Chapter and verse on life-changing books

Melvyn Bragg said it wasn't great people who changed the world, but the books they wrote. Here, we discover books that influenced 12 lives. By Elaine Barker and Dan McKerrell
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The Independent Culture

This was the book I used to read under the desk at school. It taught me the power of magazine writing; I began to view it as the highest calling there is. It introduced me to what an inventive language English can be, an ironic respect and admiration for this country's prose. I was grabbed by its humour and style. It is one of the great books of the 20th century. Tom Wolfe is the greatest living writer we have.

Antony Beevor, historian - Animal Farm, 1984, by George Orwell

My choice would be these for opening the world's eyes to the reality of Soviet Communism. 1984 had a tremendous impact around the world with its simplicity and immediacy. The reality of a society totally controlled for the increase in power of a ruling elite. Orwell's experiences of the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the reality of political persecution. The ruthless suppression of any opposition to the ideology developed in Moscow.

Jilly Cooper, novelist - The Fall, by Albert Camus

In The Fall, there is a fantastic line which reads, "All men do is fornicate and read the papers." It made me decide to become a journalist, it was such a wonderful line. I love Camus as a writer; he was sexy, a good footballer and intellectually profound. He was a huge influence. The book that changed my life in the most dramatic sense was my novel Riders. When it was a success it meant I didn't have to sell the dream house I'd just bought.

Bonnie Greer, writer and commentator - Le Rideau (The Curtain), by Milan Kundera

It's a series of short and amusing essays on the state of the novel. He says we don't have the writers today that contemporary readers need. He believes there is too much 19th century sentiment and structure in the contemporary novel. He also comments on the cults of fashion and celebrity and ever-more-hyped publishing, the celebrity novel. He is funny, straight to the point and right as usual.

John Hegley, poet - Marianne Dreams, by Catherine Storr

It is about a little girl who is sick and she finds her drawings start to come alive in her dreams. The book has an interesting way of playing with reality and it made me aware of altered states. One state of mind is not necessarily the same all the time. You can alter your mind and it is not always bad. The lyrics to Elvis Costello's album This Year's Model also marked my life. It opened up whole new areas to me in writing.

Sue MacGregor, broadcaster - The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer

I read this when it first came out in 1970. Here was a feisty, funny Australian who I had seen on TV. She seemed passionate; a woman's destiny didn't have to be in a family setting. She said women were biologically different, but intellectually just as good as men. She said for the Sixties generation what Simone de Beauvoir had not quite said 30 years before. It gave you the confidence to be single without feeling you had failed.

Kathy Lette, novelist - The Kama Sutra

Growing up as a surfie girl in Australia, where women were referred to as "bushpigs", "swamp hogs" or "maggots", we females thought we were little more than a life support system to a vagina. The terms for sex were "rooting", "tooling", "poking", "stabbing" or "meat injection". The Kama Sutra revealed that "multiple orgasm" was not an insurance company. Any bloke who hasn't studied The Kama Sutra, well, the Pope will be ringing you up for tips on celibacy.

Dr Raj Persaud - Gresham Professor of Psychiatry, at Maudsley hospital, London - Q and A, by Vikas Swarup

The story of an Indian street urchin who wins the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But there is an inquiry afterwards because they think he cheated. Reading the book changed my life. It is about surviving under pressure when the world seems to be conspiring against you.

Nitin Sawhney, musician - The Eye of Shiva, by Amaury de Riencourt

This is the most incredible book I have read. It tied together ideas from ancient Hindu philosophy with contemporary scientific perspectives on the universe.

It led me to a lot more reading around the connections between theoretical and Vedic Hinduism, and it got me asking far more questions than it answered.

Alexei Sayle, writer and comedian - Wages, Price and Profit, by Karl Marx

I read this at 16 when I was in a Marxist study group. It seemed to explain how the world works. It persuaded me to waste years in political agitation, gave me material for my comedy and formed the basis for much of my career. People in political activism are at their most extreme and this can help make good sketches.

Will Self, author - Gladstone, by Roy Jenkins

I'm a bit of a junky for biography, the element of knowing how they end. Plus the feeling of using the past as a searchlight over the present. Gladstone ... typifies the British tendency to completely redirect yourself. By switching from being an Anglican High Tory to a dissenting Radical Liberal, he may have evaded a 19th century revolution.

Meera Syal, writer, actor and broadcaster - To Kill a Mockingbird. by Harper Lee

I read it when I was 13 and it was the first time I understood how racism worked and how the people who perpetuate it are not evil but ignorant. It made me see the world quite differently. Another one that had a huge influence was a collection of writings by Indian feminists from the Indian journal, Manushi. I saw that some issues we considered cultural were actually about things such as abuse of power.