(s)

Q: What’s your favorite book?

A: I refuse to answer that question, on the grounds that it suggests there can be a singular answer

Q (amended): What’s your favorite book(s)?

Long A: Ahhh, now that’s more like it! See what magic can occur with the addition of two parentheses and an ‘s’?

There are many, many books that have inspired me throughout the years. I took this assignment as an opportunity to reminisce about my experiences with the stories I’ve read throughout my lifetime that have shaped my current tastes and proclivities in fiction, as well as my own style of writing. The exercise was a fun trip down memory lane, and it was surprisingly enlightening for me, as well.

I will skip over some of the required reading all children that love books will have read. Things like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, or Madeleine L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read them. Of course I read them. And they inspired me and affected me like they did millions of other readers. But that also means that waxing rhapsodic about these books would be an exercise in repetition that I’m loathe to pursue.

So, what are some stories that not everyone has read, that still profoundly affected me throughout my life?

One of the first is Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, the first book in the Xanth series. I borrowed the book from a friend in grade school (sixth grade, I think), and was completely spellbound. The books were funny, they were magical, they reimagined something real (the Florida peninsula) and created a new world that delighted. I devoured every Xanth novel I could get my hands upon.

Reading Xanth led me to Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The biggest draw, I’m sure, was the fantastic cover artwork. The first time I started to reading the series, I barely made it past the first few chapters. A protagonist with missing fingers, suffering from leprosy? Followed almost immediately by a rape scene? To be fair to the protagonist, he thought he was dreaming, and the rape was an attempt to prove the world wasn’t real, and didn’t matter. But still, blech! I was in seventh grade (if memory serves), and that was too much for me, to be sure. But a year or two later I revisited the series, and my additional maturity allowed me to progress past the initial shocking scenes and dig into the deeper themes of the books. They were much darker than Xanth, but they were still imagined so clearly and thoughtfully. The characters were real to me, especially Thomas Covenant, the White Gold Wielder. He was horribly flawed, and fascinating as a result.

Both authors captivated me with their fantasy series, and both authors introduced me to science fiction. Piers Anthony with his Bio of a Space Tyrant series, and Donaldson with his Gap series. Both were much more serious than their fantasy counterparts (yes, even Donaldson’s, believe it or not), but I was in high school, and angst and misery were the themes of the day. These stories itched my adolescent scratch, and forever converted me to a science fiction junkie. I dab my toe into the fantasy waters on occasion (for instance, to read Patrick Rothfuss’ excellent Kingkiller Chronicle), but I always return to the SF pool for my long swims.

During college, two novels really affected my taste in books. First, I stumbled across a newsgroup thread that discussed a new author I’d not read: Greg Egan and his novel, Permutation City. Intrigued, I visited the bookstore and found a copy. It was life-changing. The byline on the cover, “Ten Million People on a Chip,” was a mindblowing idea to me, and the ideas in the book that worked towards that promise were even more awe-inspiring. It was the first novel I’d ever read that actually made my head hurt when I tried to comprehend it. But I was a glutton for that kind of punishment, and snatched up every other book from Egan that I could get my hands on. I still do.

In 1993, Vernor Vinge published A Fire Upon the Deep. It subsequently won the Hugo that year. It’s another one of those books with ideas that are so big, and so intriguing, that you can’t put it down, and it haunts you even after you’ve finished reading it. Vinge is often credited with the first story to fully realize cyberspace and the Technological Singularity (both explored in True Names). I read his stories as much for the fiction as for the scientific hypotheses he investigated within.

The most recent novel to really affect the way I think about novels is Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Morgan does something very clever in his book: he assumes the reader just accepts things like “sleeves” (interchangeable biological bodies worn by computerized consciousnesses) and “needlecasting” (FTL communication). The technologies are integral to the story, but used almost dismissively. He then takes these far-future ideas and writes a pulp noir crime novel on top of them. The blend of high-tech science fiction with the highly stylized detective novel is like peanut butter and chocolate: two great tastes that taste great together.

Every novel I’ve ever read, from childhood to now, has added something to the overall flavor of my worldview. The books I mention above just happen to be the primary ingredients. Without experiencing any of the books listed above (as well as countless others that I could mention) I would see the world just a little bit differently.

Reminiscing on all of these novels for this post, I discovered how much certain stories resonate with me, even if I haven’t read them in twenty-five years. As an aspiring novelist, I also see how each of the stories informs my writing style, my choice of genre, my plotlines and character types. Each contributed something different, but none were any more or less important than the others. My overall favorite? All of them, stirred into the melting pot that is me.

Short A: I like lots of book(s). They’re ALL favorites!

2 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Curious to read anything else you’ve written. Steer me, if you don’t mind.

    • Ted says:

      Things I’ve written? Wow, I’m flattered, but unfortunately, I’m also stymied. I have one self-published short story out on Amazon’s Kindle store, and a half dozen manuscripts that are all in various states of revision. If you’re interested in reading unfinished work, I’m always looking for critiques.

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