A recent issue of Books and Culture magazine featured an editorial
about influential books in the context of the 400th anniversary of the
King James Version of the Bible, probably the most influential book
ever written in the English language.
The editor discussed ten books that had influenced his life and writing
and suggested that his readers compile their own lists. I took his
challenge, and here is my list:
1. I would have to agree that the King James Version of the Bible
was the most influential book in shaping both my thoughts and my
style. Its cadences formed my background musicâ€”that and the
rhythm of the old â€œsnapper job pressâ€� that I ran for hours in
our newspaper shop and office. The KJV was read and discussed
from the pulpit, in Bible classes, at the dinner table, and in our living
room. I read it straight through the first time when I was in high
school. By the time I started college, I graduated to the American
Standard Version, which was the text for Everett Ferguson's
overview classes on the Old and New Testaments at ACC. Iâ€™m
sure the KJV had an impact on my writing style, from my frequent
parallelism to the rhythm of the words I choose.
2. After that would have to come Shakespeare. We read a play a
year in English class all four years of high school and in our English
literature overview class in college. It was followed by a semester on
Shakespeareâ€™s tragedies and another on the histories and
comedies. We have owned collections, individual plays and a
complete Shakespeare since my cousin Loyd Dean gave me my first
little volume of Midsummer Night's Dream for high school
3. Probably the third most influential book is the Collected Works of
Lord Byron. I first encountered Byron in high school, then studied
him in a college class on the Romantic Writers. I researched and
wrote an unpublished book about his life and works. Too many other
people had done the same, but it did get me into the Huntington
Library for research. I loved Byron because of his facility with
language. He could write five consecutive rhyming lines without
sacrificing either brevity or senseâ€”and even make a joke out of it.
His life and works opened up the world of the Romantics, a world of
stormy emotions and daring deeds for democratic principle that made
my heart soar.
4. Fourth would be Hemingway. His stripped, spare style fit well
with my journalistic training and seemed deliciously up-to-date after
the historical works Iâ€™d spent so much time on. I read all the
short stories and most of the novels, reveling in the dirt and grit of
wartime and of my grandparentsâ€™ generation in Europe. The
romance, daring deeds and colorful scenes and characters influenced
my early attempts at fiction.
5. Fifth is Greek classical dramaâ€”Aeschylus, Sophocles and
Euripides. I studied them with Wade Ruby my first year at
Pepperdine, and Iâ€™ve enjoyed them ever since--the classic
balance, the characters fated for a tragic end and the introduction to
6. Next is the English mystery writer P.D. James. I met her through
the BBC productions of her books, and my family gave me most of
them as presents over a period of years. In fact, the rest of my most
influential books are mysteries, my favorite genre. James was notable
for her ability to set a scene and use distinctive features of the
landscape to give emotional life to the story.
7. Martin Cruz Smithâ€™s bleak, cold stories of Communist
Russia and Cuba and his graphic portrayal of life on a canning ship
brought me back to Hemingwayâ€™s more masculine style and to
the Red Menace of my 50s childhood.
8. I read a lot of Dorothy Sayersâ€™ Lord Peter Wimsey books,
both in book and BBC movie form. The genteel British characters
and settings bring a certain two-dimensional life to the '20s.
9. Walter Mosley was important both for his fast-paced style and
his loving recreation of Los Angeles from the end of World War II to
the Watts Riots. I was surprised and pleased to realize that we must
have been neighbors when we first moved here.
10. Steven Saylor is a more recent discovery--a writer who
combines history and mystery in a provocative manner, bringing the
long-dead culture of ancient Rome to vibrant life.