Books that changed my life

Before Miss Ritchie’s P1 class in 1965, I could read individual words like ‘bus’ and thought myself clever for being able to distinguish between god and dog (actually p,q,b,9,d,g can still get me confused, 90b help me). I was then introduced to Janet and John, an unlikely couple whose relationship was never made clear and who said things that seemed inane even to a pre-literate 5 year old like “See the cat”. No-one I knew spoke like that. No-one other than Miss Ritchie, who regularly used vernacular Ulster-Elizabethan forms such as “Come you here”.

Since then, there have been numerous books. My guess is two books a week on average since 1965…ie about 4000 books. Actually, this seems an astonishingly small total, given how many years I have spent allegedly being educated. It’s particularly salutary that only 5 in 4000 or 0.5% have had any real influence. So many books, so little effect.

The Teddy Bear Annual 1965
This was a formative book in that the Bear family characters were very real. There was the saintly mummy, the gruff daddy, the slightly mad, car-obsessed uncle Fred bear who used his mansion to house his car collection whilst sleeping in a tent. Is it stretching credulity too far for me to say that I’ve just remembered that he dressed as a tramp and that the pun has only now, 40 years later been appreciated? I can remember Paddy Paws the puppy and Doctor David and Nurse Susan. I’m sure they had some unfortunate formative influences on me. I was given my first felt-tip pens at around this time with which I annotated the book pretty comprehensively (mostly with ill-formed p’s, b’s 9’s etc).

Lomond Arithmetic
A seriously difficult, traditional Scottish no-nonsense-now-you’re-nine (or in my case q) textbook. It was designed, I believe to provide preparation for the old 11-plus, the one in which there were questions on Maths and English, not just a multiple choice verbal reasoning guessionnaire. The book, which had a maroon cloth cover was, like all our textbooks, School Property and had to be treated with the respect granted such things in that era. I can still see the large, serif font and hear the fearfilled-banging of desktops as the books were ordered into action.

The questions ranged from the standard 20-at-a-time long divisions of £sd etc to the wordy Problems set towards the latter part of the book. These are the ones which I remember with particular fondness. The reason is that although I was not good at dealing with these to start with, my father spent probably five evenings teaching me how to think clearly about solving them. There were problems of proportion “…if it takes two men a week to dig a hole, how long will it take 4 men?” and even ones of the form “…if a bath is filling at a given rate and someone removes the plug, how long will it take the bath to empty if the plughole removes water at twice the incoming rate?…”

My mind at the time was completely unable to stop thinking about the image of the bath, the noise of the fluid, why didn’t it matter if the sum was done with water or oil, where did the water go? etc etc.

My father took a long time explaining how to solve these terrifyingly complex questions by breaking them down into parts that were individually easy to focus on. Whoever Lomond was, he must have been a real hardass but I owe him for the challenge provided by those problems as well as for some of the few positive memories of my Father.

The Apple Macintosh manual 1984
This is such a beautiful production, filled with wonderfully minimal diagrams and sumptuously lit photographs. These images show a North American lifestyle for which the Mac was designed and to which I very much aspired. Startling skyscraper views over Central Park, sunlit bike rides around Stanford, whiteboard sessions in high-tech startups…I left my heart in Cupertino. I recently talked to someone who spent much of their working life just down the road from the gloriously named Mariani Avenue, home of the Mac. They said it’s actually quite polluted, industrialised and choked with traffic.

In 1984, however, this book represented several things to me. First was the fact that it was made by people who were talented and clearly cared about making something beautiful way beyond basic requirements. The Mac itself stood for a new way to have machines behave, “No more memorizing long commands with names only a programmer could love”. Oh how I wish that were actually true.

The ubiquitous, freehand screen “Hello”, meant that a career in computer graphics could now be a possibility. Computers had just developed personality.

By far my favourite novel, this book doesn’t rely on chapters full of scene setting, specious dialogue or even much character development. It’s all plot directed towards making its point.

My view used to be that governments aim to control thought, to the point where people want to obey -to love Big Brother (It’s now clear to me that by far the majority of people actually want to be told exactly what to do in most spheres of activity).

How ironic that Orwell had to accept censorship of this book -to tone down the theme of abject capitulation, the personal treachery of which we are all, in extremis, capable. O’Brien would be particularly pleased that I contiinue to revise these jottings, so that no two readings will ever be the same. Doubleplusgood.

Foveolar Pattern Recognition, MSc thesis
This is the book that nearly broke my heart. Not because of any emotional content, but because of the process of writing it in the face of professional and domestic opposition. Only 4 copies were printed and I have two of them on my shelf (no electronic backup exists).

It is an attempt to document about ten years of compulsive research into how the 10,000,000,000 or so nerve cells in the visual cortex of higher mammals can perform shape recognition (and yet get p and q confused). I did the work largely without funding or any real supervision by a senior academic. It was also hindered by having a subject which lay at the interface between two academic disciplines…traditionally a dangerous place for fledgling ideas.

On the premature death of my supervisor, this PhD-in-progress was left defenceless and I had to fight a rearguard action to get it examined as an MSc.
It could have been a much, much better book but, at the time, it represented my very best effort. I have (co)-written other papers, articles and books since (oh, alright, one book) but I have never cared about writing something as much as I did this thesis.