A shortlist of books that had a great impact on me.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

At 16 years of age, I searched through a pile of books my dad had kept since child. A frayed red hardcover caught my eye and I was sucked in by the old book smell as much as the opening paragraph. The name, ‘Pip’ etched itself on my brain, and over the following weeks I chased his life-story through the pages.

I’ve read Great Expectations multiple times and always get something new from it. It contains perhaps my favourite quote in literature:

“Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you can’t choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!”

I feel a sense of achievement when I complete these classic lit books and especially enjoy the psychological and philosophical insight many of them present.

I believe such books as Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment and others from that era will forever remain at the summit of literature.

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1853260045/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_rfeLBb7ZQH172

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

I don’t follow any mass-market religion, and haven’t yet read any holy book.

For a long time I treated the Prophet as I guess a Christian would treat the Bible, as a reference to turn to for guidance and understanding of the various conditions of life.

I first heard of it when an ex-workmate let me hear a passage he wanted to recite at his wedding. It stuck in my head.

The Prophet is both poetic and wise. It should be opened by anyone who wants to read about the human condition presented in a poetic manner

The Prophet (Vintage Classics) https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0099528444/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_-ieLBb7E5C7KD

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I was introduced to Jack London by my father, who gave me his copy of The Sea Wolf. I remember being offshore in the Danish Sector of the North Sea, watching the waves outside the cabin window. The magic of travel made the sea look bluer and wilder than I’d ever seen it, even though it was the exact same one I’d stared at from the shore of my village in the North-East Coast of Scotland.

A few years later, when I was about 25, I picked up The Call of the Wild. It’s a book about adaptation and survival. London is a master at characterisation and uses all his skills in this book. It inspired me always to be open to and accept change. We can’t control everything.

Call of the Wild & White Fang: AND White Fang (Wordsworth Classics) https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1853260266/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_.leLBb1M7VTAC

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984 is the book I recommend to all non- native English speakers who want to read something written by a British author.

This book could come close to becoming non-fiction if the world keeps ‘progressing’ in its current direction, and I’m sure it will continue to inspire generations of activists to face down oppression.

I always wondered how Orwell and Aldus Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, were able to write such books. Then I read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I highly recommend reading We after 1984 and Brave New World, as neither would exist without it.

1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics) https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/014118776X/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_foeLBbJKWNB40

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This novel is quite an achievement. You enter its world and never question any of the weird and wonderful occurrences. It’s a great mix of magical-realist characters and events that flow together in a simple narrative that will have you hooked until the end.

The Meaning of Things by A.C. Grayling

I’ve gifted this book more than any other. It addresses the same issues as The Prophet, but has none of the poetry. A.C. Grayling presents his knowledge and understanding, backed by his extensive study of philosophy, in a paired down, easy to understand manner.

This is a good reference book with a perfectly suited title. It gives meaning to the metaphysical concepts we all know of and are affected by.

Prof Grayling was also good enough to give me permission to quote a line from this book in my novel, Vagabundo.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This novel was a real challenge for me, and I should have read it again before commenting, but everyone knows Dostoyevsky goes deep into the of psychology of his characters. I love the flow of his books and am determined to read everything he’s written.

The Russia I’d heard of as a child wasn’t like the one portrayed by the media, which tells us all things Russian are bad. In contrast my grandfather and father spoke of Russia and its people with high regard and respect.

At the start of the US led war on Afganistan, my grandfather said to me, ‘If the Russians couldn’t beat them, the yanks won’t have a chance.’

My first knowledge of Russia would have been through my father, who received the Klondikers – Eastern seafarers – in his harbour workshop every year or so. They walked around all the local businesses, selling matryoshkas, cameras and other paraphernalia. Everybody was fond of them.

The Klondikers were my father’s window into Russia. Dostoyevsky was mine.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This book pushed all the right buttons for me, and with well over 50 million copies sold, I’m sure it did the same for many readers. The protagonist’s life felt so similar to mine, despite being very different. I too was a young man trying to find my place in the world, but I wasn’t quite as brave as the protagonist and hadn’t yet set out on my own true life’s path. I always did the sensible thing, even though part of me wanted to tear away. Only in writing my novel in 2014 did I have a taste of true freedom.

The Alchemist inspired me to take more chances and to look a little differently at the world around me.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed when, while studying creative writing many years after reading it, I came across a parable from Arabian Nights that was basically The Alchemist condensed into a single paragraph. I’ve since came to question Coelho’s originality – compare his Manuscript in Accra to The Prophet. I can’t see why it’s not classed as Plagiarism.

Ignoring these issues, I really think The Alchemist has the power to turn a non-reader into a reader, and recommend it to anyone who want’s to get into reading but has struggled to get through a book.

I read most of these books during the formative years between the ages of 16 to 26. This may be why I hold them in such high regard. These can be the years when you experience the most change in your life. As such, everything you do during this time may have a lasting impact on your character.

Notable others

The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlatov

Great Russian Short Stories (Dover Thrift Editions) by Paul Negri

Gut by Giulia Enders

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

Siddhartha by hermann Hesse

2 thoughts on “A shortlist of books that had a great impact on me.

  1. That’s a good list, I’ve read most of them. As a young woman I actually threw Siddhartha across the room… I was enjoying it completely, relating to the protagonist’s life and spiritual search – but it kicked me in the guts with its assumption that the life of women – that ordinary life – was no kind of spiritual thing. So in that way it was hugely influential, it pushed me to look beyond religion and its ideas of the spiritual to find my own, which I enjoy in the everyday, as a woman, as a householder. To his credit I did pick it up again and finish it though. I enjoyed Narciss and Goldmund more though. And my favourite Russian book is War and Peace. Crime and Punishment is on the bookshelf waiting.
    I’m actually here via your guest post on Live, Write, Thrive. I could relate exactly to what you were saying; I’ve just had a similar situation coming from India, where I went to research for one thing but ended up finding another story instead. And then having the problem that you are speaking of. Excellent advice though. I appreciate having those things to think about now. Congratulations on leaping into life and writing your book.


    1. Hey,

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll have to re-read Siddhartha with your insight in mind.

      Thanks for your recommendations. I’ll add them to my list. I’m reading Kafka on the Shore at the moment. Next on my list is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I’m a little intimidated by it.


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About stevenjohntait