A fellow blogger, Uwe Kalkowski, who likes to sit in a Kaffeehaus, gave me the idea: A post about books that have had a lasting impact on me, books that shook me and prevented from a good night’s sleep. Books that stirred intense emotions, both good and bad. Now, wouldn’t it be fun to compile a list and see what books I would include and why? Here we go, the books of my life, organized in three sections corresponding roughly to my childhood years, youth and adulthood. All deserve ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️!
Rudyard Kipling: Das Dschungelbuch (The Jungle Book) German is the first foreign language I learned at school, and accordingly, the first books I read were either German books or translations into German. Being a cub and later a boy scout, the Jungle Book exerted a huge fascination upon my mind and became one of my ethical reference points. It served me well then and it still serves now.
Enid Blyton: See der Abenteuer (Sea of Adventure) I inherited this novel from my mother and, after having read it, I was craving for more from Enid Blyton. Of all her books, I liked the adventure series with Philip, Dinah, Jack, Lucy and the parrot Kiki best. And this specific novel had a powerful impact upon my fantasy – it painted a picture of a wild landscape, beaten by winds and the sea, a landscape I later found in reality, on the Scottish Orkney Islands. Ultimate happiness!
Erich Kästner: Das fliegende Klassenzimmmer (The Flying Classroom) Being lonely at school, being lonely in life, even if surrounded by people, was a feeling I experienced from early childhood on. Being the odd boy out never felt very good. Kästner experienced something similar in his childhood, and this generally amusing children’s novel has its dark moments that made me cry silently when I read it.
Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny I suspect this book was the first of many that touched a subject that keeps haunting me: men and the identity of men. William S. Keith is a young, well-educated and spoiled man from a rich US family who joins the US Navy during World War II. He is confronted with autocratic superiors, lazy subordinates, the dull routine of any military system, a typhoon, a court-martial and a kamikaze attack. The novel retraces how a boy becomes a man. The “Caine Mutiny” was also the first novel I read showing in detail how things between men and women go wrong and why. A lot to digest for a 15-year-old. I read this book at least 20 times since then.
Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse) This novel was compulsory reading at high school, and I remember the book very warmly. I had to learn parts of it by heart as a disciplinary sanction, but I had my revenge on the teacher in a test, when I stole a couple of ideas from the editor’s afterword to answer a question. It was the first time I read an editor’s note about a novel. It was actually the first time I understood symbolism in literature. The experience unlocked a door to a world I haven’t left since.
Théophile Gautier: Le Capitaine Fracasse An alternative role model to the sailor William S. Keith: An impoverished French nobleman joins a theatre troop to give his life a meaning. He is gifted and loyal to his new friends, and, romantisme oblige, there are a lot of occasions for heroic duels and Romantic love. Gautier’s detailed and evoking descriptions, his amazing command of the French language – a true delight! I loved it then, I love it now.
1989 up to now
Hermann Hesse: Der Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf. A novel) “Steppenwold” was an almost traumatic experience that marked the culminating point of my first identity crisis. I must have been 22 or so. Men and the identity of men once more. Ugh. Men and their relationship with women. Ugh-ugh. Men and their selfishness. Nooooooo! I passed several bad nights after having read this book, I felt sick and nauseated. I cried and I was desperate. I never took up the book again. It’s an excellent book, but I had become afraid of… a text.
Sören Kierkegaard: Entweder – Oder (Either/Or) No other writer has stimulated me so much during my studies as the philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. I explored both the Bible and French existentialism having Kierkegaard within reach. His works, and most importantly “Either/Or”, triggered some of my most intense reflections about religion, about giving life a meaning, about leading a good life. In a few years I will schedule a second exploration of his numerous works as I am sure I have missed 95% of what Kierkegaard meant to say.
Mikhail Sholokhov: And Quiet Flows the Don I read this book when I lived in the former GDR, where Sholokhov was well-known. It helped me connect with the East Germans I worked with, lived with and discussed with on long evenings in their homes or in a pub. The novel narrates the story of a Cossack soldier during World War I and the Russian Revolution and presents an amazing sketch of the transition from Czarist to Communist Russia. The Soviet author was rewarded by a Nobel prize; but Sholokhov most likely did not write the novel himself. The publication of the book was a Soviet propaganda effort orchestrated by intelligence agents. Still, I remember the book as a real page-turner and I am tempted to pick it up once more.
Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost Four narrators, for versions of a turbulent story taking place at the University of Oxford, steeped in intrigues and rivalries. The setting, the plot, the philosophical ideas – Medieval metaphysics versus scientific methodology – and of course Pears wonderful way to tell a story made me buy a second copy after I had given the first to a friend – just in case I felt like reading it a second time. It is waiting for me on the shelf and time will come…
J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Stranded in a Beijing hotel room, without money (not my fault!) and 72 hours to kill before I was due to head home… Harry Potter was a lot of value for little money and one of the greatest literary pleasures I had. I loved all seven volumes, and during those 72 hours I read the first three. I didn’t mind the dull hotel room, the icy winds on Tiananmen Square and the fast food I had to rely upon. I had Harry Potter and he saved my stay in China!
Christopher de Bellaigue: In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs De Bellaigue’s book was the beginning of a deep interest in Iran, its glorious history, its difficult and ambiguous modernity, its culture and its people. Such a promising nation, kept prisoner by religious zealots, welded together by hardship, traumatized by a civil war, uncertain of its future. May others demonize Iran – they don’t know what they are talking about. If ever a Middle Eastern Muslim country has been ripe for a free and democratic state, based on the rule of law, high-level education and a sense of destiny, it is Iran.
Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) I read it twice and I am looking forward to read it a third time. There is so much in it. Philosophy, poetry, psychology and the German language, oh the German language! Mann was, is and always will be a master story-teller, never mind the impossibly long, entwined sentences with the utmost complex grammatical constructions ever to be written by man (Mann!). The first time I didn’t understand much, the second time was an exploratory tour and the third time will be an exquisite, five-star literary dinner with champagne before, after and in-between.
I was amused and surprised about a few choices myself and I am still at loss to explain why there is a huge lack of relevant books for a period of almost 15 years, my journalist years. I read a lot during that time, I spent most of my salary on books, mostly non-fiction, books about politics, military strategy, globalism, terrorism, Islam, but I did read novels too, didn’t I? Strange. I needed to do a little more hard thinking to come up with something, and for once, my ordering history with a global online bookseller was of some use. Now that I order books mainly at a real bookstore, retracing past orders will become more difficult.