Recently many of my literate friends have been listing the ten books that influenced them most. Some think it is a favorite book list. I suspect some think it is an opportunity to show others which classics they have read, or how avant garde their tastes are. I don’t need to judge.
Here is my list with a little comment about each title I selected. I have to say that I have loved hundreds of books and making this list is very difficult. (You can see how I cheated.)
1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. This is the first hardcover book I read all the way through, by myself, because I wanted to. My grandmother Marsh bought me a series of young reader books. They came in the mail once a month. I had collected a few before I picked this one off the shelf on lazy, hot summer day. I took it outside to read and the world of literature opened up. That is why it is posted at number 1. Not because it is the best book I ever read, but because it did a magic number on my brain.
2. The Man by Irving Wallace. This is a book about presidential politics. It was a good read in 1964. It is still a good story, not a great book, perhaps, but very significant in that it was an “adult” story that my young teen friend, Carl Sumerix had begun to read. I taunted him that he couldn’t read an 800 page book and he challenged me to read it with him. So, we were boys, and we raced. (I won.) I already knew that books were pretty wonderful. This was when I discovered long books were particularly wonderful. Nope, no assignment. Not for class or school. Just a long delicious read by a 14 year old who was gaining interest in politics.
3. The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. This became a kind of holy book for me in my late teens. When I read it now, I blush a little at the saccharine elements, but it was perfect for the end of high school and a burgeoning awareness of how large life was.
4. I went from very conservative politico to hippie to Marine in less than 4 years. It was the mid-to-late 60s. Everything was in transition. Nothing provided sound moral footing. This book was perfect for me at the time. I read all the Hesse I could get my hands in while I was stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. I remember a particularly prickish Captain who saw this (or was it Magister Ludi?) on my desk and remarked how that was “pretty heavy reading for an enlisted man.” Making a decision not to re-enlist was so easy after that.
5. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tokien. I know, this is another cheat because it is not just one book. But I cannot separate the impact of one part of this story from any other part. It is a whole. It also fits into that burgeoning love of big books and series books. No, I did not read this in high school like lots of others. I read this in the Marine Corps. Believe me, when you are under arms and reading about invading hoards of orcs in the middle of high-minded discussions of the value of home, security, bravery, nobility of purpose…It was a pretty freakin’ good read in those circumstances.
6. Sound and Sense by Lawrence Perrine. This image is of the 12th Edition. Mine was in the very small numbers. Again, in the Marine Corps I had the opportunity to take a couple of college courses on base. I took a literature course about poetry. I had been reading Gibran pretty hard and chose well. What had been a loosey-goosey exercise in self-expression until then, suddenly became a craft with suggested guidelines, and parts and pieces that could be explored. Perrine’s work has been fundamental to all the other readings and teachings I have done about poetry since. At the time, I thought it was a nice, clean organization with excellent examples. Now I know it to have been profound in my development.
7. I read this in high school and I don’t know if I wasn’t ready for it or if my high school teacher didn’t give this much relevance. I didn’t care very much. But I have re-read it several times since then. Each time I am am taken even more by how Orwell understood the way modern governments encroach into totalitarianism. He was absolutely accurate as a prophet of the never-ending wars, the group hating process, the fear that a neighbor might turn you in for some misguided “patriotic” value. And torture. You know, torture.
8. Just because this book is number 8 on my list, doesn’t mean it was the 8th greatest influence on me. I had tried to read Irving before. The World According to Garp was where I tried. Thee times I started and gave up before getting 50 pages in. On a whim, I picked this up and couldn’t put it down. This book shaped the standards by which I measure all of literature. I cared about these characters. I laughed with them, wept with them and only after this book did I go back and read everything Mr. Irving has ever written and follow him like he was a guru through everything he has written since. (And, even though I hated A Son of the Circus, I read every word.)
9. I had divorced three times. I had reached the lowest point in my life. I was broken. My soon to be ex-wife had gone off with my boss for the weekend and when she came back she gave me a copy of this book. This book is very much like my life at that point, it was full of love and passion, pain and fury and the end is seriously flawed. But it was the right book at the right time. So very much like the Universe to have it delivered to me by what I perceived to be the source of my pain. I have given copies of this book to a dozen or so others who I thought could benefit from it. I don’t think anyone had the visceral reaction I did. This book is on this list not because it is the best literature in the English language. It is here because it saved my life.
10. I know this looks like a cop out. It isn’t. I’m 64 years old at the end of this month. I was raised in a non-secular home with a fundamentalist Grandmother whom I loved and who had a profound belief that she could save my soul. I have read around in this book since I was about 10. But I read it all the way through in the 80s for the first time. I have read it in about 4 different translations since. I keep a copy on my Kindle. I do not do that because I am a Jew or a Christian. I do it so that I can try to understand Jews and Christians. It also is fun when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come around.
That is supposed to be the end of the challenge, but it cannot be for any true bibliophile. I am now adding to a list of Honorable Mentions.
In no particular order:
This book opened my eyes to the power of poetry as a voice for the voiceless. While I was writing poetry, as much as anyone else, Forché’s work kept me focused.
What a beautiful and horrifying set of characters here! I wanted to teach this in high school because my classes were full of broken humans, underdeveloped creatures, sad bent little children. I also wanted to show the 1932 film, Freaks. Plymouth-Canton was having none of that.
Oh, Ignatious! You have left us too soon. I have now read this book three times. Each time it is deeper and more nuanced. If you have never read it, just go do it now. No, really. Just go read this now.
I know. I read this in high school too. I thought it was horrid. The dialect, the hundred year old sensibilities. It wasn’t until I had to teach it in my own high school classes that it started having a real impact on me. It was the beginning of a kind of education I had never seen before. There was a moment when I was reading aloud the description of a thunderstorm passing through the rolling hills of forest when I became so overwhelmed with the genius of this writing and the strength of the message that I grew speechless of several moments. Kids were convinced I was weird. I was too.
Just when a straight white man gets comfortable with himself, along comes a book like this. It provided me with insight into a lifestyle that I had no emotional or intellectual experience with but because it is set in Detroit, it did so in the most familiar of surroundings. It was a powerful juxtaposition for me. One of a few Pulitzer Prize winners I agree with and the only one I predicted before it was awarded.
I hear you snickering. Seriously, this is the best book King ever wrote. It was gloriously crafted. It was wonderfully edited. Please DO NOT buy the unedited version. It adds nothing and it detracts much. This was the first time I thought of Stephen King as an artist. I’ve been able to see it often since then.
This is the cover of Master & Commander, the first in a 20 book series of sea tales set in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. This is the very BEST series about the ocean and sailing ever. The language is crude, juicy, succulent, frightening, obscene, grotesque, beautiful and so very, very original. There were one or two of the books which didn’t do what the others did. But the relationship between the two main characters grows over decades, through tragedies, despite differences. Don’t let Russel Crowe’s movie spoil it for you. Read these in order.