The best books that changed my life

David Thorpe Author Of Hybrids
By David Thorpe

The Books I Picked & Why

Black Spring

By Henry Miller

Book cover of Black Spring

Why this book?

As a young man I had a prolonged bout of mental illness. What saved me was my struggle to become a writer. This was my secret identity. I had to find other writers to inspire me, whose books offered hope, and could help me channel the restless energy that I felt within that had not yet found a purpose. I found such a writer in Henry Miller.

Miller is out of fashion now, even though George Orwell called him "the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past". Like DH Lawrence, he tangled with the censors repeatedly – to his credit.

He was as uncompromising about his art as Lawrence. Unlike him, he had no hang-ups about moralism and guilt. Far from it. Reading him was like sipping nectar. It was a tonic for the mind. His exuberant language was infectious. In extended passages he celebrates with an undivided enthusiasm and without distinction all levels of human life from sex and bodily functions to high art and philosophy as if there were no difference between them. Which of course there isn't. He glorifies in the fecund abundance of life, seeing meaning everywhere, like Walt Whitman and William Blake, two other poets who set my heart on fire.

"Energy is eternal delight!" cried Blake, and Miller echoed "Always merry and bright!". His optimism was catching. Reading passages from Black Spring or Tropic of Capricorn could keep me afloat for days. The important point was that he reinvented himself, mythologising his own life, making a Promethean odyssey of his struggles to become a published writer.

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Magic and Mystery in Tibet

By Madame Alexandra David-Neel

Book cover of Magic and Mystery in Tibet

Why this book?

Looking around me as a young man I found a grey world that had been stripped of all its glory and fabulousness by the exploitation and utilitarianism of human beings. 

Alexandra David-Neel was an amazing explorer. She was the first European woman to meet the Dalai Lama and in 1924 became the first to enter the forbidden Tibetan capital, Lhasa. She had already spent a decade travelling through China, living in a cave on the Tibetan border, where she learned about Buddhism from hermits, mystics, and bandits. 

She describes in this book how these people learnt such seemingly impossible skills such as telepathy, defying gravity, running for days without food or drink or sleep, and surviving with hardly any clothes in the subzero Himalayan blizzards. 

This magical world vanished when the Chinese invaded in 1947. 

To think that this miraculous way of life existed in the same century as me on the same planet! This was not a fantasy, this was real. It was inspiring. It offered hope that another way of life was possible. 

I haven't recommended any other book in my life as much as this one.

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The Amazing Spider-Man

By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko

Book cover of The Amazing Spider-Man

Why this book?

Great art and literature liberates – from whatever ties that are constricting you. And it can be found anywhere. As a kid, Marvel comics rescued me from what I saw as a banal existence. And Spider-man was the first. It literally changed my life because I ended up working for Marvel, writing for them, and coming up with Earth 616, which in the Marvel multiverse is the one where all the stories including the movies take place.

Reading them, my mind was totally blown away. What was the secret of their haunting magic? 

To my young mind, it seemed as though Stan Lee drank in the heavens and ate the entire Earth. He swallowed the cosmos and moved through the universe like a transformer. 

He was prodigious. Everything he touched turned into mercury, luminous and alchemical. His output consisted of multiple dimensions containing an infinity of beings. He metamorphosed constantly, the generator of souls 10,000 times bigger than Manhattan. 

Stories and myths poured from him and his zoetrope of magician-artists, like fireballs from Mount Krakatoa, lighting lives all over the world from touch papers that still fizz and sparkle today with the lava that was their blood. The heavens dimmed in their light.

Stan's instinct for incitement and co-conspiracy never failed because he knew the secret of telling was to admit weakness as a gateway to power. And I, and all of his faithful merry Marvel marching band of followers, knew all about weakness because we were children; reading him empowered us. Especially me.

Stan's use of emotional language was infectious. He deployed all the tools of traditional rhetoric. 

I clearly recall as a child one day looking at adults around me and wondering why they didn't seem to understand children. Weren't they children themselves once? How could they forget? There and then I promised myself I would not forget what it was like to be a child. I would remember, if only to better understand my own kids when one day I had them. I strove to hold onto that feeling for many years, and believe I still have it. This is why I enjoy writing for children.

Yet I also believe that even as adults most of us have secret identities. Adults' secret identities partly embody things we would rather the world at large – even those closest to us – did not know about us. This secret core is key to our sense of self, and our sanity – but it can go wrong. 

If it does, it can lead to mental illness, criminal or destructive transgressive behaviour. For writers, understanding this aspect of psychology is key to crafting memorable characters that audiences won’t be able to get enough of. 

No one knew this better than Stan Lee. He gave this gift to most of his characters – this immense psychological depth – which the superheroes portrayed in the comics industry competition's titles didn't have at the time.

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