A multiplicity of books changed my life, connecting me with minds from many nations and ages, making me a citizen of the world and the universe, instead of a person bound by the horizons of a village and the flickering light of the living room TV.
As a young person four books influenced me most-the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the dialogues of Plato, Thoreau's Walden, and Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. The first two books made me an idealist, believing in the power of the mind to improve one's life and give it order and meaning. I loved the stylistic power of Walden, the exactness of its description. Often Thoreau writes as if giving tongues to leaves and riverbanks, as if rather than speaking himself, he let them speak. "Simplify! Simplify!" Thoreau said, and following his advice I tried not to encumber myself with too many possessions, or trade leisure and the time to think for things I didn't need. It may be because of Thoreau that I write mostly about people who don't have much in the way of consumer goods, but whose minds and spirits reach out to each other and the universe.
However, in childhood, which is when our character is mostly formed, I was most influenced by Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, that wonderful adventure story where a prince and poor boy change places, the lonely prince successfully negotiating life on the road amidst rough gangs, the poor boy succeeding in the role of prince, even though he does use the royal seal of England as a nut-cracker.
I thrilled to this adventure, and what I took from it was Twain's belief that circumstances don't matter so much in life, that pedigrees and the right address mean very little compared to native intelligence and the will to make something of oneself. When I was a...