The books that have most influenced me

I am often asked which books and writers have influenced me most.

OK, not often. Sometimes. Perhaps not even sometimes.

But if I were ever to be asked this question, the answer would be, without doubt, the Russian authors I read so avidly in my teenage years, and who remain still so central to my literary tastes and perceptions. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov … I gobbled them all up.

So now, I drink a lot of vodka, and talk incessantly about God and the immortality of the soul. And if that ain’t influence, I don’t know what is.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alan on May 29, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I’d certainly put Chekhov’s stories (and plays, for that matter) on my list. Other than that, the author that I read as a teenager and has stayed with me most would be John Updike; I think he was a master prose writer with an ability to craft a beautiful sentence. In later life, I’ve come to enjoy his essay collections just as much as his fiction.

    As for writers who impressed me as a teenager but no longer do, I would have to pick poor old D H Lawrence. I suspect I could re-engage with some of his books now (such as The Rainbow and Women in Love) if there weren’t too many new books to read instead, but there are some which I wouldn’t touch with the proverbial ever again (The Plumed Serpent, Kangaroo).


    • Hello Alan, and welcome.

      This post was a bit tongue in cheek, but yes, we do get influenced by certain writers, insofar as we absorb certain writers’ perspectives into our own. D. H. Lawrence is very unfashionable these days, and for that reason alone, I don’t want to dismiss him: I keep thinking that if someone so out of step with modern taste can’t be all bad! I’ll give him another try some day, but I must admit I don’t really know what to make of him. I wrote a post about Lawrence here.


  2. Posted by Erika W. on May 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I could answer this if I were a writer but as I’m not I can’t honestly say that any books have influenced me although There are many that I have enjoyed so much that I re-read them every few years or so.
    My husband and I shared a class in graduate school and the class was asked this question. Several solemn replies–The Bible to the fore. Then my husband said “The Little Engine that Could”. everyone laughed and lightened up, thank goodness. (This is a book for very small children, over here in The States)


    • Hello Erika, as you probably guessed, I wasn’t being entirely serious in writing this post.

      Books can and do influence people, but rarely do they occasion a sudden moment of revelation, or a Damascene transformation: usually, the influence of books is absorbed more slowly and more subtly, and over long periods of time. I do know that I would view the world quite differently had I not come into contact with certain books, but how differently, and in what way, it is virtually impossible to discern. Very possibly – indeed, very probably – the earliest books we read, such as “The Little Engine that Could”, have shaped our minds more than we imagine!


  3. Posted by alan on May 30, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    На здоровье!


  4. I was thinking of putting up a similar post. One thing that I am thinking about is, some of the books that most influenced me are not necessarily the best books out there. I think that there is a difference between appreciating quality as opposed to be influenced by a work or a set of ideas.

    The drinking of vodka is a marvelous habit to pick up from literature 🙂


  5. Posted by Di on March 22, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    How about Soviet authors?


    • I think actually that Russian literature continued in its greatness even after the Revolution. (Of course, this was despite, rather than because of, the Soviet regime.) No list of great twentieth century novels would eb complete without the likes of “The Master and Margarita” or “Doctor Zhivago”; and no list of great twentieth century poets would be complete without Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip mandelstam, Anna Akhmatove, or Boris pasternak: even from translations, it is obvious that they were very great poets.

      Also, recent translations have brought to notice many major authors whose works had not been available in the Soviet era: I have written quite a bit on this blog on Vasily Grossman, whose “Life and Fate” is quite clearly a great masterpiece. Also coming into view, though not as spectacularly as Grossman, is the experimental writer Andrey Platonov: i’m not sure I entirely understand Platonov’s work: novels such as “Soul” or “Happy Moscow” I find rather elusive. But there’s a collection of short stories called “The Return and Other STories” that seems to me exceptional.


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