The Books That Changed My Life

One of the fun parts of being a grumpy old fart is the implicit permission to wax nostalgic for either your childhood, or a heavily-romanticized version thereof. Large parts of my formative years were miserable and traumatic enough that it would take some Soviet Union-scale revisionist history to make me nostalgic for them, but there are the occasional thing that I remember with some degree of fondness.

A lot of them have to do with books.

My parents, for all their many faults, encouraged me to read, and managing to foster a lifelong love of books in me probably counts among their few successes where raising me was concerned. By age nine, I was making biweekly trips to the town library, and making a substantial effort towards reading my way through their entire children’s section.

It was a fairly small town, and the library was not well-funded, so their selection of books tended to be a little… dated. Around age seven, I’d read My Side of the Mountain, which made me want to learn survival skills and go become a hermit somewhere. (Unhappy childhood, remember?) Around age nine, I’d read my way through their collection of ancient Hardy Boys books, and discovered – somehow – the (really much inferior, but that’s another matter) then-fairly-new paperback series featuring Frank and Joe – the “Hardy Boys Casefiles”. Alas, the library only had the first three or four.

It was thus that I was introduced to bookstores…

For about a year, my father would take me every weekend to the nearest mall – about half an hour away – where I’d buy the “next” volume in the series, and order the one after that.

Well, one week, when I was ten, I believe, tragedy struck – the ordered book hadn’t arrived. Since we’d come all that way, it seemed silly to just leave, so I wandered a bit aimlessly, looking for something to read. I wandered out of the kids’ section, perused mysteries for a bit, briefly perused romance, and walked through the science-fiction section where, at eye-level, I spotted a book with a title so strange and preposterous that I just had to stop and pick it up.

That book was The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison, and it proved my dangerously addictive gateway to the world of science fiction and fantasy. Much more than that, though, the series (I read all the ones that had then been published, which was three or four, I think) had a subtle and lasting influence on me.

Oh, Jim DiGriz is no role model, but I think a lot of my now-innate pessimism and cynicism can be traced to the worldview expressed in the Stainless Steel Rat books. My interest in urban exploration almost certainly stems from DiGriz’s fondness for the back alleys and other out-of-the-way places of society, and I’m pretty sure one of the books is where I first came across the admonishment “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission”, an only very dangerous idea for an impressionable teenager.

These interests were only exacerbated when, a year or two later, I somehow stumbled across a copy of The Colditz Story, an omnibus of two memoirs of prisoners (and successful escapees) at the notorious WWII POW camp. Tunnels! Lock-picking! Hidden compartments! Oh, heady joy!

That led me to a phase of reading memoirs, which caused me to read Winston Churchill’s epic multi-volume autobiography, which left me with both the nagging feeling that politicians had all ought to be rounded up and quarantined, lest their stupidity spread, and a painfully deep-seated tendency to write words like kerb and tyre and colour the “right” way. 🙂

After that it was back to science fiction and fantasy for a loooong while – Piers Anthony traumatized my sense of humor, and I think The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey contained the first real sex scene I’d ever read. Robert Lynn Asprin’s Myth series continued the abuse of my sense of humor that Anthony had begun. The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings led to Dragonlance, which got me interested in role-playing games, which eventually got me interested in computer games…

It’s been a while since I’ve found any really influential books, probably because I’m now old and bitter and cynical. (I kid, I kid. Slightly.) That being said, there are two books which have had a somewhat recent influence on me, which deserve mention.

As you may or may not know, I wrote a novel about a year ago. I’d been writing long before that, of course – one of my “old shames” is that I’m actually a professionally-published poet. Not just a poet, but a science-fiction poet, of all things. I also had some fantasy short stories published in ‘zines, back in the Factsheet Five era. (Also under pseudonyms. Thank the gods.)

Anyway, in the spring of 2010 I first read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which had been published in English a year earlier. It was interesting and entertaining and innovative (by western standards…), and got me interested in light novels. Shortly thereafter, I found my way to Baka-Tsuki, a community-driven effort to produce unauthorized English translations of popular Japanese light novels.

There, I read the text of a light novel. A popular light novel, I remember, which was very well regarded, and which had spawned a number of sequels.

It was AWFUL.

I don’t just mean that there were typos or obviously questionable translation errors or grammar mistakes, as tends to be the case at dear ol’ Baka-Tsuki. I mean that the whole thing was just such an abomination – a hideous excuse for a plot, horrible characters, ridiculous dialogue – that it was almost physically painful to read, on par with most teenage fan-fiction. I struggled my way through it, hoping in vain that it would get better, but it never did; if anything, it got worse.

At the end, I was left staring at the computer in stunned disbelief. “People pay money for that atrocious thing? It’s a best-seller, with multiple sequels? Shit,” I said to myself, “I could write a better light novel than that.”

And so I did. Well, I tried.

A few months later, Mendacities was inflicted upon the world, and, well, yeah, we all know how well that turned out, don’t we?

Here’s the deal, though: For the first couple months after my novel was published, I didn’t want to say anything about this dubious inspiration, because I didn’t want to be flamed to death by irate fanbois, or have them go around leaving one-star reviews everywhere with comments like “little faggot baka thinks he’s better than (insert Japanese author’s name here), lolwut?” without actually having read Mendacities. Now, meh, whatever; nothing a horde of teenage assholes could do would make the book sell worse, so I don’t really care anymore.

The problem is that I’ve apparently forgotten what that translated light novel I read was. Honest to God. I’d thought I remembered it as Ore no Im?to ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai, but if the website is to be believed, that translation wasn’t finished until October 2010, long after I’d read whatever it was in full. It is pretty horribly written, to be sure, but unless they’re wrong or I’m a time-traveler, it’s not what dubiously inspired me through superhuman sucktasticness.

Ah, well. It’s hardly important, I guess.

But, yeah. The Stainless Steel Rat. My introduction to science-fiction, and the one book which probably had more influence on me than any other, for better or for worse. Just think – if I’d never gone down that aisle in the bookstore, never spotted that book, never picked it up, never bought it…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on July 22nd, 2011| No Comments »

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