A Reading Life: a 40-year journey through 40 top books – Part 1

40 years.  40 books.  An enhanced version of my recent birthday speech.  Part One chronicles the birth of a young geek: synthesizers and computer games, crime and travel, good news and bad tunes, along with wild things like Aslan, hobbits, and the Little Red Hen!

40-books-sofaEach December I pick out the year’s highlights and top books for my Christmas letter.  Now that I’m 40 with around 40 captive guests, I thought I’d survey my 40 years and pick out 40 favourite books!

Over the last few weeks I’ve stalked printed memories. I’ve browsed every bookcase in the house.  I’ve dusted mouse droppings off boxes in the garage. I’ve queried my reading database and googled prehistoric titles and requested 1980s books from the library basement stacks.  I hoped people would assume I was a parent in the children’s and teen fiction sections, where I met some long-lost friends.  Some haven’t changed at all.  A few have a tarted-up cover, but when I looked inside were still the same at heart.

Writer Neil Gaiman said, “Picking five favourite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.”  At first 40 titles seemed a lot.  It is not: there have been painful amputations.  All week I’ve shuffled books around on the lounge sofa, reluctantly removing one, inserting two more, tempted to cheat and miscount, even wishing (briefly) I was 50.  It was worse than the Ethics 100 dilemma: who to throw off the overladen lifeboat?

How to decide?  Books I own.  A variety, that should interest everyone.  Titles that put a smile on my face.  And, recalling Alice in Wonderland’s sleepy complaint, “What is the use of a book without pictures?” I’ve tried to find illustrated editions to browse while you queue for the buffet.

So here they are folks, in four resplendent rows: 40 titles that have moved and motivated me, carved my character and shaped my soul. 40 titles for the chapters of my life and seasons of my reading. 40-odd eligible authors that I’d love you to meet.

The life of David in 40 books.  Let’s turn to page 1.

Book 1.  The Little Red Hen

The Little Red Hen - Little Golden BookIn my earliest memory I’m around three years old, sitting beside Mum on her bed.  She’s feeding my baby sister Joy and reading out my favourite book.  A Little Golden Book.  The Little Red Hen.  The story is centuries old, likely from Russia:

Little Red Hen finds a grain of wheat.  She plants, waters, and reaps it, grinds it into flour, and bakes it.  Whenever she asks her friends for help, the cat is fishing and chasing butterflies, the pig practising his recorder or violin, the duck and goose playing at soldiers.  Young David chimed in with their unfailing reply, “No, not I!”  As she pulls the steaming loaf from the oven and asks who will help her eat, they all volunteer.  Little Red Hen turns them away and gobbles it all herself.  I was so impressed that at age 3 or 4 I depicted the famous fowl with cutout cloth in my kindergarten scrapbook:

little red hed kindergarten 2

And she’s still chasing me.  My cousin gave me a 40th birthday Parker pen engraved with the words, “‘I will plant it myself’, said the Little Red Hen”, so I won’t forget the moral.  Which is?  Rereading it now, I wonder.  An enterprising work ethic, yes – maybe I got my self-motivation from her.  (For other life lessons, see Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book.)

But isn’t refusing to share a tad selfish and unforgiving?  Part of me would smirk if she got indigestion.  Another edition shared my concern, and adds Act Two: Little Red Hen finds a second grain.  Now the whole farmyard chips in and enjoys the bread together.  Sharing the love even more, it supplies her recipe:

little red hed bread recipe

Book 2.  Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things AreAnother early favourite.  (Hear a dramatic reading, see Sendak’s Wild Things children’s book posters, or watch the animation below.)  After donning his wolf suit, terrorising the family dog, and hammering nails into the wall to make a tent, young Max was sent to bed without dinner.

“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew and grew and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through the night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.”

The moral here is also unclear – see the debate at goodreads.com.  The book was banned in some states for gruesome pictures and encouraging temper tantrums.  One goodreads reviewer claims he was so scared he hid all night under his bed.  I seemed to survive without growing too wild.  It was the purple witch-dragon in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty that gave me nightmares.

Less traumatising runner-up:
Alice in Wonderland – if the Cheshire Cat’s grin is really less creepy.

Book 3.  The Old Gang by A. Stephen Tring

the old gangDad was a physics lecturer, so every seven years we lived overseas for his sabbatical leave.  When I was 6 in Boulder, Colorado, my school ran a charity Read-a-Thon to fight multiple sclerosis.  I signed up sponsors at 10 or 20 cents a book, expecting to read a dozen or so.  But I read, and read, and read about 100, and found my reading life had begun.  Generous souls who’d pledged 50 cents or more per book had a shock.  I read the most in the school and was awarded this stuffed Sherlock hound.  His tartan cap reads MS for multiple sclerosis, or Mystery Sleuth.

mystery-sleuthAn apt reward, because for years I mostly read crime.  We didn’t have TV, so while my classmates watched After School I solved mysteries with the Secret Seven, the Famous Five, then Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  A favourite series was The Three Investigators, three American lads with a secret clubhouse in an uncle’s junkyard, where they constructed walkie-talkies and other crime-fighting gadgets.

To symbolise my young mystery sleuthing, however, I’ve picked The Old Gang.  Inside the cover it says, in chunky but readable lettering, “to David, from Joy” – an early present from my sister, although she didn’t write the date.

The “Old Gang” are Grammar boys Frank, Joe and Mickey.  When not scrapping with Beefy, Pickles and Sauce from the rival Modern school:


Or playing pranks with water-filled trick cream buns:


They punt up the river to Lonely Hut Island and find a gang of burglars in the old mill house.


Rival young fiction title:
Wings of Adventure by T C Bridges, 1958 –­ gang-busting flying, like Biggles.

Book 4.  Good News Bible

Good News BibleThe biggest book in my life is really a library of writings by different authors in different centuries with different personalities and perspectives: the Bible.  This is my childhood Good News translation, with 500-odd line drawings by Annie Vallotton (perhaps the most published artist in history – see article and interview) and a few colour plates that gave snapshots of stories.  Peter holds a fish in each hand as Christ calls him to follow.  Paul sprawls blind on the road to Damascus.  The prodigal father runs to hug his ragged son.  Daniel ambles round the lion’s den, and my namesake slays Goliath with a sling.

Always the enthusiastic student, I also found R18 stories without pictures that Sunday School didn’t teach.  Left-handed Ehud plunges his sword into corpulent King Eglon’s belly – “even the handle sank in after the blade and the fat closed in over it” (Judges 3:22).  Commander Sisera snoozes in Jael’s tent where she hammers a tent-peg through his head (Judges 4:21) – earning, said one preacher, the nickname of Peggy.

And I met some of my first maps, showing the expansion of Jerusalem from King David to King Herod, the tongue twister tribes of Israel, and Paul’s journeys through Turkey and Greece to Rome:


C. S. Lewis once said that saints simply repeat what we’ve all known since childhood, except that for them it’s a reality.  I’m still learning those basic lessons like loving my neighbour, or trusting that Jesus stills the storms of life, so I do not need to fear.


Book 5.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis

Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeI can’t remember when I first slipped through the wardrobe into Narnia.  I had a boxed set of the Chronicles from my grandmother, and their deep magic has charmed me from the dawn of time.  I smelt the homely tucker of the beavers in their dam.  I overheard the song of creation with the cabby and his queen.  I sailed on the Dawn Treader to isles of strange delight.

I mourned when Peter and Susan grew too old to return, and wondered if there really was another world, just out of reach.  I recall locking my sister in our wardrobe with no handle inside – or was I locked in myself?  But Dad’s suit never shed pine needles and we got no snow on our feet.

It’s hard to imagine life without Aslan.  I rejoiced with birds and squirrels when the spell of winter broke, and danced like Lucy in the Deeper Magic’s dawn.  I trembled with the sailors as they looked full in His face.  I longed for his land, where all that is good lives once more.  I long and love Him still.


Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for his god-daughter Lucy, but she grew up before he’d finished.  In the dedication he wrote, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  I reached that age at university, when I read Narnia at bed time to relax before exams.  A few years later, they were among the first books I read in German.

My birthday Lewis quotes.

Book 6.  BASIC Computer Games by David Ahl

basic-computer-gamesIt was in Colorado, around 1980, that we had our first home computer.  It plugged into the TV and loaded programs from cassette tapes with drawn-out digital screechings.  Dad gave me the book that launched my career: BASIC Computer Games.  First published in 1973, it was the first computer book to sell 1 million copies.

tennisThe games are all plain text and range from sports like bowling, boxing, bullfighting and basketball, to card games and checkers and Tic Tac Toe.  Some test your physics and maths: enter elevation and muzzle velocities to shell your opponent; set rocket thrust to land an Apollo capsule on the moon; practice 3-D coordinates in Depth Charge, or statistical distributions in Dice.


Some games seeded my imagination with American history.  Lead the Confederacy to victory in a Civil War battle.  Become a 1776 fur trader: sell your pelts at a safe Montreal fort or brave rapids for a bigger Québec sale or – most rewarding and risky – dodge arrows crossing Iroquois land to Dutch New York.  My favourite resource management game was King Hammurabi.  Buy land, plant grain and feed your people of ancient Sumeria.  If too many starve, you’ll be impeached.


At first I didn’t understand the code I’d typed and Dad had to debug; later I made my own improvements.  I spent hours in these pages, deciphering algorithms and enjoying the robot cartoons by George Beker (more robots).


Book 7.  The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

Tolkien Hobbit LOTR SetI also spent hours over Christmas holidays on Uncle Don’s computer, lost in the world of The Hobbit.  The 1982 text adventure had the most advanced language recognition of its day, leagues ahead of the two-word “go south”, “get sword”, “kill troll” games I entered.  En route to the Lonely Mountain to kill the dragon Smaug, the minimalist descriptions and graphics were enticing.  Fortunately the shades on my uncle’s display were less psychedelic than these.

I embarked on The Lord of the Rings at intermediate school, and purchased my own set with school prize money in form five.  A map of Middle-Earth is still blue-tacked above my bed.  Who could not long to find the elven valley of Rivendell or the forest of Lothlórien?


And who could resist the humble hobbits’ humour?  I hope you’ll behave yourselves better today than the 13 dwarves at the Unexpected Party that begins The Hobbit:

Chip the glasses and crack the plates!
Blunt the knives and bend the forks!
That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates —
Smash the bottles and burn the corks!


Most appropriately for today, The Fellowship of the Ring opens with a more orderly “Long Expected Party”:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

I envy Bilbo the 111 books he could bring.  My birthday speech will end less dramatically than Bilbo’s, although certain relations might wish I would disappear. Gandalf couldn’t make it today, so there will be no magic fireworks.  But words of wizardry lurk between these covers, enchantments that wrinkle time and space, spells of metamorphosis that – reader beware – may not be reversed.

My 2011 essay, “Heroes, Hobbits & Hope in the Bible & Tolkien’s Middle-earth

See Tolkien’s own Hobbit illustrations, and Tolkien on fairy stories.

My birthday Tolkien quotes.

Book 8.  Michelin Green Guide Germany

Michelin guide West Germany_0006I saw hints of Middle-Earth when I was 14 and 21 on Dad’s sabbatical leaves in Germany and Austria.  I poured over our Michelin Green Guides, mapping out routes like in a computer game to collect the most sites with stars.  The Goose Girl of Göttingen and cathedral of Cologne, museums in Munich and the birthplace of Bach.  The garret where Luther translated the Bible and threw his inkwell at the devil.  The silence of Dachau and Hitler’s hideout in the Alps.  I defended the forts of robber barons on the Rhine and laid siege to ancient city walls.  Dead history came alive.

michelin-map-legend  michelin-rothenburg

For years I had a poster on my wall of mad King Ludwig’s Bavarian castle Neuschwanstein, literally “new swan stone”.  Seen through snow laden pines, its fairytale turrets suggested the White Witch’s house in Narnia, or the citadel of Minas Tirith.


Book 9.  String Builder Violin Book One by Samuel Applebaum

String Builder ViolinOther teenage interests rose and fell, often when I exhausted the relevant library shelf.  I considered bringing my fat orange Stanley Gibbons Stamps of the World catalogue, Point Count Chess, or one of the choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy books.  When I turn 42, I’ll include The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for my brief sci-fi phase.  Right through school, however, I learnt music.

In primary school I played descant and treble recorders and toured with a Concert Ensemble to Whangarei, two hours north of Auckland.  At intermediate, I strummed sing-along guitar chords – my favourite sad song was “Red Rubber Ball”.  My longest-running instrument was the violin, which I learnt, when possible, during PE class and played in the Mt Roskill Grammar band.  My sister suffered through the wall, but she got me back when she took up the sax.


In my first violin book, tune number one lacked variety: “The D String”.  As did tune two: “The A String”.  But Tune 3 soared to sublime heights: “The A and D Strings”.  I felt like Yehudi Menuhin.

On every instrument I’ve learnt, three sequential notes meant only one thing: it’s time for “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (tune 45).  After “Cock-a-Doodle Doo!” and “The Pet Shop”, Old MacDonald Had a whole Farm.  When not “Watching the Sheep”, I’d go for a ride with “The Lonesome Cowboy” on “My Pet Pony”.  After “A Maypole Dance” and a Bohemian “Polka”, it was time for the final opus, a farewell “Bow to Your Partner” (144).


Book 10.  Roland SH-1 Synthesizer Manual

roland-SH1Daily music practice was often more duty than delight, until school bought a Roland digital synthesiser.  I devoured books like Synthesisers and Computers and MIDI for Musicians (Musical Instrument Digital Interface).  I spent hours after school tweaking obscure settings, fiddling with the physics of sound.


Then I bought an analogue Roland SH-1, a 1978 model once used by Depeche Mode.  (I’ve no picture of the manual because a friend never returned it and I downloaded a pdf.)  Instead of small square buttons and a tiny digital display, it had a panel chock-a-block with dials to twiddle and levers to flip.  The manual had graphs of waveforms and schematics of electronics and a marvellous appendix of aural sensations to create.  Woodwind, brass and string; harpsichord and glockenspiel; barking dogs and chirping birds; wind, surf and rain; locomotives and police cars; space sounds and UFOs.


The SH-1 clips on YouTube aren’t great.  But for fellow geeks who’ll think “there goes the low pass filter” or “he’s switched the VCO source to random”; or recognise the rich swirling texture of phase modulation, here’s a guy testing all the knobs, a brief song demo, and combined with other devices.


Birthday Bibliography: Books 1-10

1. The Little Red Hen Muldrow, Diane 1954
2. Where the Wild Things Are Sendak, Maurice 1963
3. The Old Gang Tring, A. Stephen 1947
4. Good News Bible 1976
5. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Lewis, C.S. 1950
6. BASIC Computer Games Ahl, David H. 1978
7. The Lord of the Rings Tolkien, J.R.R. 1954
8. Germany Green Guide Michelin Travel 1986
9. String Builder Violin Book One Applebaum, Samuel 1960
10. SH-1 Synthesizer Manual Roland 1978


All 40 Birthday Books Posts