Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Reading and Influence

There are interesting posts going up everywhere on the most influential writers to particular individuals (see To Delight and to Instruct, Not of General Interest, and So Many Books). It is an interesting topic. I certainly know what people, what classes, what experiences have formed me; before sharing what writers have influenced me by their writing (and my reading) alone, I need to reflect seriously.

When I think of writers who have influenced me, I take quite seriously the meaning of "influence." To claim that somebody I have never met but have read had an impact, I am suggesting that the writer affected my understanding of myself, humanity, or the world, even to the point of altering my behavior. I am saying I wouldn't interpret reality the way I do if I didn't encounter this writer, and that it is possibly my actions have been influenced by this writer.

I'm surprised to say that as a reader of poetry, no poet has had such an influence. My favorite poets (Wordsworth, Shelley, Milton, Hughes, Harrison, Duffy) have not actually changed me (other than making me love poetry). And there are several writers that did influence me at one time, but whose influence has, I think, waned. Stephen King, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Alexandre Dumas, Jean-Paul Sartre--at one point they did color the way I viewed myself and the world I lived in, and I can even recall moments when I behaved the way I did because of these writers. But I don't know that any of these writers are responsible for how I currently live and think (though I cannot discount that their influence has left a permanent imprint).

And that leaves the writers who permanently formed me, who who still linger with me, who still have the power to influence how I interpret events, interact with people, and consider my identity.

The writers of the four gospels. I know that nothing I ever read will impact me the way reading the Bible on my own as a teenager impacted me. The gospels provided the metaphors by which I view the world, bolstered my liberal politics, taught me to seek God, taught me to seek a meaningful life, showed me how to behave in the world. It is the Jesus I encountered alone in these four stories that profoundly influenced me.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. And nothing taught me the futility of existence, the randomness of the universe, the emptiness of life, the unimportance of the earthly world, quite like this book.

Henry David Thoreau. "Life Without Principle" still informs my view of work and how I spend my time.

Martin Luther. I read Luther during a formative time of life, though I cannot say for certain whether it was Luther's writing or Luther's biographers (Roland Bainton in particular) that taught me. It is not just Luther's understanding of Christianity that affected me; learning about Luther's life (particularly from my history teacher, John Buschen, and from Luther's biographer Erik Erikson) helped me to understand myself.

John Fowles. I still feel The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman frequently. Not least of all, Fowles taught me about Hazard, about random chance in our lives. He taught me much, much more, including how to read.

John Howard Yoder. Yoder is the writer that permanently grounded my pacifism in Christ.

William Shakespeare. For one work: King Lear. It is one thing to try express nihilistic ideas; it is another altogether to experience Lear. To read Lear is to immerse oneself into a cosmos, one of vast open space vulnerable beneath the large indifferent heavens. It is not to think so much as to feel intuitively. Oh, it makes me think, certainly. But the better thoughts it provides me are not articulated in words, but in images, in emotions, in tones. To even explain how I feel King Lear cheapens it; what Lear immerses me into cannot be put into any other than Shakespeare's own words.

Fyodor Dostoevsky. Among the influences specified here, there is obviously a powerful influence of Christianity. But so too is there a powerful influence of existential, atheistic, nihilistic doubt and disbelief. It is Dostoevsky who occupies, in my mind, that realm that is not in between these extremes, but is both at the same time.

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