Over on tumblr, there’s a meme floating around that asks each participant to list ten books that have affected or stuck with the writer in some way, and to explain what it is and why. It’s definitely one of the more labor intensive memes out there, but I will go to strenuous effort to avoid doing work, and it ended up being surprisingly rewarding. I liked it enough that I wanted to include the list here as well.
So here we are: 10 books that were important to me for various reasons, in no particular order other than my own circuitous thought patterns. Since this isn’t tumblr, I won’t bother tagging anyone, but it would be great if you could share your important books in the comments, or on your own blog.
1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – A children’s novel about a depressed little boy who gets transported into a magical land of language and wordplay, and learns to love his own world in the process. This was one of my grandfather’s favorite books. He passed it to my mother, and then to me. I loved it before I even realized that I loved the subject matter.
2. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie – Another children’s novel, about a little boy who doesn’t understand why his storyteller father loves stories that aren’t even true. After hasty words spoken in anger silence his father’s stories forever, Haroun goes on a magical journey to win his father’s stories back, and learns why they matter so much. Rushdie wrote it for his own son, after being separated from his family and going into hiding because of his earlier novel, The Satanic Verses. Despite being aimed at children, I didn’t encounter this book until I was 19 or 20, taking a general elective fairy tales course–one which, not being on the formal literature track, ended up being something of a disappointment. Still, this book stands out in my memory as one of the best class-assigned reads in my academic career, and the subject matter –our relationship with stories–is something I continue to explore in my own writing to this day.
3. The Boxcar Children #1 by Gertrude Chandler Warner – The first book series I ever truly loved, and what kickstarted my mystery phase in elementary school. The first book, however, will always be my favorite, despite the fact that it isn’t really a mystery at all, but a story about a group of children who, in the wake of tragedy, go into the woods and create a life on their own terms. To be honest, I still find the idea of children creating a woodland cottage out of an abandoned boxcar somewhat romantic.
4. The Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene – After I moved to a new town and a new school in December of second grade, Nancy Drew was responsible for my first real friendship there. My school library had the whole series–the original ones, not the updated versions. My friend Margaret and I would read them over and over, and create our own mysteries on the school bus in the afternoons. This series also introduced me to (an admittedly flawed conception of) “writing syndicates.” A group of us (including @tresa-cho) would later try to start one of our own in eighth grade.
5. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman – The Golden Compass was a gift from my grandfather (of The Phantom Tollbooth entry above). One of his great talents was finding truly brilliant children’s novels and sharing them with us. I read The Golden Compass in a furious Christmas marathon, with no idea that there were ever meant to be sequels. When The Subtle Knife was finally released, I found out by accident, by walking into Chester County Book Company one afternoon to be met with a giant display. I’ll never forget the thrill of that realization, that a sequel I had never looked for to a novel I loved suddenly existed.
6. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – This is another of my grandfather’s. He gave the first two novels to my little brother as a birthday gift when I was eleven, shortly after the second book came out. We had never heard of it, but we read both of them as a family, out loud, a chapter each night. That tradition would persist throughout the entirety of the series. A year later,Prisoner of Azkaban would come out, and the series would explode into massive, world-shaking popularity, proving once and for all that my grandfather Knew What He Was Doing.
7. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – This book was given to me by a good friend when I was 16. I had a slumber party in my basement that year, and more people to invite than I think I would ever have again. Megan had never read it, but bought it for me because it said “Young Poet” in the title, and at the time, all I did was write terrible poetry. Rilke, through that book, became as much a mentor to me as he had for Franz Kappus. I will never forget a particular passage (which, I would realize later, had also impacted a writer of Sister Act 2) where he told Franz all about how the only true determination about whether someone is an artist is whether his art is the first thing he thinks about in the morning, and the last thing he thinks about at night.
8. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – While I had read The Hobbit in elementary school, I wouldn’t discover Lord of the Rings until the movies came out when I was in high school. My father and I bought copies of each of the books, and read them together before each movie came out. Those were the only books we ever read together, and we would discuss them to the alienation of the rest of our family, and then discuss them again after we had seen the respective movies. Tolkien taught me a lot about writing. I would go on to read The Silmarillion and then Children of Hurin when it came out, and learn all about how tragic and beautiful worldbuilding could be. While not my first, it was also my formative fandom, the first (and perhaps only) time I would ever truly participate, despite my total lack of talent at the time, instead of hanging back on the edges like I do now.
9. Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddox – This was a Scholastic Book Fair book, if I remember correctly. I loved and hated the book fair, because I never had the money to buy all the books I wanted, but oh did I get joy out of wandering around it. I would skip recess to spend extra time there. I read Among the Hidden, like The Golden Compass, without any conception of it as a series, and to be honest, I still prefer it that way, as the sequels, in my opinion, undermined what made the story truly great. Among the Hidden was a story about a little boy who was an illegal third child in an alternate U.S. with a totalitarian government and population control. Luke befriends another illegal child, the daughter of a policeman across the street, who was meant to be enforcing the law instead of breaking it. She is his first friend outside the walls of his home, and introduces him to a whole network of hidden children, many of whom in privileged classes like her own law enforcement father. The thing I love about this book is that, despite being dystopian, it’s a story about a little boy making a friend. Ultimately, (SPOILER) his friend and her network stage a protest for their right to existence against the government. At the last minute, Luke gets scared and refuses to attend. He finds out later that every one of the children who went, including his friend, were gunned down. This was the first book I read where the massive (and horrifyingly realistic) turn happens entirely off screen. It’s not about the protest, after all. It’s about Luke. Luke, who knew it would be a disaster, but hoped against hope that she’d come out okay anyway, and who had to live in the reality that she died defying.
10. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – The only book on the list I did not discover as a child. I still don’t know why this book works for me as well as it does. I can’t explain it. For that matter, I can barely explain the book. It has something to do with family, and something to do with the way a community and ideologies evolve over successive generations, and something to do with the way we embrace and struggle against our roots, and how a culture is changed by the introduction of outsiders. But what, exactly? I still don’t know. All I know is that one moment, I was on about the fifth page, thinking about the fact that for a Nobel Prize winner it sure was boring, and the next thing I knew, I was halfway through the book and I couldn’t stop reading it.But when asked what I was reading about, I couldn’t answer. I can say that it’s a seminal work of magic realism (REAL magic realism, not the fake kind written by snobby white people who can’t admit they write fantasy, but More On That Later), that it absolutely deserved its Nobel, and also that it was months before I could read anything else. I remember wandering around Barnes and Noble in malaise, desperately trying to find a new novel that would recreate that same feeling, and never able.