So, there’s a challenge floating around the internets right now. (Surprise, surprise). It’s titled: “10 Books That Changed Me.” Most people who have posted used their ten favorite books. Or, as wisely observed by Alexis Kleinman (in the article here), the ten books these folks would like you to believe are their favorites, thus implying some inherent literary superiority and simultaneous pompous douchebaggery.
But, that’s not even the challenge, is it? Setting aside the obviously problematic readery-one-upmanship, and resulting challenge duplicity, the list simply does not ask for ten favorites.
10 Books That Changed Me (and How They Did So):
1. The Witches by Roald Dahl. In fourth-grade, our teacher read this aloud during storytime. She was a fabulous reader and, with accompanying voices and perceptive interludes, her enthusiasm was contagious. (Thank you, Ms. Powell). When she finished reading The Witches, I went to the library and classroom bookshelf and methodically read through the entire (children’s) Dahl canon. It was marvelous. I maintain that Roald Dahl offers some of the most imaginative children’s literature in existence. It is never mundane. It challenges wit and convention. And, my introduction to Roald Dahl led me to be a reader of varied tastes. I am as comfortable in the world of myth and sci-fi as I am in thriller and horror and romance. I attribute my forgiving treatment of genre to my early introduction to originality and Roald Dahl.
2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Allow me to be clear: this is not one of my favorite books. Not even in my top twenty. But, I will forever remember this book as my introduction to Literature with a capital “L.” In the summer before sixth grade, I was mired in a reading bog. I had read through the important children’s literature and I was perturbed by what was available as Young Adult fiction. Think: Christopher Pike, RL Stine. Essentially the same books with different cover art. I must’ve been complaining to my mom because she handed me a copy of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck was an entirely new experience. And, I never looked back.
3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This is one of my favorite books. But especially because of how it affected me. The story is incredibly, incredibly sad. It’s about third-world poverty and loss and the human condition. Reading a story that generates such powerful and raw emotion? Yes, please. There is no better outlet for grief and pain and devastation than floating away in someone else’s imagination. An imagination that’s rife with sordid imagery and inconceivable tragedy? Even better. As I read this book, I gained a newfound sense of humility and a wiser sense of humanity. Such beauty in well-captured sadness.
4. The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. It was the first chapter book I had ever read.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Another favorite. It is incredibly refreshing to learn that you can still be surprised as a reader. Shriver met with my exact literary aesthetic. Which I have been trying to define for years. Furthermore, she wrote a beautifully composed tale. (Whoa, Kevin. Just, whoa).
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare. (I know, I know. It’s a play. Don’t be a challenge-nazi). In my freshman year of college, I wrote my term paper on Hamlet. “Alas, Poor Ghost: The Haunting of Elsinore.” The paper examined whether or not Hamlet’s father’s ghost was malevolent. It was my first attempt at proper literary criticism. And, it seemed well-received. I even had the opportunity to present it at an undergraduate conference.
7. Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Seuss. When Ducky was just a wee babins, this was the book I read to her the most. Rhyme, repetition, sounds; it has a lot to offer for a little one. I will fondly remember this as Duck’s First Book. (Not to mention its reminiscent effect on my own childhood).
8. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I read story after story after story. This compilation inspired my love, gratitude, and appreciation for short stories. They are such a unique challenge to an author. I love a novel, but my respect for short-story artists is immeasurable.
9. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Having read the book and seen the movie, I had to reassess how I gauged the quality of film adaptation. Readers always seem to find flaws in adaptations based on fidelity. In other words, the movie sucks if the plot diverts from the book. But, honestly, I loved this book and I loved this movie. They were incredibly different in terms of story. Being able to ignore the nagging community that pans movies for plot divergence is a much healthier outlook on two entirely separate mediums.
10. Fahrenheit-451 by Ray Bradbury. I don’t know why, but I remember this book as being the first book that challenged my ever-present optimism for the future. I had read plenty of other stories that explored depressing future vistas. For some reason, this one stuck as the preeminent one. It’s hard (and important) to consider the fate of humanity and the extremes of which we are capable. I would like to think that we humans are inherently good. Fahrenheit-451 challenged this thinking. It’s not in the recognition that the individual is capable of depravity. This is likely an obvious conclusion if you watch the news. It’s the imagined communal villainy that struck me. What a bleak outlook… And a jarring one. Bradbury: one. Katie’s naïveté: zero.
I’m sure I could list many more books that changed me, steered me in a different direction, etc. This sample is a fairly poignant reminder of what books are capable of. For me, at least, it has been an exercise in self-enlightenment. How about you? What are ten books that left their imprint on your life? What impacts have they had?