Patrick Lee: Five Books That Changed My Life

THE STAND by Stephen King

I first read The Stand in junior high, after it was re-released in its extended, uncut form. This book is like a master class in creating interesting characters, and experiencing a story through their various points of view. If we say a “speaking part” is any character whose eyes we see through, however briefly, there are dozens of distinct speaking parts in this book, and ten or more that are major roles.

I’ve re-read the book a few times over the years, and it always reinforces what I only partly understood the first time I picked it up: that as a writer, you can use different characters in the way a photographer uses different lenses. A character’s biases, and qualities like selfishness and kindness and intelligence–all of those things come through in how that person sees the world. Even the most basic things, like descriptions of setting, are colored in by the character’s personality.

THE ENEMY by Lee Child

This book probably had a more direct impact on me than any other book on this list. In late 2007 I finished an early draft of what would be my first published book, and realized it needed a lot of work. Parts of it felt very unfocused, and seemed to wander. I wasn’t sure, at the time, how to fix those problems, and that’s about the worst feeling you can have as a writer. I found a copy of The Enemy in the book aisle at my local grocery store that night, read the back and then the first few pages, and bought it. I don’t think I could have picked a better novel to provide an example of how to keep a story focused tightly on a single, critical objective.

From the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Jack Reacher, is trying to find out what was inside a briefcase that was stolen from a recently-deceased general. It soon becomes clear that, whatever was inside the case, people are willing to kill over it. As the story progresses, everything that happens is tied tightly to that single goal of Reacher’s: find out what the hell was in that briefcase.

 

LONESOME DOVE  by Larry McMurtry

This might be my favorite novel, which is strange, because I’ve never been drawn to westerns in general. Lonesome Dove has many of the same strengths as The Stand, in that it uses an army of distinct characters as if they were different lenses. What sets Lonesome Dove apart is that the realism is cranked up about as far as it can go in a novel. Nothing is predictable. No character is cliche or flat. It all just feels like real life. Lonesome Dove is one of those books that actually ruins other books for you, at least for a while after you’ve read it, but it’s worth it.

 

GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL by Jared Diamond

This book tackles a question that’s so basic, some of us may have never considered it: why did history happen the way it did? Why did European countries colonize Africa and the Americas and Asia, instead of one of those countries colonizing Europe? Everyone has an obvious answer to that: because European countries were a lot further ahead, technologically, than all those other places were. But why were they further ahead? That’s what the book is really about.

It starts thirteen thousand years ago, when humans all over the planet were hunter-gatherers. No one was much more advanced than anyone else, at that point. Twelve and a half thousand years later, around the time of Columbus, the playing field had changed entirely: countries like England and Spain had steel weapons, gunpowder, ships that could circle the globe, and the understanding to navigate by the stars. By contrast, societies in North and South America had none of those technologies, and were effectively thousands of years behind Europe. Why the difference? Hint: it has nothing to do with genetics, or any built-in quality of any group of people. The book explores how environmental factors like climate, geography, and available crops all shape the development of a society over thousands of years. It’s a hell of an eye-opening idea: the people who were lucky enough to have wheat and horses and pigs ten thousand years ago ended up in charge of the world as a result. There are some historians who don’t necessarily agree with Diamond about all this, but he supports his case with a huge amount of research.

 

THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD by Carl Sagan

If I could translate one book into every language on Earth, and make everyone read it and understand it, this would be the book. The Demon-Haunted World is like a rallying cry for one very important concept: not bullshitting yourself about how reality works.

The book delves into the ways that superstition and supernatural beliefs have affected history (never for the better) over the centuries. Ever wake up and find yourself unable to move for a few seconds, as if your blanket weighs a thousand pounds and is locking you in place? It’s called sleep paralysis. It’s what your body naturally does to keep you from acting out your dreams, and on rare occasions it lasts for a short moment after you wake up. In medieval Europe, this was interpreted as an attack by a demon called an incubus or a succubus. Those ideas, among others, led to people accusing their neighbors of witchcraft, and over the course of a few hundred years, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of people were tortured to death in witch trials all over the continent. It’s probably also true that these trials were cynical scams encouraged by opportunistic politicians who knew better, but only gullibility on everyone else’s part made it possible in the first place.

The book could probably be summed up like this: the higher our standards of evidence are, the better off everyone is.

Patrick was born in west Michigan in 1976. His accomplishments over the next eighteen years included waiting for Nintendo to be invented and then playing lots of Nintendo. In his twenties he sold two screenplays to movie studios in Los Angeles, but neither was produced. Patrick blames Hollywood’s prejudice against rugged, Brad Pitt-aged protagonists. On the other hand, even Patrick’s limited success in the movie business was a great way to avoid doing any actual work for the entirety of his twenties.

In his early thirties he started writing novels, and managed to sign with the coolest agent in the business: Janet Reid at FinePrint, who promptly sold the first two books of the Travis Chase series to HarperCollins. Patrick’s relatives expressed relief that he probably wouldn’t end up sleeping on their couches.