There is a “thing” on Facebook of listing the ten books that most influenced you. Not the greatest books, or the most literary, but those that actually made an impact on your life.
When I entered college, as part of orientation, we were asked to list the three books that had most influenced our lives. Not wanting to list the novels I snuck of my Mother’s shelf so I could read the sex scenes, or Mad Magazine, I said, The Bible, Shakespeare and something else–who knows? Liar, liar, pants on fire.
When I sat down to list the ten books that honestly influenced me, I found that there was a pattern. Very little fiction. I’ve always read more non fiction. I read hundreds of books while I was writing three times a week at A Traveler’s Library, and most of them fiction. I relish a beautiful turn of phrase and a clever turn of plot. I love characters that come to life. But there’s something pragmatic in my soul that drives me back to non fiction over and over again. The books that demanded a place on this list influenced my several interests: theater, politics, writing, cooking, family.
So here they are–with a note on each indicating how they influenced me.
- A children’s picture book that showed children from many countries in their native costumes. Read at six or seven, it made me yearn to see the rest of the world.
- A youth book about a young girl who grew up to become an actress, which pushed me toward theater as a college major and ambition to act. No idea what the title was. I went through books so rapidly as a young girl that I did not remember most of them.
- The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne, which I STILL think is a great read. It shows how artful simplicity can be.
- Anything by James Thurber. The Ohio humorist’s books filled a shelf in my family home. My father and mother loved him. We lived in a house in Columbus near the one where he grew up. In college I played a part in the play The Thurber Carnival. His humorous view of the human condition may be a bit sour–and definitely arch (he wrote for the New Yorker, after all) but he still cracks me up.
- Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care. When I had three children in three years and lived across the country from female relatives who might have given me advice, Dr. Spock was my comfort. Although we might disagree with many of his theories today, I am not sure how I could have survived those years without him.
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This book appears on many “Best of” lists, but my reason for including it is different. Reading Atlas Shrugged persuaded me that Ayn Rand was nuts and whatever her political beliefs were, mine were the opposite!
- Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I can’t think of this book without the setting in which I first read it–leaning against a tree on the Mall at Ohio State University. I was awed. We were still in the cold war, and it was a revelation to learn that Russians were humans with universal motivations. It is the only book I have re-read in later life more than once that continues to give me the joy of mental exertion, and admiration for writerly skill.
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I’m not sure why this book had such an influence on me. I have read other things by Charles Dickens, but this one just dragged me into its bleak world and Dickens technique of piling on the details stuck with me as a guide to good writing.
- Joy of Cooking. My love of cooking came from several sources, but Joy of Cooking has been influential in teaching me techniques, expanding my repertoire and truly giving me joy. I have worn out three editions of Joy–and still have two–taped together and sad looking specimens on my kitchen shelf.
- The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich. This book was the text for an art appreciation course I took in college. While many of the liberal arts classes stuck with me, and I carried practical knowledge about theater into my theater work, this class and this book provided me with lifelong enjoyment of art. It stuck with me as I traveled in other countries and wandered through museums. It helped me as I co-authored a biography of a Navajo artist. (Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist)
- I know the list is supposed to be ten, but this addition is not a book. As a teen I was deeply influenced by Mad Magazine–my escape from what I felt were stodgy surroundings of small town Midwest. And if you think my humor is a bit weird at times–blame Mad Magazine.
Now it is your turn. Would you care to share ten books that influenced you–not read to impress people or to have conversations at parties–but books that actually nudged you to life decisions?