A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Twenty-One Books that Shaped Me

I've been ridiculously remiss in these last few months of the year about migrating reviews over here from LibraryThing and even missed out an edition of Packing for a Reading Retreat. I'm working on a Reading Retreat post for tomorrow, but in the meantime, I give you the twenty-one books that have most shaped my life. This post is based on a meme that floated around Facebook and LibraryThing a few weeks back, and is divided into two halves: the eleven books that have most stayed with me (ten positive influences and one negative one) and the ten books with which I did not connect. For each book, I give a brief explanation of why I included it in the list.

Eleven Books that Have Been Important to Me

1.) The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
My dad read LotR (and The Hobbit) to me when I was very small (five or six). It's probably the first mythology of any kind that ever meant anything to me and was certainly my first introduction to "grown-up" fiction in any sense. I have many memories of being read to at a young age (and of having my own books), but the nightly LotR reading probably instilled in me the idea that curling up with a good book is one of the Best Things.

2.) The Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
These were read to me (Mom, this time) so many times and I read them myself so many times that the events within them became a permanent part of my mental furniture.

4.) Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
Probably the first book that I felt proprietary toward. I loved it, I read it over and over, I carried it around in my pocket, I had parts memorized. When I discovered that a nice hardcover edition on my grandfather's shelves was abridged OMG, I started (but did not complete) a comparative study between the abridged version and the complete text, making notes about how the abridgement altered the meaning of the book. I was about eleven. What a snot I must have been.

5.) Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
This was required reading at some point in middle school (sixth grade? seventh grade?), and I hated it. I could tell it was going somewhere awful, I couldn't escape being taken there with it, it traumatized me, and it made me feel trapped, scared, and depressed. That was the first time a book had ever made me feel that way (and it was one of the few times school ever made me feel that way, too). It may be the only book I have ever truly resented being made to read, and just the thought of the stupid thing still makes me feel a little sick to this day.

6.) Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Aside from just loving the story (which I did), this one is important because it was probably the first "classic" I read entirely of my own choosing and with no prompting from anyone else. I didn't struggle to read it, but it did require more "work" to get through than most things I read on my own at that age (about fifteen). For a kid who'd been reading way above her grade level for always, discovering that leisure reading could still be fun if it was also challenging was probably really important.

7.) Various Robert Heinlein books, including Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil
Heinlein gets a lot of flak for the way he wrote women (I don't disagree now that his female characters are problematic), but in my late teens his female characters who were smart and beautiful and unabashedly sexual (not sexy but sexual) were like a revelation to me.

8.) The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
A required text for a creative writing class in undergrad. Forever shaped the way I think about writing, reading, life, and what they're all for.

9.) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Romances can have substance! They can be worth reading after you already know who gets together with whom! I have much more complicated feelings (still positive) about P&P now, but that was the revelation then, some time in college.

10.) The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
In the summer between the two years of my masters program, I devoured HP 1-5 (all there was at the time). And rediscovered that reading can be pure, unadulterated fun. Thank heavens.

11.) A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I would sooner give up any other ritual at Christmas (or any other time of year) than I would my annual reading of this brilliant little piece. Puts me in the perfect mood for Christmas, always, and straightens me out with the world and with myself (if necessary). An annual spiritual balm for me since high school.

Ten Books with which I Didn't Connect

1.) The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
I wanted to maneuver Holden Caulfield off a bridge even when I was his age.

2.) The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Could never work up any sympathy for (or interest in) any of the unlikeable characters mooning around in SL.

3.) Ulysses, James Joyce
What a brilliant writer Joyce was (The Dead, be still my heart). And what an amazing feat Ulysses is. But I could never warm to it. What a wretched reading experience it was (twice).

4.) Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
I always (I've read it at least three times) feel mired down in an impenetrable jungle of unintelligible murky images when I read Heart of Darkness.

5.) The Russians
I have not yet given up! I am determined to read at least one mammoth Russian novel before I die. I've tried Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Doctor Zhivago. I just can't get into them. I have read some shorter works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich--three times! like Heart of Darkness, it was perpetually assigned to me throughout high school, undergrad, and grad school--Fathers and Sons, The Overcoat, some Chekov).

6.) The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
Die faster, Little Nell. Lord.

7.) The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Like The Scarlett Letter, my chief problem with GoW was that I couldn't muster up any sympathy for the characters. That's a lot of ridin' around in the back of an old truck with the fambly if you don't care a lick for anyone.  And don't even get me started on the everlovin' turtle.

8.) The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The allegory drives me nuts, and I just never warmed to the world. I wonder if there's a division between Tolkien and Lewis fans--like if you love Tolkien you're less likely to love Lewis.

9.) Animal Farm, George Orwell
I have heard some people describe this as the only book they had to read for school that they loved. Not me, boy. I found it both disturbing and tedious, which might be the worst combo ever.

10.) Slaughter House Five, Kurt Vonnegut
It's supposed to be funny, right? I don't get it. 

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