So a few weeks ago, I ran across an open call issued by Cyclopic that challenged OS’ers to list, in 15 minutes, 15 books that affected their lives.
Well, I came upon this late in the meme. And I couldn’t think fast enough to list 15 books in so short a time. And I couldn’t limit myself to just 15 books. (I salute those who felt the same way but nevertheless gamely joined in.)
But I was very much intrigued by the idea, and have been mulling it over ever since. And so, at the risk of exposing my vapid tastes and unimaginative life, I offer 25 books that influenced me. Lennon (mainly) and McCartney provide, as so often, a fitting reflection.
1. Dick and Jane series: My brother, five years older than I, taught me how to read with these books. They were, thus, my gateway to the power of words. What could be more influential than that?
2. The World Book Encyclopedia: We were fortunate enough to have a set of these—the 1959 edition, if I remember correctly. I used to randomly pick up a volume and browse. These adventures opened many doors for me.
3. Sterling North, Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to White House (Landmark Books): Many a Landmark Book I enjoyed, but this biography of Lincoln was most notable of all. It awakened in me a deep passion for Old Abe, who put the lie to the idea that the individual does not matter and who demonstrated that persistence is not futile.
4. Bruce Catton, The Army of the Potomac trilogy: Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, A Stillness at Appomattox: This three-part history of the chief Union army during the Civil War weaves the testimony of the men, taken from their letters and diaries, into a clear and often moving narrative that imprinted my love of history and revealed history writing at its best.
5. The Bible: The Bible built a foundation of faith. Though that faith has morphed greatly over time, foundational stories and words—the parable of the Prodigal Son; “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”; Jesus’ understanding love toward Peter—remain.
6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: From the first line to the last, I was charmed. Many years later, I learned, to my delight, that this is a great read-aloud book for kids. Eventually, it will be for grandkids, too. (LOTR is close behind, of course, but The Hobbit has the advantage of not making you cry at the end and of promising more to come.) This book helped inculcate delight in language and imagination.
7. Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth: Biting satire from late in Twain’s life that dazzled me with its skeptical, contrary look at orthodoxy and, though often angry, its compassionate humanity.
8. Bram Stoker, Dracula: The first play I tried out for in high school, and, though I didn’t get a part, the one that got me involved in the school’s theater group. I became part of a community outside my family.
9. William Shakespeare, Macbeth: Senior year in high school, the school introduced English electives and several friends and I quickly signed up for the Shakespeare course. I’d read some Shakespeare in earlier grades, but not for many years, and they had not made a deep impression on me. The first play we read in this course was Macbeth, which the teacher (smart man) had us read aloud, covering a scene or two every day and then discussing. This play brought Shakespeare into my heart (kinda gruesome, huh?); this play was why I became an English major in college.
10. Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values: What I most remember about this book is Bronowski’s case for science as a creative activity, an insight that made me be more open to and appreciative of the endeavor.
11. John William De Forest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty: What???, you ask. And well you should. Mired in my junior year of college, wanting to write a senior thesis but having no idea what to write on, my dormant interest in the Civil War was reawakened and I decided to explore the novels written about the antebellum period, the war, and Reconstruction. After reading several interesting but hardly masterly works, I decided that this novel (and others) by De Forest, a not-very-good Connecticut novelist and a veteran of the Union army, would be good fodder for a thesis, which became my academic highlight of college.
12. Donald Hall, Writing Well: I had the great pleasure of copy editing this freshman comp text in one of its editions. Hall taught me a tremendous amount about writing, not least of which was that it all begins with words. Honorary mention to Sylvan Barnet and Marcia Stubbs for Barnet & Stubbs’s Practical Guide to Writing, which was full of wonderful examples of well-crafted prose.
13. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays: As I read this collection, Orwell came to epitomize, for me, prose style and reflected the one “ism” I can believe in: wary humanism.
14. Roger Tory Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of North America: In our early married years, Mrs. P and I became interested in birding, and Peterson was our Bible. This book symbolizes my awakening to the pleasures of nature.
15. Jane Austen, The Complete Novels: One of the best weeks I ever enjoyed was the one I spent recuperating from hernia surgery because I spent it reading (re-reading, in the cases of Emma and P&P) the complete Austen. Heaven. Why influential? Austen shows how to be moral in everyday life, amusing us in the process.
16. James Michener, Iberia: While Michener can be a very stodgy read, he is an acute observer, and this lengthy love-piece to Spain (along with Mrs. P’s descriptions of the place) quickened in me the deep desire to feel the magic of that place. I was pleased to discover, when the wish was finally fulfilled, that he hadn’t lied.
17. Mark Harris, The Southpaw: The best book ever written about baseball. Period. There will be more on this when I do my list of baseball books; for now, suffice to say that it combines great baseball writing, sharply drawn characters, humor, and heart. Like Austen, Harris uses wit to teach how to live.
18. William Makepeace Thackeray, Pendennis: Interestingly, this novel makes the list even though I hated it. I was in a period of concentrated exploration of the canon. So I read more Dickens, Dostoevsky, and James and pretty much the complete George Eliot. Then I turned to Thackeray. Vanity Fair was OK (the movie version, which came much later, was better—didn’t take as long to get through). Henry Esmond and The Virginians had some amusing moments due to their historical settings, though my dislike of Thackeray’s style and characters grew as I plowed through those pages. Then I hit Pendennis, and I realized I really hated this book. And that I didn’t have to finish it. A liberating epiphany.
19. James Beard, Beard on Bread: For many cooks, Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is the key to the kingdom. I must confess, I never went through that door, except as the lucky taster in the period that Mrs. P developed the rhythm of watching The French Chef after coming home from teaching and then trying recipes out on me, a very willing guinea pig. Nor can I choose any one ethnic or general cookbook: I like too many different kinds of food to narrow it down. Yet cooking is a part of me. Then, I realized that Jemmy’s bread book is probably the most important cookbook in my life. His calm voice allayed fears and his easy-to-follow instructions made what seem mysterious emerge as something remarkably foolproof and a great joy for me.20. Sheila Kitzinger, The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth and Penelope Leach, Your Baby and Child: Kitzinger helped Mrs. P and me negotiate the wonder and terror of pregnancy. Leach was reassuring as we embarked on parenthood, the Great Crapshoot.
21. Salmon Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories: Rushdie’s answer to the Ayatollah’s fatwa against him is this stunning, rich, and very funny celebration of imagination. Its affirmation of the creative spirit and its love for language stay with me, and it symbolizes the many books that Mrs. P and I read aloud with the kids, partly because we all discovered this one together. (This just edged out The Cat in the Hat.)
22. That damned health text: Working on the first edition of this helped build my confidence as a writer, a slinger of BS, a worker, and a handler of people. Working on the third edition solidified my confidence in myself as a manager—and buttressed my resolve to get out of that job and become a freelancer.
23. J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter books: These are exceptional works of art. Rowling displays the creative energy of Shakespeare along with the out-of-this-world imagination of Tolkien, the quick character-sketching skills of Dickens, and a mastery of plot and details worthy of Fielding: no incident, no object, no character is extraneous. And there’s humor, a dramatist’s feel for pacing, and truths about character and life choices. These books were a great sharing for the four of us (read sequentially and discussed incessantly) and are stories to which I know I will return.
24. Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: While I can’t buy Tolle’s optimistic view of the New Earth that will eventually emerge, reading this book did convince me to slow down and view life, the past, the present, and the future in different ways. Tolle (and Mrs. P) got me started asking some questions that I had long been too busy to consider.
25. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: The sage has me trying to learn to be effortless, to be water.
Words © 2009 AtHome Pilgrim.
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