I turned 30 last week. To celebrate, I ate a lot of cake. I also came up with a list of the 30 most influential books in my life so far. It was a fun exercise that surprised me in some ways. Some books were easy to pinpoint. For some, I thought about phases in my life and various obsessions through the years and tracked them back to the book that was responsible (a book is almost always responsible.)
These aren't my 30 favorite books, or the 30 best books I've ever read, but these 30 books fundamentally changed my life in some way, large or small. They changed the way I look at the broader world, the way I look at storytelling, or just had a heavy influence on my later reading tastes.
The list is roughly in chronological order.
Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever Richard Scarry
According to my parents, this was the book I demanded they read to me every night. No story, just words and pictures. Then again, when I look up a word in a print dictionary, I often get distracted by the other words and it ends up taking me 30 minutes.
Hop on Pop Dr. Seuss
I demanded the book be read to me so many times that I memorized it. Being 4, I thought I could read it. I was so proud of myself. I have very strong memories of me declaring I knew how to read and reading this book out loud. It's only with hindsight that I realize now that no, I didn't teach myself how to read that book. But, don't tell my inner 4-year-old. She's pitching a major fit right now just because I typed out the cold, hard truth of my memorization skills.
The Chronicles of Narnia C. S. Lewis
Yeah, when it comes to series, I'm cheating. My parents read the first few books out loud to us, a chapter or two a night, when my sister and I were young. In later elementary school, I finished the series on my own. I walked around in a funk for a week after finishing The Last Battle because it was over. There were no more Narnia books and I wasn't entirely sure what to do with myself. I revisited the series in college for my final paper and project in my Jesus class, which showed me how much more to these books there was than what I got out of them the first time around.
Meet Samantha: An American Girl Susan S. Adler
I know the arguments against American Girl and I understand them, I really do. But...
I was one of the girls that received the very first American Girl catalog ever. Back when there were only 3 dolls and 3 outfits for each. And for some messed up reason, I remember the day I got that catalog. (Seriously, I had just come home from Melissa Paiser's birthday party across the street. I tell myself it wasn't the marketing, but just the unbridled joy of getting a piece of mail JUST FOR ME when it wasn't my birthday.) My obsession with Samantha over the next few years spilled into a general obsession with American Victorian fashion and times, and all things lacy and frilly. Samantha taught me about child labor, how hard societal change is (yes, there was the subplot about women's voting rights, but I'm mainly thinking of how controversial her uncle's car was) that too much salt will ruin ice cream, taking care of nice toys, and the meaning of "rustic" and "taffeta."
The Secret Garden France Hodgson Burnett
I've been watching a lot of Bones lately. In an episode I saw this weekend, it ended with Brennan reading to her niece in the hospital. You can't see what book she's holding. All you hear is "Why was I forgotten?" Mary said, stamping her foot. "Why does no one come?" The young man whose name was Barney looked at her very sadly. Mary even thought she saw him wink his eyes as if you wink tears away.
As soon as Mary stamped her foot, I knew the book. I have no idea how many times I've read this over the years. My romantic notions of Yorkshire's moors have nothing to do with Wuthering Heights. No, I knew their mystery and magic and desolation back when the only Heathcliff I knew was a cartoon cat who was up to no good, making trouble in the neighborhood.
This is the book that makes me want to garden.
After reading this and A Little Princess, I wondered why all these British people were in India in the first place, which lead to a lot of research on India and British Imperialism and Gandhi and partition... this book is also one of the reasons I love to explore the changing notions of British identity, but we'll get into that a bit later.
Also, the musical based on this is AWESOME and gave me a very useful lyric that I repeat to myself on a fairly regular basis:
It's this day, not me, that's bound to go away
Drina Jean Estoril
While I love Drina to bits and pieces, as silly and old school British as it is, that's not what makes this an influential series. When Dan and I moved to Michigan, I finally moved the vast majority of my stuff out of my parents house, including most of my childhood books (they have since found a few boxes that are still in their basement.) As we were finally combining book collections, I did a major weed of my books-- we really didn't need two copies of Argument Without End In Search Of Answers To The Vietnam Tragedy (we were in the same history seminar) or our Calc textbook. I got rid of many of my childhood books because, when the time came to have our own children, I'd buy them new shiny copies. If I wanted to read them before then, well, I'd just get them from the library.
Fast forward 2 years and I'm starting my job as a children's librarian. I decided to reread my childhood favorites. This is when I discovered that DRINA IS OUT OF PRINT. As I searched eBay and used book sets to replace my beloved books, I discovered that there were 6 books in the series that never came out in the US. Those took years to track down and save up for.
Totally worth it.
And now, when someone suggests that I weed my books, I just scream, "DRINA! OUT OF PRINT!" at them.
I also use this to justify my hoarding of books. If I like a book, I better acquire it. The library might not have it! ACK!
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler E. L. Konigsburg
This book is the reason why I really like Dan Brown. I know that's heresy, but ever since reading this book, I've enjoyed mysteries and thrillers that are based on art. That includes mass market fun like Dan Brown, or more serious fare like Chasing Vermeer (which I like better than The Mixed-Up Files.)
Sadly, when I reread this as an adult, it had lost a little something, which broke my heart in a huge way.
But, seriously, art-based mysteries? I love them, and it's all because of this book.
Charlotte Sometimes Penelope Farmer
This is the book that initially sparked my interest in WWI. An interest that has never died down.
This was also a lost book for me. I remember reading it in the car when we drove to Indiana to visit my grandmother at some point. I remember being happy we were caught in traffic, because I was almost to the end and didn't want to get to grandma's apartment when I only had 10 pages left, because I wouldn't be allowed to finish it until bedtime. There was a Steak and Shake out my window. (Why the @#$^ do I remember that?)
Then, as I was reintroduced to the world of children's books 5 years ago, this book niggled somewhere on the fringes of my brain. I remembered parts of the plot, but couldn't figure out what the book was. A few months of searching and I found it.
When I first read it, I read the revised edition that came out in the 80s. When I reread it, I read the original 1969 edition. DIFFERENT ENDINGS. The re-release has the original ending. I now own the 80s version and the most recent edition. I'm trying to track down an affordable copy of the 1969 edition. I keep getting burned by people promising me it's the 1969 edition and then sending me the 80s one. Grrrrrrrr.
Anne of Green Gables L. M. Montgomery
Growing up in the 80s, all my dresses had puffed sleeves. I totally knew why Anne also wanted puffed sleeves. Puffed sleeves is where it was at.
Gilbert was my first fictional crush. (And he's still one of my main ones!)
Also, her name was Anne. WITH AN E. Just like my middle name, which always got spelled incorrectly.
This is another that I've read multiple times. I get something new out of it every time. And when I saw that Lauren Child had illustrated a new cover and written an introduction? I had to buy it.
Someday, I will go to Prince Edward's Island.
Remember Me Christopher Pike
This list is in roughly chronological order.
When I was in 5th grade, this was my favorite book. My other favorite book was Matilda. I try to remind myself of this every time I see kids leave the children's room for the teen section when I think they're too young.
I don't know how my mother did it.
This was my first Christopher Pike book. I spent the next four years devouring everything he wrote.
Seriously, my biggest SQUEE fan-girl moment at ALA was when I saw the ARC for his new book, The Secret of Ka. Also, I love it at work when kids come up to me and say "Do you have books like Goosebumps, but you know... scary?" And I always say "Let me introduce you to a very old friend of mine..."
Betty Crockers Cookbook
It was bright orange and a lot of the pages were falling out, but this book was the first one that got me cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. I have the 2005 edition, but it's not the same as the 1969 orange one. I inherited a 1969 one from my great-aunt and TOTALLY FORGOT to get it from my parent's house when I was there a few weeks ago.
After leaving home, I went through my Mrs. Rombauer phase and now pretty much rely on How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food by Bittman.
But, it all comes back to the bright orange Betty Crocker. Yum!
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret Judy Blume
This was the very first book by Blume I read. I got this book from a former youth minister for my birthday. I'm sure she gave it to me because of it's exploration of faiths, but I was pretty focused on the puberty section, which was more relevant at the time.
I have since read everything Blume's written. Her work taught me a lot about growing up-- physically and emotionally. Looking back, she also was my first introduction to people living a Jewish life. In her works, almost everyone was Jewish, but the books weren't about being Jewish (although Margaret is about being forced to choose between Judaism and Catholicism.)
Although Judy Blume isn't the reason I'm becoming Jewish, I'm not about to deny her influence!
Two Moons in August Martha Brooks
I was just thinking of this book on Sunday, when watching the Mad Men Season Premeire because Jantzen bathing suits play a big role in the book. This book is also the reason I bought A Night in Tunisia.
No other book captures so well the scariness that comes with opening yourself up to emotional attachment, the pain of loss, family dynamics, and the importance of living your life fully... Also, it perfectly captures the wondrous beauty of the small, everyday things, like plums.
AND! Just to give it push in relation to recent discussions on literature and race, although it's historical fiction from the late 50s, the main character's older sister's boyfriend is a super-hottt Chinese guy and the inter-racial aspect of the relationship is touched on in a few passing comments, but not a big deal at all.
On the Road Jack Kerouac
This is a book I haven't read more than once, and I'm not about to. This book would annoy me today. But, summer before sophomore year of high school, when I took the train out to San Fransisco, listening to that Art Blakey CD?
It made a huge impact and lead to multiple readings of The Portable Beat Reader throughout high school. "Song for Baby-O, Unborn" by Diane DiPrima is still one of my favorite poems.
Also, it claims that the prettiest girls live in Iowa and it does have one of the best last sentences ever (it's half a page long.) I haven't reread the book, but I have reread that sentence a million times. In college, we frequently used to exclaim "Des Moines! That's almost to Denver!"
...and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear?
Trainspotting Irvine Welsh
I read this book because my British penpal told me to. Summer before junior year of high school, and I'm standing in my bedroom, reading out loud to get through the dialect and learning about a different side to Britain than Shakespeare and Drina.
That year in school, we had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My teacher suggested that when we go to Jim's bits, we read out loud until we get used to the dialect. Ha! After a summer of deciphering Begby and Spud? Jim was a breeze.
One of my biggest complaints about people obsessed with the UK is that they think that all of England is like living the upper class life of a Jane Austen novel. I like things that show the varied facets of modern England.
Also, an entire novel told mostly in dialogue and monologue blew my mind on a craft level. And I learned a lot of new curse words.
(at some point, listen to a Kindle (which sounds like a Speak-and-Spell) read an Irvine Welsh novel out loud.)
Irvine Welsh is also one of the few authors Dan and I both really like.
Oh, and the movie is also really, really good.
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
I had to read this one for school a few times... it was a classic, but not only did I not mind it, I loved it. Classics could be wonderful, I could read them in an afternoon because they'd suck me in and hold me and make me forget that I had to write an essay about it as soon as I was done.
I loved the glamor and the subtlety and the heartbreak. I love how my friend Heather compared Gatsby parties to the ones in Sabrina which gave us all a frame of reference. (Yes, that's the remake. It's really good and was in the theater at the time.)
Most of all though, I loved that it made me not afraid to seek out the classic book on my own, not because they were important and I should read them, but because they might be really, really good.
As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
Now, this is one of my favorite books. I was taught this three times in school-- twice in high school and once in college. This is one of the books that taught me that people have differing ideas on books-- even if they're classics, even if they're professionals. (I had very good English teachers in high school and college.) So, depending on the teacher, this was either a tragedy or a very dark comedy. (Personally, I find it hilarious.) I loved that multiple narrators could happen in a book that wasn't a Baby-Sitters Club Super Special. I love the mixing of the heartbreak and the humor and the sheer absurdity of everything.
"My mother is a fish" remains one of my favorite lines in all of literature.
Bridget Jones's Diary Helen Fielding
I read this for the first time the summer before I started college. It was extremely reassuring that, as an adult, Bridget didn't have her act together at all, so it was completely ok that I had no idea what I was doing.
Plus, this book led me to Pride and Prejudice, and it also introduced me to Colin Firth.
All while making me laugh.
The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II Iris Chang
The very first book of Chinese history I read, so right there, that's a big one. It gave me a context for what I saw in Nanjing, 60-some years after the events. It gave me a stronger idea than anything else the role that history continues to play in our modern world and international relations.
It was also one of the first books I read that delved deeper into something that doesn't make the history books-- history isn't just names and dates and battles, but people trying to figure out what to do in their daily lives, and how their decisions play out through the weeks and months and years. And sometimes, the truth is more gripping and exciting and terrifying than any novel out there.
Harry Potter J. K. Rowling
I read the first three books in three days about a month before Goblet of Fire came out. It was the summer before junior year and I was working in ILL in my college library and my boss was horrified to learn that I hadn't read them yet. She loaned me the first one and I read it in one night. In the middle of my college career, full of reading SERIOUS BOOKS OF LITERATURE and history tomes, finding a book that sucked me in on page one and wouldn't let me go (even to the bathroom!) until I turned the last page was a refreshing reminder of the power of story.
You can't deny that Harry changed a lot of things about publishing-- children's books became ok for adults to read and got longer. The entire world was caught up in the mania and people of all ages and nationalities lined up for a midnight release of a BOOK. So many libraries try to do a one community/one book program, and they never come close to what it was like in the weeks following a Harry Potter release. I remember the week after Deathly Hallows came out-- my bank teller was reading it (I've never seen her read a book before or since), everyone on the metro was reading it, no matter where I went, everyone had a copy in their hands.
Being part of that phenomenon was an amazing thing to be caught up in. Nerding out about a book with the rest of the world was awesome.
e Matt Beaumont
This hilarious tale is one of the few books that Dan and I both really, really like. It's given us many phrases that has worked their way into our daily conversations.
But, this book also taught me a lot about craft. The entire book is told in the email being sent back and forth among all the staff members of an ad agency-- you have to pay close attention to the date stamps on the messages. I love books told in "stuff" and this was the first one I remember reading using this format. The format was a perfect way to tell the story (especially as one of my favorite plot lines involves the fact that the boss's email keeps getting CC'd to all the other branch heads.
East of Eden John Steinbeck
I had to have some Steinbeck on this list. I read this one on a train back to Nanjing after spending the weekend in Shanghai. Reading Steinbeck on that trip was like running into an old friend and falling right back into an old conversation that had never ended.
I then forced my parents to mail me their Steinbeck collection (and the Vonnegut) which was then passed among all of my classmates. They always flocked to my room when a new box of books came, hungry for English-language reading materials. Even then, I was a book-pusher...
White Teeth: A Novel Zadie Smith
As I said when discussing The Secret Garden, it gave me the first taste of my interest in exploring the changing notions of British identity. White Teeth is the book that helped solidify this interest and fuel it. While I think Small Island was a better exploration of these ideas, I read White Teeth while I was living in Manchester, in a Pakistani neighborhood, in the middle of this debate.
I've read scholarly works and news articles about the issues facing Britain as it deals with its colonial past, but what it really means, for people in their daily lives, and how it's changing the face to England, comes most alive in the works of fiction that I've read.
How Far Can You Go? David Lodge
This is a book that Dan loaned me. I got so engrossed in it that I missed my bus stop.
But, this is an influential book because it introduced me to my love of books that explore issues of faith but aren't faith-based fiction. I love explorations of faith and religion and how they affect our lives. This is the book that made me realize how much I love that.
And, in this case in particular, the exploration of the changes associated with Vatican II.
The Garlic Ballads: A Novel Mo Yan
Mo Yan is my favorite author. I had to have one of his books on this list. His work tends to be more visceral and have more description than most other Chinese fiction (at least that we see in translated into English.)
This book is the first one of his that I picked up after college. I loved the look at the frustration of Chinese peasants with their government and officials. It's a great look at the other side of the Chinese miracle. There is more to China and the Chinese population than the booming factories, newly rich, upwardly mobile young people, and the coastal cities.
This book also marks an interesting shift in Mo Yan's style to longer works with more symbolism and extended metaphor. I don't like his newer stuff as much I love his older books, but this book is the bridge between the two.
I also don't entirely get it, which doesn't happen that often. It's a nice reminder to always be looking deeper at books.
The Eyre Affair Jasper Fforde
Not only did this book introduce me to one of my favorite authors (Fforde) it introduced me to a million other books.
Everyone told me I should read this one, but I had never read Jane Eyre, so I had to do that first.
After falling in love with Thursday Next and her alternate version of Swindon, running amok with various fictional characters.
Because of Thursday Next, I revisited Wuthering Heights. Because Thursday, I read Great Expectations and The Wind in the Willows.
Thursday entertains me and makes me laugh, but she also makes me reach for one of those books that I know I should have read by now, but haven't. I've often bemoaned the fact that my English-language education focused heavily on the American cannon and, with the exception of Shakespeare, left out most of the Brits. Thursday's helping fix that. Plus! Dodos!
Feeling Sorry for Celia: A Novel Jaclyn Moriarty
I never wanted to be a children's librarian. It was something I feel into by chance that I then fell head-over-heels in love with. One of the happiest accidents of my life! After catching my eye on book cart I was supposed to be shelving, this was the first teen book (with the exception of Harry Potter and occasional re-readings of old favorites) that I had read since my own teenage years. It was 5 years ago this month and I had no idea how behind I was when it came to teen books.
Yes boys and girls, this is the book that created the monster you all know and love today. I used to only read adult books-- now they're a luxury!
From Cover to Cover (revised edition): Evaluating and Reviewing Children's Books Kathleen T. Horning
Ok, I read the original edition, but I hear the revised version is even better. I had no background in children's books when I started at this job, except that I had read a lot of them when I was a kid. This book was super easy to read and understand and gave me a crash course in the the knowledge and tools and language I needed in order to do my job really well.
I even bought my own copy and refer to it on a regular basis. Her information on book design (such as why there needs to be a lot of white space in easy readers), especially, is invaluable.
Fables Bill Willingham
This is the comic book series that got me over my snobbishness about comic books. I used to draw a distinction between Graphic Novels (one-offs that were much more serious, such as Maus and comic books, which were the small magazines of super heroes that you got at the comic store and were occasionally bound together in nice omnibus editions.
Not that there was anything wrong with comics, but they were more fun fare (the graphic version of a beach read) and in general, not for me.
But, there are a lot of rules I'll break for a twisted fairy tale. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was WRONG. The level of storytelling and art that goes into this series is amazing, as is Willingham's imagining of classic characters in our modern world. And, because of this, I was much more willing to pick up such things as Sandman.
I still don't read a lot of comics that aren't one-offs, but that's more because I'm afraid that I'll get sucked in and won't be able to wait for the library to get the next volume and I'll have to buy it and I can't afford that! especially for a serial! than any past snobbishness on my part.
Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China Peter Hessler
I knew a lot about China before I discovered Hessler. But, the way he talks of China, the way he tells the stories of his own life and travels, and the people he meets, the way he explains the country, people, and culture, while all the time being aware of his own limitations as a foreigner trying to understand... damn.
This book, and his work in general, raise the bar on what good reporting out of China is (and there's so much bad reporting out there-- those links all go to stories about bad reporting, not actual bad reporting.)
This book set my standards on what I want books to look like, not just on China, but current events in general.
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