Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ten books that changed my life

I am terrible at putting together "best of" lists. I treat the exercise, like I do so many things in my life, as a test to be aced. This brings on far too much anxiety, contemplation, and general wringing of hands, and an answer that is this... no, that... no, wait, I forgot about this... shit... wait... can I start over? Which is no fun for anyone.

So today I gave myself permission to write an incomplete list of books that have changed my life (or at least really, really moved me in some way). I limited myself to 10, and just went with the first ones that popped into my mind.

So. Much. Easier.

1. Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
This is the first book I remember reading as a child that thoroughly blew my mind. It was so odd. So upside down. It opened my eyes to the beauty of playing with logic.

2. The Bible
This is the book that convinced me that I am most definitely NOT a religious person. A bit more on that here.

3. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I received a copy of The Little Prince for my birthday when I was 7 or 8. Maybe 9? Somewhere in there. I read it, and found it utterly bizarre. I did not understand it, and I did not like that. I was a scholarly sort, and I did not appreciate being made to feel foolish by a book. Especially one with (such amazing!) illustrations, which, in my mind, meant it should've been easily digestible by a child. When I finished reading it, I set it on my nightstand and scowled my mistrust at it. Stupid purposefully obtuse book, I thought. I audibly "hmph"ed at it. And then, ever so quietly as if to sneak up on it, I picked the book back up and spent the rest of the afternoon rereading the entire thing. I was in love. The Little Prince was my first alluringly mysterious boyfriend.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book that really made me question myself. I read it indignantly, knowing that I would have been an Atticus or a Scout if I'd lived through similar circumstances. I assuredly patted myself on the back, congratulating myself for not being an ignorant fool. But somewhere along the way it occurred to me that I had the distinct advantage of being raised in a different time, by progressive parents, in a community where our views were generally accepted as "correct." I began to wonder what kind of person I'd be without all of that. Would I be someone who could identify and set aside ingrained, unjust stereotypes? And, if so, would I be principled and brave enough to stand up for what I believed in, like Atticus Finch? Heavy questions for a young teenager. Heavy, useful questions.

5. A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
Perspective. This book completely changed the way I look at the world when I travel.

6. Hiroshima, John Hersey
I read this book in the 5th grade, and it terrified me. A budding pacifist, it solidified my stance.

7. Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
Oh, how I love Tom Robbins. As a teenager I'd read bits and pieces of several of Robbins' novels from my dad's collection, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I read one from beginning to end. Jitterbug Perfume was the first, and it made me want to read every. single. thing. the man has ever written. Twice.

8. Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
There are very few similarities between my fairly average childhood and the horrific childhood of Bone, the story's main character. But where there were similarities, Allison put words to emotions I'd previously been unable to explain or define. I was able to forgive a lot and move on after reading this book.

9. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
"The Vogon ship hung in the air in exactly the way a brick wouldn't" stopped me dead in my tracks and made me want to be a more clever writer.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
I hate Ayn Rand so much that I insist on pronouncing her first name as "Anne" just to piss her off. When I was gifted this book in high school, I'd never met a book I didn't finish. And I was still firmly entrenched in the belief that if I didn't like what people smarter than me called a classic, it was only because I wasn't smart enough to "get it." And I was really not getting Atlas Shrugged. I fundamentally disagreed with everything Dagny Taggart stood for. I kept waiting for the narrative to turn; kept waiting for some hint that Rand was presenting Dagny to us as an example of what not to do. I held out hope, even through those incessant mind-numbing soapboxing monologues. But, in the end, I had to admit defeat. I didn't like a single thing about the book; a book which, by many, was considered a classic. Clearly, I just wasn't smart enough. And then, years later in college, my favorite literature professor off-handedly referred to Ayn Rand as crap. I was shocked and delighted and vindicated, and was never again so quick to mistrust my own opinions. (I also no longer felt obligated to spend my precious time finishing books that I was whole-heartedly not enjoying.) Thanks for the lessons, Anne.

Now it's your turn. What books have left a lasting impression on you?


Shannon said...

Have you been able to read Bastard Out of Carolina more than once? I read it for a class in university and thought the book was profound, but I didn't necessarily agree with everything my professor had to say about it. I've tried to read it again without the pressures of a class attached to it, but I couldn't. It was too hard.

Martini Mom said...

Shannon: I read it while in college as well. We also read "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure," which is Allison's memoir (so, essentially the same story). I believe that I did read "Bastard Out of Carolina" multiple times, but it could be "Two or Three Things..." that I'm thinking of, which I know I read at least twice. Such a sad, sad story. "Two or Three Things..." includes photos of Allison's family, and I remember just starting at their faces endlessly, trying to fathom what their lives were like.

BigLittleWolf said...

You have some fabulous books on this list - including some I'd forgotten about (Jitterbug Perfume!). Love this!

There are some that I've picked up over the course of 30 years - even to read a handful of pages because the writing is so stunning, and it brings me back to my teenage years as tangibly as a bit of Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin...

(Now where's my Ayn Rand... )

Thanks for this post!

Matt said...

I read My Side of the Mountain in the third grade. It has led to a life of nerdy book love, wanderlust, writing and a career in engineering - really, one book was the seed for all of that. As an adult, I met the author and she signed and did a full page pen & ink illustration for a copy of the book that I bought for my son. It is very dear to me.


Martini Mom said...

Matt: I read My Side of the Mountain at about that age too and loved it. For years after reading it, whenever I went to a park I would run around looking for trees to turn into houses. :)

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