Influential Books

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What books influenced you when you were young? Writers get asked that a lot. Here’s my answer.

When I was a teenager, my family lived in a small town in Southern California.  The library there had a large building with a garden but lacked enough books, especially non-fiction titles.  The librarians did a heroic job of steering readers toward things they might like, but really, they were up against long odds. This meant two things to someone like me, who only had a small allowance to spend at the used bookstore across the street: re-reading favorites multiple times and trying just about anything that caught my eye.

I read a lot of popular series novels that are forgotten now, M. de la Roche’s 16 volume White Oaks of Jalna, for example, and some rather more serious ones, such as the first 8 of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers — the last few had yet to be published.  I don’t remember much of anything about these books, especially the Jalna, but I do wonder if these formed my obvious taste for very long stories about a whole lot of people. 🙂

The books I do remember vividly are science fiction and the “adventure” stories that I’ve subsequently labelled “Lurid Adventure Fiction” in my own mind.  They were considered “boys’ books” or even “men’s books” in those days, since I plowed my way through a lot of Westerns. The library did have a decent SF section, and these were the days when one determined reader could actually keep up with all the latest publications in a year.

Aside from what new books they could afford, the librarians kept as many old ones around as long as possible by the application of ardent erasers and a great deal of mending tape.  Thanks to them, I also came across a few books, trashy though they were, that changed more than my taste in entertainment.

Our small town library shelved fiction on a rickety balcony that eventually, not long after I went away to college, got condemned by the city inspector.  When you walked down the aisles, the floor creaked and in a few spots quivered under you.  This didn’t stop me from wandering the aisles looking for cool books I might have missed.  There’s one thing to be said for an impoverished library. You can find a lot of out of print and out of fashion books there. I am one of the few people I know who’ve read both The Green Hat and Bulldog Drummond, those bestsellers from the 1920s.

One summer afternoon I came to the Ms and found a couple of battered volumes by some guy named Mundy.  I’d already fallen under the spell of Kipling’s India stories, particularly KIM.  The idea of secret knowledge, mysterious Tibet and all-knowing gurus had already fired my lurid imagination. Mundy fit right in and took the trope further.

King of the Khyber Rifles and The Nine Unknown looked just like the kind of thing I loved, so I checked both out immediately.  While I enjoyed King up until to the last chapter, even as a teenager I knew that the way the plot resolved was ridiculous. The female lead, who has amassed lots of weapons, followers, and dynamite so she can invade India, gives it all up because she falls in love with the hero.  Er, um, no, said my 15 year old self. I didn’t want to invade India, personally, but if I had, I wouldn’t have given it up for a stick like Athelstan King. After all the work she put into her plot, blowing up her secret hide-out for a man she’s known a couple of weeks seemed highly improbable.

The Nine Unknown was something else again.  Mundy wrote it some 10 years and a lot of fiction after King, and the work and the time showed.  He’d also discovered Theosophy in the interval.  Not that I knew it was Theosophy. Instead I read a story about magical books, great gurus, evil monks who coveted power, and the brave adventurers whose search for gold was, in the end, frustrated by those who served a greater good. I wanted more of this stuff.

The teen-age mind can be curiously narrow.  I was living a few miles from a town called Summerland, which had once been a Theosophical haven. There was a Theosophical Society reading room somewhere in my town, even.  Did I put this together with the complex of occult ideas I loved so much? No, I didn’t.  Perhaps they simply weren’t mysterious enough. Or perhaps the way the minister at our church made fun of the Theosophists had something to do with that.

At any rate, Mundy’s books started me on my quest to learn more about ‘occultism,’  a quest that has run through my life like a silk thread through burlap. But what intrigued me the most, however, and what led ultimately to the “magic” in the Deverry books, were tarot cards.

I cannot remember, oddly enough, when or where I first heard of the cards.  I do remember reading James Blish’s novel Jack of Eagles, which features an entirely different set of cards. He may have mentioned the tarot somewhere.  (The book rests on what SF writers of the time considered science, the Rhine experiments. Rhine’s thesis was that psychic powers existed naturally within the human mind.  He and a lot of other people thought they’d proved it, too, but his experiments were poorly run and thought out.)

I did see a picture of a few cards somewhere in my undisciplined reading — I think.  The memory’s foggy. But however it happened, I did know about them. At 16 I wanted a deck more than anything  except to get out of Santa Barbara, the small town in question.  Both goals took a few more years to accomplish.


About Katharine Kerr

Katharine Kerr's bookshelf Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, whence she fled to the San Francisco Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye, even those who true-believe in Science. An inveterate loafer, baseball addict, and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares time to write novels, including the Deverry series of historical fantasies or fantastical histories, depending on your point of view. She lives near San Francisco with her husband of many years and some cats.

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