When I was recruited to give a speech at the TEDx conference in Targu Mures, Romania, I was asked to submit a list of the three books that influenced me the most. Reflecting on this, I noticed that it would be much easier to name the three best books or the three funniest books. I have read hundreds, maybe thousands of books, and from many of them I have taken something. The following list is thus merely an excerpt, and if I were to compile it in half a year, it might look completely different.
The Trip to Panama by Janosch
A children’s book? But of course! When looking for the most influential books, we have to start in our childhood.
My heroes were never the princes or princesses, sorcerers or knights, firemen or astronauts. Nor was I impressed by cowboys, bandits or sheriffs. There were three professions with whom I identified: vagabonds (or hobos or vagrants), journalists and private investigators. In that order.
The first hobos with whom I made my literary acquaintance were probably the tiger and the bear in The Trip to Panama by Janosch, who decide to walk all the way to Panama (it is not clear from where, but as a child I naturally assumed that they were also in Germany, where I was at the time). It doesn’t matter that they will never reach Panama.
Later came the adventure novels by Karl May, not too well known in the English-speaking world, I believe. The vagrant who is here today and somewhere else tomorrow and who carries all of his belongings in a bundle thrown over his shoulder always struck a more sympathetic chord with me than all the boastful heroes. He epitomized freedom.
Coincidentally or not, I will move to Latin America in a few months and will finally reach Panama, 35 years after reading my first adventure book.
Martin Eden by Jack London
This book didn’t influence me in the way that it changed my mind or gave me new ideas. But it was the first time I read a novel and could completely identify with the main character. I felt like finally someone had understood me, and maybe it did effect a change by making me more confident about being my true self.
The issues of education, class, authenticity, loneliness, critical thinking and disdain for shallowness all resonated with me. On top of that, Martin Eden is also one of the most beautifully written books, very different from Jack London’s other books about the gold rush or the wilderness.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
This is the first of three books in which Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts the journey he made across Europe, from Holland to Istanbul. On foot, largely. Alone. Beginning in 1933. When he was just 18 years old.
Another literary masterpiece, this book influenced me by showing that great adventures can be tackled without much planning, without large amounts of money, without any equipment. If an 18-year old can walk across Europe without GPS, internet and a mobile phone, then why shouldn’t I just get up and start walking?
The true story of the English boy who slept in barns, in fields, in gypsy camps, but who was also invited to monasteries, mansions and castles and who ends up in a relationship with a Romanian princess made me exclaim “What a life!” again and again as I followed his lyrical descriptions of the landscape, his encounters with people from all layers of society and his analysis of the political, social and cultural changes occurring between the two world wars.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer had a similarly motivating effect on me. Books like these give me itchy feet and I would love to pack my backpack right away and go hiking for a few days, preferably without a map, without a fixed destination even. Books like these render the idea of returning to an office and working as a lawyer again unthinkable.