cosmopolitan centre like Toronto is that I get the opportunity to meet many of the people who started elsewhere.

Several years ago, in the span of just a few months, I played host to a couple of post-doctoral researchers who came to Toronto to work at the Hospital for Sick Children. One was a researcher from Moscow, the other a student from Beijing. Both rented a room in my house, and while the rent money was nice, the life lesson was more valuable.

Wei marveled at the space available in this thriving metropolis; that he could go for a walk and find places where he saw no one. He also marveled at the speed and insanity of NHL hockey on Saturday nights (just because it’s cliché doesn’t, mean it’s untrue).

Sergei was reminded of home in some ways, and amusingly found Torontonians a bit repressed (ah, our Scottish banker roots were showing through). At the same time, when I informed him that yes indeed, public consumption of alcohol was illegal in our parks, he marveled that no one stopped him or that the police didn’t arrive suddenly. And he was grateful at the open welcome he received from everyone including my family. Our cookies were a little stale, but then, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d mistaken dog biscuits for cookies (we call them Sergei cookies, now).

As I would listen to both of these men recount their lives back home, I gained a new appreciation for what I had…and for what I took for granted.

From my geographically central location, I have had the luxury of traveling most of my country. I’ve taken in its historical sites—Fortress of Louisbourg, Quebec Citadel, Plains of Abraham—visited some of the most majestic landscape I could hope to see—the Shield of Northern Ontario, the Fraser River valley, the Bay of Fundy, the Lachine Rapids—participated in amazing cultural festivals—the Stratford Festival, Pride Week, Fringe Toronto, Caribana—and met amazing people.

I am a lucky man to live in such a beautiful, dazzling country.

Happy birthday, Canada. I love you more today than I did yesterday, and I will love you even more tomorrow.

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