12 Irish Personalities on “The Book That Changed My life as a Teen”

Compiled by Dave Lordan

You are what you read is as true as You are what you eat, I think, and I have always been interested in the books that helped form the personalities of interesting people. If someone I know and respect is particularly effusive about a book, no matter if it is in a genre or by a writer that does not usually interest me, I will go and seek it out. We can broaden our knowledge and appreciation of literature – and thus of life – by treating our friends as the best kind of anthology.  I am preparing a reading list for the talented teens in our Dublin Young Authors creative writing programme at The Big Smoke Writing Factory – open for new participants and kicking off on Saturday 19th September in Dublin City Centre. I thought it would be a good idea to canvas friends and colleagues about the book that gave them the most joy as a teen. As you will see below, I got some very enthusiastic and interesting responses. I hope you enjoy them and get in contact at bogmanscannon@gmail.com if you want to share your love for a book you couldn’t put down as a teen.

Richard Boyd Barrett TD chose Wordsworth’s Prelude

It’s probably safe to admit now without incurring the wrath of school authorities, that when I was 15 or 16 and occasionally went on the hop from school, I would often head up into a quiet part of the forest on Killiney Hill – then and now, one of my very favourite places – and read. I read quite a few things during those days – often stuff that related to the natural beauty of woods and the outdoors and the desire to escape from the woes and stresses of the world. One of my favourites was William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” his great long poem written while Wordsworth was still a supporter of the great French Revolution. Then as now I was struck forcefully by his descriptions of what he called the “spots of time,” sublime moments of insight inspired by nature or human endeavour. This was not flowery romanticism but rather an aesthetic recognition of the revolutionary import of genuine, un-alienated engagement with the fundamental human and natural realities of existence.


Rick O Shea, presenter of the RTE Poetry Programme, chose Arthur C Clarke’s The Other Sid of the Sky:

“When I was in second class our Christian Brothers school had a tiny library down the back of the prefab classroom we were in. We could take what we liked. I grabbed a bright yellow book of short stories byArthur C.Clarke called The Other Side Of The Sky one day, read the first, brilliant, story The Nine Billion Names Of God and a lifelong affair with science fiction began.

arthur c clarke

Rob Doyle, author of Here Are The Young men chose Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk was a very exciting novel (and film) for me. The book suggested it was possible to live in hostility to the system of consumerism and boring work that I already knew would never satisfy me. Fight Club was sexy, fast, dangerous and subversive – moreover, it taught me how to make a bomb out of a lightbulb in the very first couple of pages.

fight club

Graham Allen of UCC English Department and author of ongoing life-poem Holes chose On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

I was desperate to leave home when I was a teenager. I got the reference from listening to a David Bowie interview. The idea of just packing your bag and upping sticks seemed to me revolutionary. The remembered effect of the book is just the sense of a wide open sky, adventures up ahead, and young people committed to living an uncompromising life. Of course it’s very male, and when I gave it to my girlfriend to read she complained there were no significant women in it. So, inadvertently, it also gave me an early lesson in the issue of gender in literature.

on the road

Poet and Abbey Theatre Literary Manager Jessica Traynor chose 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Like a lot of avid young readers, I found the transition between YA and adult books challenging. I continued to read everything I could get my hands on, but there was a niggling sense that the magic was gone and it would never come back. I think that’s a feeling that comes with the transition between childhood and adulthood.Then one day I was wandering around the old HMV on Grafton Street and I picked up 100 Years of Solitude. The tone of the writing was immediately appealing – evocative, dream-like – but it seemed to break the rules of what I thought of, at the time, as adult fiction – stuff that was written in the realist mode and dealt with boring middle aged people and their affairs. In 100 Years of Solitude, timelines and facts shifted as the story progressed. Here was a world like our own, but so very different. It felt like a more heightened, vibrant version of the South America we were exploring in school through the poems of Elizabeth Bishop. And these parallels helped me to begin to map the heretofore vast and unknowable world of adult fiction, to find compass points within it to use a guide for what a liked and what I didn’t. The magic was back.

one hundred years of solitude

Poet and secondary school teacher Elaine Feeney chose John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

‘The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck changed my life. The absolute horror and desperation and yet struggle for survival in a really beautiful and human way. Personally, it was quite something to realise after all the years of oppressive religious and moral instruction on good and evil that in fact there’s no good or bad. There’s just human. And he’s a stunningly beautiful and patient writer with language, aesthetics and full characters, but not in that over-used painstakingly, ‘describe for description’s sake way.’ Of course the right people haven’t read Steinbeck, we wouldn’t be all in this global economic vice grip if they did, and so the fools keep on making the same mistakes. Or making fools of others. Falling and fawning over each other. Such is life. But some can escape this madness. Steinbeck made me question everything I was taught. Thankfully. I find few writers in modern terms of the ‘big novel’ can balance or compete with his empathy. In fact, it would appear that the novel now shies away from this in order to exist in it’s own space. Which is absurd. Nothing can exist in a vacuum and Steinbeck was brave to attempt not to do this. There’s has not been an American writer that has adequately reflected humanity as accurately for me since Steinbeck. And I love the way he writes maleness. Stunning.’

grapes of wrath

Author, critic and  deep-reading advocate Hubert O Hearn chose The Groucho Letters: The Letters of Groucho Marx.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt the book that most changed me was The Groucho Letters: The Letters of Groucho Marx. I know, I really should be crediting one of the great novels, or some 900 page historical opus that would make a statue cry, but there it is. Through Groucho’s correspondence I defined my own wit, irreverence and ability to speak simple truths in an entertaining fashion. Also, I incorporated Groucho’s definition of the worth of a person. When his friend T.S. Eliot died, Groucho Marx summarized the former boxer (and occasional poet) with these five simple words: “He was a nice man.” Now there’s a goal to aim for.


Dr Peadar O Grady of Doctors for Choice chose 1984 by George Orwell

My friend Shane at school recommended I read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell when I was 15 (it was 1980 and only 4 years to go). This is the book that brought us ‘Big Brother’, ‘Room 101’, ‘double-think’ and ‘thought-crime’. I was pleasantly surprised at what a page-turner it was and with the most shocking and disturbing ending (down to the last line) to a novel that I think I have ever read. The questions the book posed about political struggle, love and hope for the future have stayed with me ever since. In this oligarchic collective is our only hope an uprising of the proles? Water charges anyone?


Poet Ailbhe Darcy chose Lifelines: Letters from Famous People about their Favourite Poems

In the 1980’s, a teacher called Niall MacMonagle came up with an ingenious project for his students. He suggested they write to famous people and ask them what their favourite poem was, and why. In 1992, MacMonagle collected all the responses into a book: Lifelines: Letters from Famous People about their Favourite Poems, which my Mum gave me for my birthday. She gave me Lifelines 2 and Lifelines 3 for later birthdays, too. I read these books to shreds as a teenager, though I didn’t even know who most of the ‘famous people’ were. I learned from them how poetry matters to real people in their real lives, how we might need these poems if we are to get through growing-up and love and marriage and childbirth and sickness and death with a shred of humour or dignity, and now lots of the poems in them are my favourite poems, too.


Coincidentally, poets Karl Parkinson and Kathy D’Arcy both chose Soundings

Kathy said: I didn’t have a lot of access to/guidance with books as a teenager and the one that influenced me most was Soundings…for the first time I saw how profound feelings could be created in terse lines like Dickinson’s, and to be honest that other people had the same feelings about being in the world that I had. Also learned that what I thought about a poem was allowed. Probly more to do with my teacher than anything but there you have it.

Karl said: When I was about 17/18 I began to read a lot Bio’s of Rockstars and bands I was into and I was into the lyrics of songs in a big way. Then one day I found on my self a copy of a school book I’d kept called Soundings, a poetry anthology which I liked in school, I picked it up and started to read in there, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Kavanagh etc. Poetry snuck into my soul and within a few years would subsume song lyrics as the prime self-expressive mode for me and set me on a book Odyssey from Homer to Delilo.


Finally, Mexico city based Irish Poet and Essayist Dylan Brennan chose Dracula

All the pre-millennial tensions and preoccupations of the Victorian Era—xenophobia, STDs, sex, machines, women’s rights—all exposed in one sprawling novel. Try to imagine reading about Count Dracula without having any prior knowledge of vampires—the utter strangeness of it all, camp and gory. Most of all—the multiple narrators and the way their voices lend the preposterous an air of believability. A bizarre and wonderful book.