A list: Books that have influenced me

Ideas for writers: Make a list…

It was during breakfast the other day that I looked over at my bookcase. It is not a big bookcase, nor does it contain all that many books. That is because not so long ago I had a purge of books — the currently popular term is ‘decluttering’ —  and kept only those of particular utility or interest.

Doing this made me think about some of those I decided to keep. Why was I keeping them? What did they mean to me? I realised that these were books that had influenced me for some reason, that had left a mark in my brain enough to want to keep hold of them in my much-diminished bookcase.

So, what are these influential books? Here’s a list of just twelve of them. There are more of course, and maybe I’ll list them later in another post. But, for now, and not in any particular order, here’s my first dozen:

1. Into the Wild

Christopher McCandless has become something almost mythical. A folk hero, almost. To some, anyway. Alaskans local to the area where his life ended in that old, discarded bus sometimes regard him in just the opposite way.

Many recent articles about him focus on his final weeks culminating in his seeking refuge in the bus, however what many find inspiring is his wayfaring life before that, his wanderings, his openess to the world and life experience.

A film was made about him. I thought it good, but there is much more insight in the book.

Who it’s for: The dissatisfied, the disaffected, the wanders in life.

2. The Moneyless Man

The book is the product of Mark Boyle’s year-long experiment in living without money in the UK. It was a year in a caravan (‘trailer’ to readers in the US) on someone’s farm in exchange for some work and of obtaining his needs through barter, growing, scrounging and making do.

A challenge it might have been, Boyle’s experience shows that it is possible and that is sure to inspire many who find no solace, no fulfillment in the daily life conventionally lived. And that is a growing band.

Who it’s for: The social experimenter, those wanting a better life than our societies offer.

3. In Defence of Food

Journalist, gardener and fair food advocate, Michael Pollan, dissects our food system and gets to the nitty gritty of nutrition and what food means to us.

This is no food fanatics rave, just the analysis of someone who knows the food system inside out and who knows that it could be way better.

Who it’s for: Those interested in food and how it gets to our table, those who want to build a betetr food system.

4. The Responsible Company

One-time Yosemite climbing dirtbag who went on to found the Patagonia outdoor equipment company, Yvon Chouinard, reveals what he has learned from 40 years as a reluctant businessman about environmentally and socially responsible business.

Chouinard has a unique and interesting story to tell about going against the business-as-usual grain and the difficulties and triumphs of seeking a betetr way.

Who it’s for: Business people, business skeptics, climbers and outdoor adventurers, social entrepreneurs.

5. How To Be Free

Tom Hodgkinson’s is an exuberant, what some might call a somewhat radical book about seeking personal freedom in a society (the UK, is his case) that seems so controlling.

He questions and challenges, both in writing and in person, the authorites and what so many of us take for granted when it comes to social institutions. In the book he talks of how he developed his own lifestyle at the time, a life of work (he was a journalist) in the morning followed by anternoons of idelness. Idleness, for Hodgkinson, is not about sitting around doing northing. His idea of idelness is having time for those things you like to do. So his afternoons were for reading, gardening or whatever and his evenings for a beer with friends down the pub.

A distinct libertarian feel pervades How To Be Free. Not the US version of libertarianism as a political philosophy which is a poorly-disguised neoliberalism plus personal freedom, but an authentic libertarianism, almost an anarchism (in the sence of society without government) that combines good living, conviviality and personal liberty. You might come away from this book with a questioning and possibly rebellious attitude.

Hodgkinson is also author of How To Be Idle and The Freedom Manifesto.

Who it’s for: The dissafected, the dissatisfied, lovers of freedom; seekers for a better way to live.

6. Fatu Hiva

In the 1930s, Norwegian Thor Hierdahl and wife Yvonne spent time on an isolated island in the Marquesses living wild, exploring the archeology and the island’s coasts and mountains and eating what the environment offered. Their relationship with the local Pacific islanders varied from close to tense in a couple cases.

They crossed the central range of the island, where they encountered wild horses, and descended to the coast on the other side where they built a simple shelter of local materials. The arrival of another person, however, soon dsirupted their paradisical life and eventually they recrossed the range and found passage out.

Fatu Hiva is a book of discovery, adventure, simple and good living and how human relationships can make and break life.

Who it’s for: Adventurers, anthropologists, Pacific island historians, seekers of the simple life and foragers.

7. On the Road

The classic novel that made Jack Kerouac famous a good decade after he wrote it in 1947, I have read this several times over the decades and always found it inspiring.

That has been the case with the tens of thousands of other readers. Over the decades some have acted on that inspiration to set out across the US themselves, seeking their own adventures. Doing that was popular in the late 1960s and it remains so with a different generation today.

The book is a novelisation of Kerouac’s actual transcontinental journeys. Just the names were changed to disguise the guilty. Kerouac was one of the coterie of writers, artists, poets and musicians who became known as ‘The Beats’. His is a book that remains inspirational even after all thsis time.

Who it’s for: Adventurers, the footloose, the wanderer, travellers, literature nerds.

8. The Dhamma Bums

Another book by Jack Kerouac, this one set in San Francisce where he turns his experiences there into a semi-factual novel.

It is a book of life in the fifties as lived by that social fringe he inhabited. It’s about the adventures, the people, the city, the mountains and it continues to retain a freshness today. Unlike his later Big Sur in which he describes his time living in a shack in the hills on the California coast where he struggled with alcoholism and depression, or his time alone in a fire lookout atop Desolation peak in the Cascades where he is torn between solitude and the conviviality of company in the city as he describes it in Desolation Angels, The Dhamma Bums is the tale of an earlier, exuberant time.

Who it’s for: Alternative living seekers, the literati (who will no doubt dissect it for its style, language and structure rather than enjoy it a story of an adventure in life), the footloose and the dissatisfied and disaffected.

9. The Snow Leopard

In the 1970s Peter Matthiessen ventured into the Himalayas on a wildlife expedition. His book is a journal of his wanderings and it is also the story of his inward journey.

This was Nepal before the tourists, before the trekking companies, before the hordes. It is a story of the wild mountains and their people and animals and it is the story of a time now gone. This is another of those books I have read several times over the years and it retains its otherness and its detail still.

Who it’s for: Adventurers, thinkers, seekers.

10. Despatches

We lost Michael Herr, author of Despatches, this year. His book is regarded as one of the best to come out of the war in Vietnam where he was a journalist, not a soldier.

Despatches is his story of two years in-country at the end of the sixties. The book was written in the style of the New Journalism of the time that borrowed its structure and style from fiction writing, and it is this that makes it so readable, so tenacious and revealing.

Who it’s for: Historians, journalists, literati and those who want to know what a recent, previous generation went through.

11. 180° South

Back in 1968, Yvon Chouinard, climber and dirtbag, joined his friends — Chris Malloy and Doug Tompkins — and loaded an old van with mountaineering equipment and surfboards and turned south, heading for the bottom of the Americas — Patagonia.

The journey inspired the late Doug Tompkins, who founded North Face, and Yvon to do what they could to preserve as much as they could of that wild world. The result is perhaps the largest private conservation program ever, conserving tens of thousands of hectares of land and waterway.

Decades later, they repeated the journey and made a film of it. Released in 2010, the book of the making of the film was published in 2013. The book was subtitled ‘conquerers of the useless’, a reference adopted by Yvon about climbing as an activity with no commercial benefit in itself.

They surfed, climbed and sailed their way to that other world just as they had done decacdes before and for anyone with a taste for adventure sports, rough travel and far away places, this is a book to inform, inspire and entice.

Who it’s for: Adventurers of mountain, sea and wild places, conservationists, people seeking a story to get them off their couch and into wild country.

12. Poets on the Peaks

If it is possible to write a book that entwines history, literature, photography and popular culture in some kind of enveloping textual and visual lyricism, the John Suiter’s Poets in the Peaks is it.

Suiter not only wrote the book but made the many black and white photographs that illustrate the time when novelist Jack Kerouac and his contemporaries, Gary Snyder and Phillip Whalen — Beats all — worked as fire lookouts in the North Cascades. That was in the early 1950s, a few yaars after Kerouac had made the first of his transcontinental journeys that formed the basis of his best known book, On The Road. It was a time critical to his later book, Desolation Angels, a reference to Desolation Peak and Desolation fire lookout.

John Suiter spent two weeks at Desolation Lookout as a volunteer fire watcher for the national parks service during which he made the images that appear in Poets on the Peaks, the same lookout where Jack Kerouac had done the same work forty summers before. As the jacket cover states, this is: “the story of the birth of the wilderness ethic and how the solitary mountain adventures of three young writers helped to form the literary, spiritual and environmental values of a generation”.

For me, this is a memorable book. I’m sure it would be the same for anyone who has been inspired and encouraged by Kerouac’s writing. It is as factual as it is romantic, as intriguing as it is pleasurable to read.

Who it’s for: Kerouac and lovers of the Beats, the adventurous-minded, literati, those who love the outdoor life and the inspiration it brings.


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