Books·My Life in Books

Wade Davis: 9 books I have loved

The globetrotting photographer shares 9 books that shaped their life and work.
The globetrotting academic and photographer serves as National Geographic's Explorer-in-Residence. (Ryan Hill)

When Wade Davis decided to write his first book, he turned to the masters for help: Hemingway for dialogue, Lawrence Durrell for a sense of place and at least one Gary Snyder to bring on adventures. The bestselling author of Into the Silence, reveals the books that have had the greatest influence over his life and work.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence was a British archaeologist, military officer and writer. (Penguin)

"T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom opens up with the most beautiful line of any book in the English language: 'Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances.' The book has this incredible history: Lawrence wrote it and then left the manuscript on the London tube. He had to rewrite the whole text in a kind of fever pitch, which probably made for a better book. It's my most prized book of the many thousands of books I own. My grandfather, who was a surgeon in the Great War, had this beautiful leather-bound first edition that I now have." 

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. (Scribner)

"Ernest Hemingway can say more with grunts than most people can say with words. If you look at some of his dialogue it's like, 'Hey.' 'Why?' 'No.' 'You said.' 'What?' He paints a picture with grunts. It's unbelievable. Dialogue I found to be one of the hardest things to write. Any use of dialogue in nonfiction is essentially a fictional device because who the hell can remember exactly what was said in that moment? But you know the reason those fictional devices can work in nonfiction is if they're authentic. If you can ground that kind of fictional writing in authenticity, it resonates as being authentic to a reader."

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell was a British novelist, poet and travel writer. (Ulf Andersen/Faber & Faber Agency)

"The Alexandria Quartet. Lawrence Durrell has a tremendous sense of place. He famously said, 'Just as landscape influences character, culture springs from a spirit of place.' That was his great line. He said you could depopulate France and resettle it with Tatars and find within a generation the same national traits would re-emerge; the affection for fine food and beautiful men and women. That was a huge inspiration to me because in all of my books I'm an anthropologist and a historian focused on the nature of the landscape in which people choose to live out their destiny. It had a very important influence in the way I think about writing.

"I mean, if I read it today it would probably seem a little overheated to me. But when you read it when you're young, it's absolutely mystifying and captivating and inspiring. Durrell tells the same the same story through the point of view of four different remarkable characters, each of whom was in line with each other's lives. It was really good training to begin to think about how the multi-dimensionality of lives can come alive on two-dimensional pieces of paper."

Away by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart won the Governor General's Literary Award in 1997. (Elsa Trillat/Emblem Editions)

"My sister is a wonderful reader. She's the most decent, ethical person I know in the world. And she's a member of — she says two, but it sometimes seems like 25 book clubs in Vancouver. So if she tells me to read a book, I read a book. That's how I read Away by Jane Urquhart. I've since then gotten to know Jane and just what a lovely person she is. I thought that book was absolutely transcendent."

Turtle Island by Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975. (Leon Borensztein/WW Norton)

"Gary Snyder has always been a hero and a mentor of mine. For years and years when I was young, I never went anywhere in the world without a collection of his poetry in my pack. Ever. He really taught me what words could do. I own everything he's ever published. In a strange way without intentionally doing it, my entire life mimicked his life in a way. Like him, I was a park ranger and a logger. Like him, I studied anthropology. Like him, I wandered the world.
He was a total inspiration for me, largely because he combined a sense of freedom and a spiritual quest with unbelievable academic discipline. He was a very serious scholar. Also, he embodied in his life the values that he expresses in his writing, which is something I admire a great deal. He was a huge hero and influence of mine."

The writings of Antony Beevor and Max Hastings

Antony Beevor is an English military historian. Max Hastings is a British journalist and war correspondent. (John E. Fry/Rex Features)

"Antony Beevor and Max Hastings are the two most accomplished British historians of the 20th century in terms of World War One and World War Two. I'm really obsessed with both those conflicts because my grandfather's life was ruined by the first war and — to some extent — my father's life was ruined by the second war. I never cease to be grateful for what they did, so that I would not have to fight a Third World War. Try Beevor's Stalingrad or Berlin or Max Hastings' Nemesis or Inferno."

Everything Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. (Unicorn Press)

"Another great literary hero of mine is Winston Churchill. I've read everything Churchill ever wrote and he wrote more books than most contemporary leaders. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he wasn't always truthful. His six-volume history of the Second World War is very self-serving, but as literature it's absolutely gorgeous. Churchill famously read the entire works of Shakespeare every year, including during the Second World War. The first book I was ever given, when I was about seven years old, was a condensed version of Churchill's six volumes of the Second World War. I used to read that every single night, and to this day my wife will tell you that she just can't understand why when I can't sleep at night, I always read deep histories of the Second World War."

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain was an English nurse, writer and pacifist during the First World War. (Hulton Archive/Little, Brown And Company)

"One of my favourite books, a book I think is the greatest book ever to come out of the First World War without doubt, is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. If a human being can read that book and not weep, they aren't a human being. Vera Brittain was a young woman with great dreams of going to university. Her father didn't think women should go to university but her dear brother, whom she loved terribly, said he wouldn't go if the father didn't allow Vera to go. So she goes off to school and then the war breaks out. In the war, she loses her two best friends, her fiancé and her darling brother. And at the end of the war, she simply says, 'By the end of the war everybody I'd ever danced with was dead.'"

Wilfred Owen's poems

Wilfred Owen was an English soldier and one of the leading poets of the First World War.

"Another hugely influential person from me was Wilfred Owen. He wrote the greatest anti-war poem in history. In his lifetime only two of his poems were published. He fought in the First World War. Word of his death reached his parents in his village in England literally as church bells tolled the victory of 1918. It's the greatest poem probably in English literature, certainly the greatest ever about war."


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