Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Six Most Influential Books in My Life

Since Aidan and Nila did this based on Justin’s post, I might as well join the fray. Of course distilling a lifelong passion for consuming the written word into five six plus a few collections of those written words is not an easy task.

The Three Investigators by Robert Arthur

While other kids were reading about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I was riding along with The Three Investigators. I don’t recall which of the many The Three Investigators novels was the first I read, but I’m going to guess it was The Secret of Terror Castle since it was the first in the series. Well, as I originally read the series when I was a wee lad in New Jersey it was Alfred Hitchcock Presents the Three Investigators. I visited the library often to take out an unread book in the series and eventually, started buying the series in the mall stores like B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. (Yeah, I just dated myself)

Like the best crafted series, these books could be read in any order, since Robert Arthur managed (and this is coming from a spot which has been in my memory for over two decades) to convey each of the three young investigators – Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews, and Pete Crenshaw as distinct characters. The little logo onthe book sported Hitchcock's famous silhouette since he was a mentor for the boys. Sorting through my memories of these terrific books, I’m not surprised in the least that I was drawn to these books and tried to devour all the books in the series for they have a fair amount in common with one of my favorite cartoons of all time – Scooby Doo. Both properties involve youthful investigators and more often than not, the seemingly supernatural MacGuffin (or Red Herring) was a guy in a costume or something not supernatural at all. 

As the series continued, the agreement with Alfred Hitchcock lapsed and a famous “actor” named Hector Sebastian took over as the boys's mentor. The series was continued at one point with the three boys at older ages, re-released and even had a Disney movie (direct to cable) made a couple of years ago.

Anyway, The Three Investigators is what introduced me to the idea of an ongoing series in prose form. What I found pretty cool is that Brandon Sanderson has pointed to this series as influential

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

My parents were readers, though my mother more so than 'my father. One author they both agreed upon was Stephen King and like many children of the 1980s who enjoyed reading, I gravitated to Mr. King’s fiction. Although the first from him I read I think was Cujo (when I was in third grade and still is as good a POV from through the eyes of a dog as I've ever read), I’ll have to say the King novel to have the biggest impact on me was the fantasy novel he co-wrote with Peter Straub. Of course, I speak of The Talisman. It was the first book I read more than once and much of the landscape of The Territories still remains strongly in my memory. Although King & Straub were by no means the first to introduce parallel worlds / multiverse into fiction (Moorcock and the D.C. Universe predate them by a couple of decades), but The Talisman was my introduction to the concept. I still see the scenes of Jack Sawyer flipping, dealing with his friend Wolf and the hell he experienced thanks to Sunlight Gardner’s School quite vividly. My dad has the Donald M. Grant two-book limited slipcase edition which contains some gorgeous art.

I haven’t read it in years, but for a few years, I read The Talisman three or four times over the course of five years.

DragonLance: Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

If The Three Investigators introduced me to the concept of “series” in prose fiction and The Talisman was something of an introduction to fantasy, then the final piece of this here Triforce would be the Chronicles as fans have come to refer to these books. My young RPG group played Dungeons and Dragons quite often and my friend John had a copy of Dragons of Autumn Twilight lying on his bookshelves and what about that Larry Elmore cover didn’t appeal to me at the time? I of course asked if I could borrow it from him. After devouring the book, I decided to get the first of what would eventually be many volumes in my personal Omnibus Hall of Fame – the Big White Book which contains all three novels in the original trilogy. This big ol’ omnibus is now dog-eared after multiple readings and served as my foundational fantasy series/novel.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

For a number of reasons, the least of which involves the words on the page. You see, as an undergraduate English major, this book was on the reading list of half of my classes so I read it quite often. The most important of those classes was my Science Fiction Literature class at Rutgers University in 1994. Why is that class so important? I met my wife in that class. Don’t get me wrong, I think Frankenstein is a masterpiece, a dark, gothic, brooding story of one man’s vanit, his weakness and god complex that serve as the foundation for both Science Fiction and Horror. But yeah, Frankenstein was the first book we covered in that class (of approx 200 students in a school of 30,000 students) where my wife and I met in Scott Hall 135. I've analyzed the book from a few standpoints and remembered being in awe of it. Also on that syllabus: Dune, Hello, America by J. G. Ballard, The Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick, the David Lapham comic books Warriors of Plasm, the marvelous Dawn by Octavia Butler and the two books I abhorred and couldn’t finish: The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson and Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. As part of that course, we were also required to watch Metropolis and Blade Runner.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

As I’ve mentioned on the blog previously, this is the book that sucked me fully into fantasy and science fiction after graduating college and having free reading time on my hands. Were it not for this book, I may not have discovered the SFFWorld forums back in 1999. Had I not joined those forums, the great overlord Dag Rambruat may not have asked me to join the behind-the-scenes workings as a forum moderator, and later book reviewer and this blog might not even exist.

I reread the book two years ago and was pleased at how well it stood up to my initial reading memories. Having read much of the series, it was also impressive to see how impactful much of what happened in the first book is for later installments in the series.

Heroes Die by Matthew (Woodring) Stover 

This is the book that changed the prescription of my fantasy-reading lens. Stover’s violent novel mixes elements of fantasy/mythology and physics in a novel that launched. Stover’s Caine (aka Hari Michaelson) is one of the most complex, interesting, and engaging characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Each subsequent installment in what has become The Acts of Caine shows Stover flexing his writing muscles, but this is the one that started it all and the book that forced me to look at the genre differently and experience it differently than I did before reading the book.

It remains my favorite book published in the last 15 years and I suspect if Heroes Die were published today, it would be more widely read and appreciated. In short, I think Matt Stover was ahead of his time with this book.

OK, some honorable mentions, two of which are considered The Great American Novel (at least of their respective centuries of publication) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.  I think Chabon's Pulitzer for Kavalier and Klay says it all.  I'd also add to the almost list 1984 (one of the few perfect novels, IMHO) and perhaps the pinnacle of superhero deconstruction Watchmen, a graphic novel I read about once per year and discover something I'd missed on previous readings.

Right, so there you go. I would't be surprised if I changed my mind at a later date, but the six books highlighted above have probably had the most influence on me as a reader.


Anonymous said...

I loved The Three Investigators. In fact, I wait with anticipation until my mephews are old enough for me to buy them a boxed set for their birthdays.

Also love The Talisman. One of the few books I have read more than once, and will probably read again some day.

I've actually never read the Wheel of Time books, even though I constantly have them recommended to me. I actually picked up the first book back when I was in college, read a few pages and never continued. Now that the series is like 300 books or something, I doubt I ever will. There are a few other fantasy series I want to get to, and despite reading or listening to 3-5 books a week, it's hard to fit long series in with all the current stuff.

RobB said...

Glad to see more love for the Three Investigators though I wish they were as widely known as their 'cousins' the Hardy Boys.