Five Books That Saved My Life

Not that they pulled me from a burning car or anything dramatic like that, but these books have been there when I have needed them the most...
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Not that they pulled me from a burning car or anything dramatic like that, but these books have been there when I have needed them the most...

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I didn’t really start reading until I was eleven. The summer of 1975. I could read, but I didn’t read books for pleasure. I read comics. My dad had loads of Spiderman, Superman, Captain America and Fantastic Four. We also had things like Mad and Sports Illustrated around the house and I always grabbed these rather than one of the thousands of books. I didn’t have time for books. I was a kid. Then in the summer of 1975 I caught a bad dose of poison ivy. We were living in a cabin in the redwoods in northern California at the time, and poison ivy was common. We were also stone cold broke, so no comics or magazines, but a library in the small town a few miles from the cabin. Anyway, my dose was bad: my face and hands swelled up as if inflated and I was itchy all over. I have photographs from the time of me sitting in a shaft of sunlight in the cabin with a lit cigarette in my mouth, smoke curling up into the beams. My fat face looks a little bit like Marlon Brando’s, which is why dad gave me the fag and took the pictures. Confined to the cabin, I couldn’t sleep and was irritable. The cabin didn’t have TV or radio (no reception) and only had one record: Band on the Run, which I played over and over again until nobody could stand it any more. One afternoon I went into my sister’s room and picked up a copy of Louise May Alcott’s Little Women. I started reading and didn’t stop until I had finished. I stopped itching while I read. The story of the March sisters is sentimental and idealized, but I was sucked in. When Beth died I cried. I’d never read about someone dying before. It shocked me that a character could die. I read everything I could get my hands on after that. All the good stories felt real.

The Story of O, Pauline Reage

After a year in the redwoods we moved back into San Francisco and into a condemned house on Masonic Avenue. A landlord my parents knew let us stay in his condemned buildings until they were knocked down, then we would move to another one. We still had no money, so this was a good arrangement and it was good fun. On one occasion we only moved around the corner and we got to watch our old house being demolished as we walked boxes round to our new house. The last thing standing was the downpipe from the first-floor toilet, sticking up in defiance before it too toppled into the rubble. In the house on Masonic my brother and I claimed a storage room on the ground floor behind the garage. The rest of the family lived upstairs in the real bit of the house. My brother and I loved our storage room: we had an old portable TV and occasionally my other, older, brother would come by with his friends and act weird when they were high, and we would laugh at them. The previous occupant to the house had left in a hurry and there were boxes of stuff that my brother and I rifled as soon as we moved in. Most of the boxes were filled with books, which I ploughed through. The Story of O, which tells the tale of a woman’s ‘education’ in, basically, bondage, stands out even now. I can still see the cover. I couldn’t believe the sheer eroticism of it, and that I could just read it whenever I wanted: previous erotic encounters had been stealing Dad’s Playboys, but the words and descriptions in the Story of O were a cut above mere pictures, and nobody stopped me reading them. I kept the Story of O by my bed for months. Just cracking it opened was enough to excite me for a while there.  Even now I find good sexy words more stimulating than sexy pictures.

The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke

In 1987 I had split up with my girlfriend. I was drinking a lot and going out and doing drugs and not really thinking about much apart from having fun, and she finally booted me out. After staying on floors for a few weeks I went with a few friends to Spain for a jolly up. At the airport I bought The Neon Rain, just on the cover and because I liked the blurb and because I hadn’t read any books for months. I roared into it on the flight and finished it on the beach the day after a monstrous night out. It tingled in my mind. It got me into crime novels. The book introduces the character Dave Robicheaux, a Louisiana cop - although at that time I obviously didn’t know it would be the start of an 18 book series and I’d still be reading Burke 23 years down the line. What I loved about the Neon Rain was what I still love: the flawed characters; the history (if you want to feel a place slipping into the mud through ecological neglect and commercial hooliganism, just read the whole series. And stop arguing for cheap petrol.) The food; the darkness and the poetry. Burke showed me that crime novels don’t have to be simply about crimes: they can be beautiful, unsettling and moving. They can make you think about the world in a different way. I told everyone I knew about James Lee Burke that summer, and it wasn’t the drugs talking. Mostly I love it The Neon Rain because it got me reading again.

The Stand, Stephen King

Another book that burns in the mind because of illness. In 1982 I was traveling back to London by train from my parents house in Cambridge and I collapsed. Despite being taken from Liverpool Street straight to the Royal Free, I was sent home, only to collapse again a few hours later. This time I was taken to the Whittington where they whipped out my appendix, which was just about to burst. Jesus, I was in agony. Not many people came to see me over the week or so I was in hospital, but some thoughtful soul brought me Stephen King’s The Stand. A big fat book. Ideal for hospital recovery. My first post-apocalyptic vision novel. A world where a super-virus has wiped out most people, and those that are left are divided into Good and Evil. Randall Flagg – The Walkin’ Dude – really got into my fevered mind. I saw his worn heels clicking on the blacktop in my dreams. Every five years or so I pick up my battered old copy and start reading, and almost always end up reading the whole thing again. I still call the flu Captain Trips. I interviewed Stephen King fifteen years after reading The Stand and he was great: twitchy, funny, and curious about everything. And in an odd turn of events, he turned out to be a big fan of Ed Dorn, my godfather.

Gunslinger, Ed Dorn

This is more book as artifact serving pure memory. Gunslinger was written by my godfather, the American poet Ed Dorn. When I was growing up, in particular in the 70s, Gunslinger was always around: originally published in 1968 (as Slinger), the final five-part finished version was published in 1975. But there were always chapbooks and cover prints and people talking about it in the various places we lived, and we lived with Ed and his family for a chunk of the mid 70s. Ed was my hero: Six foot two, loud and fast and smart with an expressive face, a million ideas a minute and razor sharp wit. And he was fun. Ed made anything in the world seem possible and pointed out how foolish most people were and how much bullshit there was everywhere and how you had to question everything and make your own rules.  I didn’t actually read Gunslinger until many years later having dipped in and out over the years. It’s a stunning piece of work. It’s a long poem. Read it and make of it what you will. Now I have my own copy and when my eyes fall on the spine or I pull it out and read a little I am transported back to days in Golden Gate Park. Ed’s truck packed with kids driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. Dawn bagel runs with me and my brother just waking in the back of the truck where we slept the night before, Ed laughing and lighting a cigarette as we zoom down Geary. I think of four kids lined up in front of the fire for a snapshot while the Oakland As win the World Series on a TV in the background. I think of the endless possibilities of it all. It’s my favourite book. But it was before I had read it.

Which books have changed your life and why? Tell us in the 'comments' box below...