I don’t quite remember who asked this, but at some point someone asked me to list ten books that have stayed with me.
I’ve a beat-up copy of this I borrowed (what do you mean stole?) from my parents, and it’s one of the few books my partner and I both have a copy of. I remember reading it and not fully getting it – it’s squarely aimed at people who studied history around the mid-60s, I suppose, with all of the in-jokes that go with a period comedy. But there was enough – the Scots living in brackets, the Memorable Dates, history coming to a. The whole idea that you could even have a comedy about history education probably opened up my writing style as much as any book.
Early one morning, the sun was shining; I walked into HMV,
wondering if they had anything I needed on CD.
I wandered up to the Dylan section, couldn’t believe my eyes:
Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde were both €6.95.
Immediately I bought them both, the friend with me said “but…
Colin, you already own them both!” I said “Shut
I’m tangled up in Bob.”
Now, my Dylan addiction is more or less under control, his songs are still among the first I turn to on the guitar1 and it’s good to know I can look up the middle verses of Desolation Row if I need to.
There are many reasons one could end up with two copies of a book: an absent-minded trip to a charity shop, a friend leaving a copy behind for safe-keeping, two different people having the same kind thought for a gift. I have two copies of Candy is Dandy so I can lend one out to anyone who hasn’t heard of Ogden Nash. My uncle Bill lent me a copy, once, and I irritated my parents by reading from it, punctuated with giggles, all the way home.
Best Christmas present ever, I think, except maybe for a Kindle recently. My trusty Chambers doesn’t get much use these days (not when online dictionaries are less dog-eared), but it’s one of the tangible mementoes I have of my grandmother. (A great deal of our relationship was based on the baking and consumption of fruitcake which, in honesty, would probably have lasted just as long as the dictionary if I hadn’t eaten it all). It’s a book that went with me to Scotland, to France, to America: a house without my Chambers in it isn’t really my home.
This was a two-copy book, until I lent one of them to a student and it never came back, and another book recommended to me by Uncle Bill. To call the remaining copy dog-eared would probably cause consternation to a vet; what with the indecipherable notes and the torn pages, sellotaped together in places, it has a resale value of approximately zero – which is just as well, because I wouldn’t part with it for the world.
It’s an eight-hundred-page doorstopper, crammed full of jokes, inspiration and some extremely hard thinking. It links the works of – you’ve guessed it – Gödel, Escher and Bach, and digs deeply into the idea of artificial intelligence while going off on just about every tangent imaginable.
Sit down, I have a shocking revelation for you: I’m a bit of a geek. Here, have a cup of tea, I’ll open the window. Feeling ok now? Sorry you had to hear it like that. The thing about geeks – some of us, at least – is that our social skills are, how to put it, not innate. These days, I’m reasonably good in social situations (although it’s an effort); HTMFAIP is largely responsible for that improvement. It boils down to ‘be nice and thoughtful’, to which you’ll say ‘duh’ – but the specific examples of nice thoughtfulness helped me to start putting myself in other people’s shoes and think about their point of view.
I lived in Avignon for a year, not especially far from Daudet’s windmill. His Letters aren’t as widely known in Britain as they might be; they’re special to me because they gave me a view into the history and folklore of where I was living. I never made it out to the windmill – I wasn’t really one for taking trips in those days – but I still smile at the idea of the Pope’s mule keeping its kick for seven years, or the man with the golden brain.
A few years ago, I was about to clear this out in a general charity-shopping of books. My mum, bless her, saved it from the pile. I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have grown up as interested in maths as I did had it not been for the Spectrum, and this book – with its impenetrable ideas, jokes that went over my eight-year-old head, and occasional nugget of something I could get hold of – was an enormous part of my developing problem-solving skills. I won’t say programming skills, because I’ve probably spent more time unlearning BASIC habits than I ever spent learning them, but this book is certainly one of the most influential in getting me to where I am.
Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence
Doors, windows in a house
Are used for their emptiness
Thus, we are helped by what is not
To use what is.
I dabbled, in a time when I was struggling, with Zen Buddhism. It’s a while since I read the Tao Te Ching, but it’s a book I’ll never get rid of; it helped me through some bad times. I quoted it in my thesis as a chapter-opener. It reminds me of a time when my stubbornness prevailed over good sense, but it all turned out ok.
This was another great Christmas present, which arrived at exactly the right time for me. I wasn’t a sci-fi fan (I had the same snobbishness about it that many people do) but my dad assured me I’d enjoy it. He was right, of course; it appealed to my sense of the absurd, of outsiderhood, but more than anything else, of in-jokes. I suddenly found I had a secret language to talk to other outsiders in – a mention of Vogons was enough to establish common ground with other teenage geeks, an answer of 42 enough to generate a shared smile, and a bark of ‘don’t panic’ enough to disrupt an otherwise peaceful lesson. Good times.