John Sam Jones: Seven books that influenced me most
The award-winning Welsh author picks his seven top reads as his memoir The Journey is Home is released as a special edition audiobook.
John Sam Jones
For thirty years my husband, Jupp, and I collected books. As a television-free home we read – a lot.
Of course, I didn’t read the novels and history books he read in German, and he didn’t read the Welsh novels that I very often read, but many of the books in English were shared, dissected, discussed and even rated in our own Book of the Year competition.
And then, in 2017, we moved to Germany and our library of books was sold off, given away to friends and placed in charity shops. So today my bookshelf is a barren field!
Growing up I wasn’t much of a reader; I mixed up my letters, was slow to develop word recognition, found reading chore – and reading out aloud in class at school an absolute trauma!
Once I started (enjoying) reading – whilst at university – I felt there was some catching-up to do, and for many years I would read one or two titles by recently deceased authors – E M Foster, Agatha Christie, Kingsley Amis, Christopher Isherwood, Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Iris Murdoch… and these would be interspersed with the (mostly) American writers, writing about the lives of gay men, which I discovered after reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
With my move in 1981 to study Theology in Berkeley, California, I discovered the novels of Edmund White (A Boy’s Own Story 1982) and his Violet Quill Club colleagues Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance 1978) and Felice Picano (An Asian Minor 1981) and soon became aware of the anthologies of gay short stories which ran to ten volumes from the mid-1980s to 2000 under the title Men on Men – Best New Gay Fiction… it was these writers, and these novels and short stories, that offered some shape to my life as a gay man and challenged the ‘mad, bad and sad’ narrative that I had absorbed from the sea of negative stories about homosexuality in which I had been drowning.
Of course, I’m not an American – so I didn’t always see myself in these stories, so after much reflection (and prevarication) I was inspired to write short stories about the lives of gay men from Wales. Welsh Boys Too, my first published collection of short fiction, is 22 this year!
And – now I’m being asked to come up with the seven titles that have influenced me most. Seven! What’s so significant about seven?
Yes – there are seven ‘wonders of the world’… and 7 has some significance in most world religions (go on – google it) and in many a myth and folklore 7 is a lucky number… and more recently psychology has suggested that most people can retain seven items of information in their short term memory which is why so many phone numbers (at least landlines) had seven digits.
So, why not seven?
So… in no particular order – seven books that influenced me most.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Night is an autobiographical book by Elie Wiesel about his experience of being deported to Auschwitz with his father, and the story of his own survival in 1944 and 1945, until Buchenwald was liberated by US troops.
I first read Wiesel’s autobiographical novel in 1981 when I took a semester-long course in Berkeley on the Theology in the Novels of Elie Wiesel taught by Robert McAfee Brown and Wiesel himself.
I was 26, and seeking to process my own history as the survivor of Electric Shock Aversion Therapy in the old Victorian asylum in Denbigh, I found Wiesel’s quiet dignity deeply moving and his words – For the dead and the living, we must bear witness profound and relevant to my own experience as the surviving witness of atrocity.
Waldo Williams – Cerddi 1922-1970
In both primary and secondary school my Welsh and English teachers would have us learn poems by heart…
At Ysgol Ardudwy, in Harlech, Miss Jones, my English teacher, introduced me to R S Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Robert Graves – and more, and Miss Parry, my Welsh teacher, introduced me to R. Williams Parry, T.H. Parry Williams, Iorwerth C. Peate and Waldo Williams.
Waldo became my ‘return to’ Welsh poet, his poems often helping me claim the Welshness that the Gypsy and English genes running through my blood had, for decades, taken ‘pride of place’ in my self-understanding.
The Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein and Edmund White
Electric Shock Aversion Therapy at 18 years of age left me damaged – spiritually – emotionally – sexually – and for almost a decade after ‘the treatment to cure me of homosexuality’ I had flashback to that experience which rendered me sexually non-functional.
After many months of therapy when I lived in Berkeley my sexual-self began to re-emerge and The Joy of Gay Sex helped me to reclaim myself.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
When you’ve tried – and failed to commit suicide you have to find meaning in each day: Frankl helped me in that search.
The Book of Psalms
Yes – I could have just included the Bible – but actually it’s the Psalms that I love.
As a child, ‘deud adnod’ (reciting bible verses) was a weekly event in both the morning chapel service and in Sunday School – and it was usually from the Psalms that the verses were selected – more often than not in Welsh.
Even today I can recite by heart many of these ancient ‘songs’ – and I’m forever grateful that I have such a spiritual resource of ancient wisdom to draw on.
The first translation of the Psalms into Welsh was by Edmund Prys (1544-1623) who grew up in the shadow of the Rhinog Mountains in Ardudwy, just a few miles from my own childhood home, and I like to think that some of the beauty and majesty of that landscape influenced Prys in his rendering of Psalm 121 Dyrchafaf fy llygaid i’r mynyddoedd… o’r lle y daw fy nghymorth?– I will lift up my eyes to the hills… From whence comes my help?
The Wounded Healer by Henri J. M. Nouwen
Another book I came across when I studied in Berkeley, Nouwen’s short meditation on how it’s possible to use our woundedness as a source of compassion.
I often re-read this little book – especially when I sense that I’m becoming bitter and twisted about aspects of my history.
The Men with the Pink Triangles by Heinz Herger
One of the few ‘eye-witness’ accounts of the homosexual persecution perpetrated by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945.
This aspect of the history of the Holocaust was slow to be recognized – and against the backdrop of the ‘mad, bad and sad’ narrative about homosexuality that was so pervasive when I was growing up (and still is?) I found Herger’s willingness ‘to bear witness’ an inspiration which I have tried to live up to.
Seven… and then I reflect: But what about…?
The Journey is Home is a book of the month audiobook this month with Spiracle Editions.
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