(In answer to my own Open Call, found here. Hope you participate!)
The most intriguing aspect of this exercise was that almost all the books I came up with were ones that I read before the age of 25. Intriguing but rather dispiriting! I’d like to think that I continue to develop as a person even now, but if that’s true, it’s happening because of influences other than books!
Perhaps it’s because I had to do this exercise in a very pure fashion: About a year ago, I packed all my books into boxes for moving, and I haven’t unpacked them since. So there was no peering into the bookshelf – I had to go with what came to mind, and I think that tilted the list towards ones imprinted on me long ago. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
I’m going to take a page from another person’s list and talk about these roughly in the order that I read them in my life. I also combined some books that had similar effects on me into a single entry.
The Diary of Anne Frank
I’ve blogged before about what Anne Frank has meant to me so will keep this one brief. I first read Anne’s diary somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12 and it opened up both the universal and the horrific -- not only the Holocaust, but the sufferings of war in general -- but also the personal and inspiring -- that a young girl like myself could express her deepest thoughts and feelings in writing and have others value her words. This still may be the single most influential book I’ve ever read.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Ironically, I first read GWTW at age 11 as we drove across country while moving from Virginia to California. As my opportunity to become a Southern belle receded into the distance, I learned lessons about womanhood and relationships that presciently portrayed a pattern I’d live out for many years: pursuing elusive men rather than choosing real love. (The twist being that in real life, it’s Rhett Butler that women pine for, while overlooking the Ashley Wilkes right under their nose.) On the positive side, flawed as she was, Scarlett in her rebellious strength provided me with a primitive feminist role model – something in short supply in my 1960’s childhood.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This beautifully written and emotionally frank autobiographical novel has fallen into obscurity, which is a shame. I first read it to understand my father’s childhood in Brooklyn in the same (early 20th century) era, although he grew up in the Jewish section of the borough and Smith in the Irish Catholic one (this felicitously melded my mother’s heritage into the story as well). Like Anne Frank, the protagonist seemed to channel my own dreams, fears and hopes, including the desire to be a writer. While the young Francie Nolan devours novels on her noisy tenement fire escape to evade her impoverished life, and I secreted myself in quiet suburbia, we both found in books the worlds that we longed for. When she succeeds in attending college as well as having a career (no mean feat for a young woman in her era), it gave me a reassuring preview of my own future.
Lord of the Flies by William Goldman/1984 by George Orwell
I read these books for class assignments in early adolescence and they created in me a still-abiding distrust of human nature as well as of the societies and systems that people create. Lord of the Flies triggered a lifelong terror of mobs by convincing me that ordinary people, even children, can descend into senseless violence under the right conditions. (The Diary of Anne Frank, which I'd already read, added the most powerful of historical evidence to back up this claim.) But just when I might be tempted to flee to the reassurances of strict order, 1984 revealed the flipside: the danger of institutions, laws and societal controls. Do you want anarchy or a prison? These books showed me that incredible danger lurks at both ends of the spectrum, and that the ideal middle is often elusive.
The Bible by…a whole lot of people.
Having been raised Catholic, I was only glancingly familiar with the Bible until I became a born-again Christian at age 16. I read, re-read and studied it intently for the next 6 years, attempting to live by its tenets, before leaving Fundamentalism after college graduation (I used that event to make a clean break). I’d been steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery and beliefs my entire life, but studying the Bible added layers to my understanding of how it permeates our culture in endless subtle ways that we don’t notice. And I still recall select Bible verses in which I find wisdom or usefulness. (E.g. “All things are lawful but not all things edify” -- a reminder that we may be free to say or do anything we want, but not all actions benefit ourselves or others.)
Collected Poems by ee cummings
Cummings was the first poet that I fell in love with, and like many of his fans, I wrote reams of poetry trying to copy his style, which seemed deceptively simple and casual but proved impossible to duplicate. In my first attempt to copy a master, I learned an essential lesson, which was how much craft lurks behind seemingly effortless writing. I realized that to write well, I’d have to work long and hard to make it look easy. As for poetry, I stopped writing it out of respect for the form, which I could never do justice to.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath/Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman
The Bell Jar has become a modern classic in part because it’s a veiled account of Plath’s own life, but also because it captured an emotional suffocation that many young women were feeling in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Sadly, Kaufman’s more artfully written (and extremely funny) novel on the choking effects of traditional marriage and motherhood has fallen into obscurity. After pairing these, I realized that both authors met the same fate, suicide, after writing powerful accounts of the induced neurosis of women’s lives before feminism. Both books portray women on the brink of liberation, longing for a freedom that came just a bit too late to save either their protagonists or their authors. Reading them in late adolescence made me determined not to succumb to a role or a way of life that would leave me feeling equally trapped – however, I won’t go so far as to say that they’re the reason I never married or had children!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte/Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The real and fictional Janes led me to a love of 19th century literature, but were equally important in shaping my ideas about women’s lives. Both Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett are heroines for the ages – intelligent, articulate, passionate and strong as hell. I was struck by the fact that while their circumstances were quite different ( impoverished orphan vs. member of the gentry), their feelings (they want to be known, in the deepest and fullest sense) and imperatives (they must marry in order to have a chance at a satisfying life) were so similar. In combination with the two more modern novels I just discussed, they made me realize that women’s lives hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years, and that affluence was no guarantee of happiness. Even today, all doors seem open, yet women still struggle with the same dilemma: how to find true intimacy with someone who accepts them just as they are. (Don’t believe me? Just pick up any piece of contemporary “chick lit.”) Neither Jane nor Elizabeth changes who she is and yet both find love. Compare that to women today who shape their lives and selves according to what magazines, music, movies and TV tell them they should be. Who is truly free?
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin/A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
The first is an award-winning sci-fi classic, while the second is an obscure Christian memoir, but both books were influential in validating my instinctive aversion to materialism and consumerism, the “stuff” that American society is both made of and obsessed by, rather than emotional and spiritual connection, which is what speaks to me. The Dispossessed portrays an anarchic society which functions with minimal personal property and a cooperative system of working and living, in contrast to the mother planet the inhabitants have fled, which is a stand-in for Earth/America. An enviro-feminist, LeGuin parallels the mindless material consumption with the need to possess other people in relationships. (On the anarchic planet, there is no marriage, and one refers to “the partner” instead of “my partner.”) A Severe Mercy deals with fairly traditional Christianity (Vanauken and his wife converted in part due to a friendship with C.S. Lewis) yet the Vanaukens had the same philosophy, including not letting material objects cause marital strife (which led to the couple cheerfully hammering a deliberate dent in a new car, so that neither would get the blame for the inevitable first ding later). When his beloved wife dies young, Vanauken is thrown into a spiritual crisis, not just because he is angry at God, but because he learns that it’s even easier to grasp selfishly onto a memory than onto a living person. Both books challenged me to consider how I might wish to “possess” another person even if I shunned materialism.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne/Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy/ The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
While several books listed above explore the condition of women, these three focus on female sexuality, a topic I began to write about when choosing the first two for my Master’s thesis, and which has continued to fascinate me through a memoir and many blog posts. All three novels address the punishment women may endure for simply being sexual creatures. While the two venerable classics illuminate a world that we like to assume is safely behind us, Atwood’s dystopian fantasy portrays a near-future when Fundamentalist Christians have taken over America, and instituted a fascistic society that subjugates women in every conceivable way -- literally (the few remaining fertile women are forced to be “handmaids” of powerful men, who try to impregnate them). Minorities and the majority of men also suffer at the hands of a powerful elite who justify their acts with religious dogma while secretly indulging in “sins.” This contemporary nightmare was entirely plausible at the time it was published in the 1980’s, when the Religious Right was at the height of its power, buoyed up by Reagan’s presidency. Atwood was prescient in predicting how access to our money would become increasingly computerized and thus easy to manipulate, as well as pointing out the dangers of the concentration of power. With extremists once again threatening to re-make America according to their own twisted ideals, and large corporations gaining ever more political power, her work remains a warning to me that no freedom should ever be taken for granted.