Politically I would characterize myself as a far left progressive (I see Obama as a right winger). To make sure I don’t get too cozy in my point of view I look for right wing columns to read, even occasionally Redstate.com, though I tend to find it kind of strange and otherworldly (not in the good way). I prefer the sort of conservative the uber-rightwingers like to denounce as soft, or trying to suck up to the supposed “liberal media elite.” Two favorites are David Brooks of the New York Times and his younger colleague Ross Douthat. Douthat recently had a column in which he listed the ten books that most influenced him. In other words, not necessarily his favorites, and certainly not those he considers the “best.” Just the ones that had the biggest effect on him. I think this is a really fun idea. You get to write about books you care about (the book nerd’s favorite activity), and even, really write about yourself. Mr. Douthat made sure to keep his list to exactly ten (with a few runners-up). Being far left I don’t worry too much about coloring in between the lines. If ten becomes twelve, or fifteen, why worry?
And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street—Dr. Seuss. I posted the idea for this kind of list on Facebook and got wonderful responses. Many people figured that the books that most influenced them were the ones they read as kids. I had many favorites as a child, including the Babar stories, and the Dr. Doolittle series. But Dr. Seuss’s first book, about a little boy who walks down the street and imagines bigger and bigger wonders as he goes, kind of epitomizes my outlook. Why settle for reality, or what passes for it among the grown-ups?
Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I loved all fairy tales as a child. Andrew Lang’s color series (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.), Hans Christian Andersen, whatever I could find. But I always knew that the Grimms’ stories were the real goods—unsentimental, scary, magical. Many of the stories I write are fairy tales, even if set in the modern day, and featuring adults (such as my novel, Godmother Night). The best translation of Grimm’s that I know of is The Juniper Tree by Lore Segal—direct, elegant, beautiful, and dark.
The Lord of the Rings—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Quite a few of the Facebook comments included this mighty work. I always feel compelled to tell people I discovered it all on my own, in the public library, years before it became a giant fad. There’s an entry further down on this site about Tolkien, so I won’t say too much here, except that I was fairly obsessed with it for some time (until the fad saved me—I didn’t want to be seen as one of those people), and that it showed me you don’t have to adapt existent worlds, you can create an entirely new one. Even though my novel Unquenchable Fire is nothing like TLOTR, I might never have written it without Tolkien’s influence.
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy—Mircea Eliade. This too I discovered on my own, when most people had never seen the word “shaman.” Eliade did not do any fieldwork, but he sorted through a vast amount of anthropological reports from all over the world, putting together a comprehensive vision of people for whom the “other world” is not theoretical or literary or a matter of faith, but an absolute reality. And a very strange one as well. I think it’s fair to say that the whole contemporary shamanic revival comes from this book—and so does a lot of my writing.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces—Joseph Campbell. JC, as I sometimes think of him, was another of my personal discoveries. I went to a lecture of his around 1965, and went out and got his book right afterwards. That copy is so full of underlinings, and exclamation points, and my own comments, that I am simply too embarrassed to open it! I think everyone in college should have a book like that. Campbell’s views actually became much more complex after this early book, but I don’t think he ever matched the passion and beauty of Hero. It was a major influence on me stylistically, and at least two of the stories he re-tells, The Ruin of Kasch, and the transformation of Gwion Bach into the magical bard Taliesin, have been touchstones for me ever since.
The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony—Roberto Calasso. Calasso, whose first book was titled The Ruin of Kasch(!), delves more deeply into the Greek myths than anyone I’ve ever read. Stunning, and strange.
The Gate of Horn—Gertrude Rachel Levy. When I was immersing myself in contemporary Goddess writing, I kept seeing references to this book, published in 1948, and long out of print. I figured I should read it but did not really expect to learn much that was new, since after all, so much work had been done, so much important research, since the ’40s. I ended up taking over three hundred pages of notes. Seriously. Though Levy was a scholar, her history of religion from the Stone Age through the Classical world felt to me like fireworks going off on every page. At one point I had the fantasy that if I had to testify in court I would ask to be sworn in with my hand on The Gate of Horn.
The Rider Tarot—Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Not a book in the normal sense, though I often think of the Tarot as a book that you remake every time you shuffle it. I first saw the Rider deck when I was teaching college in 1970 and a colleague offered to read my cards if I gave her a ride home. It’s fair to say that it’s been a major influence in my life ever since. Forty years later I discover new things in it all the time.
The Man in the High Castle—Philip K. Dick. It’s always hard for me to choose my favorite work by Dick. The first thing I read of his was a short story, “Electric Ant,” about an executive who discovers he’s an android, commissioned by his company and imbued with false memories of a life history as a human being. I was amazed by the simple elegance, the intensity of the idea, the visionary quality of the executive’s attempt to find ultimate reality. Much of science fiction is the playing out of interesting notions. What makes Dick’s work so powerful is that it really mattered to him, the question of how we know that we are real was close to life and death. It’s fashionable in literary circles to celebrate Dick’s ideas while dismissing him as a writer. I couldn’t disagree more. The simplicity and spareness of his style are an expression of the bleakness of his vision. And yet, at the same time he can be extremely funny. There are passages in my own work that are direct homage to the style, and vision, and intensity of Philip K. Dick.
Okay, so that’s nine titles, which I figure takes me about halfway through my top ten. More to come!