Malcolm X famously said: ‘People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.’
Ain’t that the goddamn truth.
The trajectory of my life has certainly been affected, dramatically at times, by books. I don’t think I could overstate their impact, in fact.
The other day, in one of my quieter, more reflective moments, I thought to myself: Could I narrow it down? Could I grasp one book from my shelves and say to it, ‘You! You are the one responsible for all of this!’?
Turns out that no, I couldn’t narrow it down. Not to one, anyway. I did manage three though. Which, I think you’ll agree, is broadly equal to one.
‘Crime And Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I think I was 14 or 15 at the time. I had always been a reader, devouring pretty much anything that attracted me with colour or humour—the Horrible Histories series here in England being a particular, shelf-filling favourite of mine. But it wasn’t until that day in my mid-teens, when I finally worked up the courage to stare down, march towards, and pick up Dostoyevsky’s forbidding tome off my older brother’s shelf, that I considered myself a Reader. The density of ideas, the overpowering atmosphere, the bloody huge compound sentences—it would take me a long time before I would desire to read anything that wasn’t written by a Pushkin or a Tolstoy or a Gogol or a Bulgakov or a Turgenev or a Goncharov or a Chekhov. I have obviously branched out since then, but there remains to this day something about the Russian novel that means it stands on its own as far as I’m concerned. Maybe it’s the sheer hugeness of their land or the turbulent history of their nation. Whatever it is it suffuses their literature and it completely overpowers you if you choose to sample it.
‘No Logo’ by Naomi Klein
Near the end of the last millennium, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein published a book that would be not only hyper-timely in its description of the world that we were living in, but that would—in the words of Bill Hicks—permanently squeegee my third eye clean when I would pick it up a few years later. In a relatively relaxed and not-at-all imposed way I had been raised in a pretty leftist household, with anti-imperialist sentiment, media analysis, and old-school Marxist critique becoming a second language quite early on. But even in that relatively primed and aware state, the searing, detailed, painfully current critique of corporate globalization found in ‘No Logo’ would mean that I would never look at the world the same way again. At a book signing for ‘The Shock Doctrine’ a few years later I had a chance to tell Naomi Klein just how much her impassioned and devastating work had changed my life, but the scale of what I was trying to describe was so colossal that to say I fumbled my words when it came to the moment would be putting it lightly.
‘Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail ‘72’ by Hunter S. Thompson
At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and a head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps fifty feet down to the lawn…pauses briefly to strangle the Chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness…towards the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue, and trying desperately to remember which one of those fore hundred identical balconies is the one outside of Martha Mitchell’s apartment….Ah…Nightmares, nightmares. But I was only kidding. The President of the United States would never act that weird. At least not during football season.
So, Pajiba, what about you?