This list is bogus.
Choosing Ten Books that had an impact on me is hard, as many books impacted me in different ways. In many ways, this is a stupid internet meme, sort of like Rick Rolling for intellectuals. As such, there is an element of randomness to these books. The criteria for this project are highly subjective, and I will do my best to explain why these books were chosen.
1. The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Beverly Clearly
I’m not sure if I ever really read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, but I absorbed the stop-motion film versions as a child. Ralph was, and I guess to some extent still is, my first and strongest imaginary friend, and would become the focus for my own fantasy world of Mythania, a sort of cross between The Chronicles of Narnia/The Neverending Story/Digimon, the first two of which I could have placed on this list, but Ralph was the first fixture of my fantasy world.
2. The Marvellous Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum
The Oz books were also a recurring interest of mine, and Mythania had some Oz correspondences. I choose this one because it was probably the book that got me really kicked on the Oz books. It was the second of the Oz books, and had nothing. On another note, the book has one of the earliest transsexual characters in fiction, Tip/Princess Ozma, who was born a woman but was turned into a boy by an evil witch to prevent her from becoming Ruler of Oz. The full extent of this is not completely understood at this time, but I’ll keep you posted.
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
This is when we get into the books that really got me. I many ways, Dune is a gateway drug into the world that would await me. It has strange religious philosophies with esoteric practices and environmentalism, all tied up in an adventure story about a young man trying to get revenge on the people who killed his father, and becoming Emperor of a gigantic interstellar Empire. The entire Dune books became a focus for me, becoming part of the Second Version of Mythania, a more streamlined world inhabited by supermen and Tolkeinian world building. I’m pretty sure that Dune still affects me more than I know.
4. The Invisibles, Grant Morrison
Supercool Occult Anarchist Freedom Fighters The Invisibles fight against totalitarian intelligence from beyond space and time, the Outer Church. Featuring time travel, the Marquis de Sade, Psychedelics, Paranoia, Shamanic Drag Queens, A Satellite In Orbit of Earth That Loves You, Aliens, Secret Military Bases, Subcultures, Occultism and the 2012 Phenomena.
I read this in high school when I was young and impressionable. This should explain a lot about my life.
Of all the books I list here, the Invisibles is the closest thing that comes to a Bible, a myth that has become the focus of my life. Even now, when I look at it and see the weaknesses, that Grant Morrison can be too self-consciously hip, that the characters are two-dimensional and that his writing of minority characters has some serious problems, it is still the book that has gotten the most under my skin. I can’t imagine myself without The Invisibles. One day, I will probably rewrite this, with better characterisation, especially for the minority characters. (the concept of a rapper who practices voodoo was horribly misused. Grant Morrison’s knowledge of black people comes exclusively from MTV, and his knowledge of voodoo seems to come mostly from Michael Bertiaux’s Voudon Gnostic Workbook.) Essentially, I want to write a combination of The Invisibles and The Wire, but that’s another time.
5. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
I used to hate “people stories.” This would generally be anything on the side of general realism or naturalism. Invisible Man was one of the first books I willingly read that I count as “people stories.” I would argue that Invisible Man is the greatest American novel of the 20th Century.
This was a book that made me realize things outside me, namely what it is like being African-American. I knew on some level that being black wasn’t the greatest, I knew about racism, I’d seen the very special Saturday morning shows. Invisible Man gave me a window about what being African-American was like, and what I saw was an absurd, nightmarish reality where a man’s voice and desires are undermined by the very nature of society. The techniques of control are everywhere, from the racist old men who force the Invisible Man to a boxing match for their entertainment just so he can give a speech, only to gently remind him that, naturally, blacks and whites cannot be equal when he brings it up, to the education system that ties him into the power structure. Even the people who are nominally on the side of equality, the Brotherhood, are merely using the Invisible Man for his ability to make speeches. Throughout the novel, we are met with beautiful prose, a wide panorama of characters, and a simply stunning work of art.
6. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
This was a tricky one. Reading Mumbo Jumbo was a deeply comfortable experience. While Invisible Man helped me understand what it is like being an African-American, Mumbo Jumbo helped me realize just how angry African-Americans can be. While I understand that Ishmael Reed, in particular, is a very angry man, this was probably one of the biggest shocks I have ever encountered as a reader.
Mumbo Jumbo, probably the first occult conspiracy novel (predating Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles) takes place in the 1920s when the white establishment was terrified of the black virus known as Jazz that was infecting the population. Papa LaBass is a voodoo priest in New York, who with his partner Black Herman (who was a real person) fights against the Wallflower Order, a secret conspiracy dedicated to Monotheism, European Culture, and not dancing. This is a very Afrocentric book. There are no sympathetic white characters, it is violently against the institutions of white culture, and even goes far to retell the Bible, the central text of Western culture, to turn Moses into a charlatan. As a young, white, monotheist this book fucked me up good.
Unlike most books on this list, this hangs on me like a ghost. It’s like I’m always followed by the ghost of a black man who occasionally comes up to me and says “You are guilty. Even though you yourself did nothing, you are guilty by being a complacent part.” Recently, I have come to understand and accept this. I feel it’s time for me to reread this, and see what I can bring back from it now.
7. Cities of the Red Night, William S. Burroughs
Generally, I favour writers as compared to independent books, so in some cases a book on this will represent a writer. With William S. Burrough’s, it’s hard because his books are a sort of odd continuum of William S. Burrough’s strange psychic journey on the underbelly of America, and like it or not, we do live in America’s world. Thankfully, we have William S. Burroughs to remind us that America is a horrible, ugly place, filled with horrible, evil people, who would see you dead if it meant a quick fix. I love you Uncle Bill.
My personal favorite William S. Burroughs is the work known as The Last Trilogy, consisting of Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands. They feel like they have stories, unlike Naked Lunch which is largely the meandering drug ramblings of an American expatriate in Tangiers. The Last Trilogy is Burroughs as sorcerer, which is the Burroughs who stuck with me. Also, it dosen’t hurt that this has the illusion of a plot, which is more than I can say for Naked Lunch. Technically, Cities of the Red Night has like four, there is a plague of a sexually transmitted disease (before AIDS was a thing mind), tales of a Pirate Utopia, an investigation featuring Private Asshole Clem Snide, and stories of a pilgrimage to seven cities that will end in immortality.
I am proud to consider William S. Burroughs a literary ancestor, and it pains me that while we were both alive at the same time, I could never know him. I was eight when he died in 1997, and I would not even know who he was until I was in high school, which is always a good time to discover Burroughs. He was the outsider, the person who just didn’t fit into society, and as someone with autism I knew how he felt. In my final yearbook, in the section were you give an inspiring quote, my choice was one by William S. Burroughs. “I know I’m some kind of interplanetary agent but I don’t think my signals are decoding properly.” Burroughs taught me to stay strong even in the face of a world that seems, and in some cases is, malevolently against you.
8. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
So I read On the Road in high school. It was alright, I can’t fault Kerouac’s use of language, but it didn’t really get to me. I didn’t become an instant Kerouac devotee, as an author I struggle with him which is probably one of the greatest complements you can give an author in my opinion. I still kind of think of Kerouac as a really messed up Catholic with alcoholism, a fear of women, an embarrassing romanticism about black people, and someone who bought into the toxic myth of the American dream, a mass delusion I would personally like to see die slowly in a fire. So yeah, I was never really that into the whole Kerouac thing, the whole guys going on a road trip to find themselves was not the story I latched onto.
For me, the story of bohemian poets mad to live did not come from Kerouac’s 50’s Americana, but from an exiled Chilean punk kid from Mexico. Maybe it’s something to do with my generation. When Kerouac was a novelist for baby bombers, it was a time to expand, to write ecstatic prose about road trips. I’m a Millennial, economically I’m watching a shrinking, and the sense of apocalyptic nihilism that pervades my time period is one that also pervades The Savage Detectives.
When reading it, during the early years of my university career, I realized this was a book I would read again. Not in the sense of “I like this book I should read it again,” but that it was a book I had to read again. It starts in the world I was in, the world of a university student with bohemian tendencies, with maybe a foot into some less than savory worlds. It then goes into the lives of the two poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, as they meander across four continents, lost and directionless, without the romance (or self-delusion) of Kerouac. Unlike Kerouac, Bolano became an adult, kicked his own addictions, and managed to write about it all without Kerouac’s obsessions with sin and sainthood.
9. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
If you live in the 20th or 21st century, you need to read Philip K. Dick. If you haven’t, you already live in one. You won’t get out of it once you read Philip K. Dick, but you will at least know that you live in a Philip K. Dick novel, and that’s something.
I had read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep before, but it didn’t click. This book did. It was like nothing else I had ever read. It was a science fiction novel, but it was also, fundamentally a much dreaded people story. It just takes place in an alternate timeline were the Axis won World War Two and the United States was split into two zones run by the Japanese and the Germans respectively.
The thing about Axis victory novels is that you’d expect them to be about politics. You’d expect it to be some Harry Turtledove story about an alternate Cold War, or people leading a resistance against the Nazis and overthrowing them, but that’s not what The Man in the High Castle is about. It’s about antiques dealing. Antiques dealing and the I Ching, and in Japanese occupied San Francisco. That just blew my mind, and made me instantly fall in love with Philip K. Dick.
Another thing I would like to mention here is his book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which is a tale of inter planetary war between two drug dealers, one of whom is the Antichrist. This was what really clicked for me, but I’m listing The Man in the High Castle for the gateway factor.
10. Tay John, Howard O’Hagan
Tay John is probably not a very well-known book, but it’s one of my favorite books as a Canadian. It combines my love of the epic and mythological with my love of things that are obscure and mysterious. Tay John has the qualities of a mythic origin story, while also being sceptical about them.
I came across Tay John in a Canadian Lit class at University, and it quickly became the novel I was most glad to be forced to read. It was a highly enjoyable story about a the son of an insane preacher and a First Nations woman, who after abandoning his tribe becomes a fur trapper of mythic qualities, based on a historical figure known as Yellowhead, who’s name would become that of the geography of Canada. In some ways, it annoys me that this is the only novel by a Canadian on this list, as it shows a certain cultural colonialism that has become a deep concern of mine, but unfortunately I am only know beginning to examine the literature of my country. This book, however, along with Robertson Davies The Rebel Angels and Marianne Engel’s Bear, has struck me as a powerful work I am proud to have in my national tradition.