Monday, April 18, 2011

Five Most Influential Books

A couple of weeks ago, a friend was looking for book recommendations for her 10 year old who happens to read as well, if not as maturely, as a junior in high school. It was fun to read the list generated and I felt deeply gratified that the same great books are being rediscovered generation after generation. I also had opportunity this week to re-read A Wrinkle in Time, surely one of the most influential books I read as a child. It caused me to reflect that the books that have had the greatest impact on me are all books that I read before I turned 18.

Do you remember the always delightful You've Got Mail? There is a line in that movie when Meg Ryan's character is giving an impassioned defense of the importance of childhood reading to Tom Hank's character (Joe Fox--F.O.X.). She says, "When you read something as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does . . ." Amen, Kathleen Kelly. Later, when her store closes, all of the old crowd comes to by books and mourn the passing of a special place from childhood. One woman says, "I was standing right there when your mother gave me my first copy of Anne of Green Gables. Read it with a Kleenex, she said." I get teary even now just thinking about Matthew's death.

I also have realized that my most influential books are not necessarily my favorite, and that the first list is easier to pare down than the second. So here are my Five Most Influential Books, in no order but alphabetical, with a list of honorable mentions afterward. Feel free to share all of your delicious memories.

1. A Wrinkle in Time. Madeline L'Engle. This book is so wonderful. I still remember precisely what the cover of my first Yearling paperback edition looked like, and my feeling on Christmas morning when I picked it up. I don't think a week passed before I'd read it at least once. My most recent reading emphasized to me why this book mattered so much to me: it was the first science fiction (NOT fantasy) novel I'd ever read--a young adult genre rather tricky to come by--and L'Engle seamlessly blends science with God and love and loyalty and religion until one begins to see that all of these are really just different aspects of the same thing. I think Jedi Knight is almost ready for this one. I can hardly wait.

2. Anne of Green Gables. L.M. Montgomery. Well, duh. This book probably makes half of all such lists. I'm not sure why this book mattered so much to me. Anne is a lovely, quirky mixture of ambition and intelligence and domestic goddess. She is sassy in a time when sassy was downright edgy instead of the uncomfortable norm. She's a red-head for crying out loud. What is not to love? The entire series is wonderful--Montgomery is a clever and delightful storyteller, but only this first, lovable volume is a young adult novel, at least from Anne's perspective. Volume 8 is a war story told from the viewpoint of her youngest daughter, Rilla. In the war, Anne's tender-hearted, Gilbert look-alike, poet son dies. I cry because I love Walter, of course, but mostly because I worry about Anne. She is so real to me that I almost think there is a place I might be able to one day go and meet her. I suppose my imagination will have to do.

3. The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck. The darkest selection on my list, by far. There is a passage in this book that reads thus:

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates--died of malnutrition--because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

I read a tribute to Steinbeck in which the author used the above quote saying, "If this doesn't get your blood racing, you're never going to love John Steinbeck." I was 16 going on 17 and in a very hokey English class and it got my blood racing. "There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation . . . there is a failure here that topples all our success. . . ." I never looked at capitalism or politics the same after I read this book. I felt like a grown-up; I felt trusted to think and learn. Parents sometimes complain to me that schools work too hard to indoctrinate their children with liberal ideas. But they are wrong: real teachers don't indoctrinate. They open doors. Sometimes a child enters a door through which they don't turn back. Steinbeck's words always ring through my ears when I see a hungry child. How much poorer my life would be if I had missed this novel!

4. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis. I think it is important to note here that the book that trumps the other four is the Book of Mormon. If not for that book, every single aspect of my life would be completely different. For this exercise I wanted to look outside the scriptures. I do bring up that point here, however, because this book of Lewis' was the first time Christianity sunk in to me. And it wasn't on my first reading. But I do remember the day it occurred to me that Lewis was really talking about something much more than Lions and stone tables and cool magic to avoid the death of the main character. It was probably also the first time I realized and understood about symbolism, and that authors use this trick all of the time. I sat with Susan and Lucy when Alsan was humiliated and killed . . . . and I had a brief glimpse of insight to what that horrible day at Calvary must have been like. But Aslan reminds us that dying brings new birth, and that we are bought with a price. All seven volumes contain a multitude of Biblical references--Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, The Gospels, Revelations--it is clear that Lewis' intentions were much deeper than young adult literature.

5. Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. Again, to quote from Kathleen Kelly, "I confess I've read Pride and Prejudice about a hundred times. I get caught up in the language. Words like thither." I think I have waxed poetic on this blog enough times about this book. THE book. I was probably 12 when I read it the first time. And, wait for it, deeply disappointed that Elizabeth didn't end up with Wickham. Or at least that he turned out to be such a weasel. Little did I understand yet about the attraction of a man who will change everything he is just for a chance to hold your hand. *sigh* Time to re-read, I think. It has maybe been six months. . . .

Short-list Honorable mentions--Heidi, A Seperate Peace, Three Cups of Tea (even with the current controversy), Heart of Darkness, Little Women, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blue Sword . . .


heidikins said...

I love Steinbeck, my favorite is still East of Eden, but I loved Grapes of Wrath as well. And The Jungle is on my list as well. The Female Brain, The Glass Castle, The Hiding Place, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Atlas Shrugged, The Bell Jar, The End of Poverty, Cry, the Beloved Country, Man's Search for Meaning, Three Cups of Tea.....goodness, I don't know if I could limit it to just 5! So many amazing things have been written! (And a whole pile of trash, but those are easily enough avoided)

TheDooleys4 said...

You have good taste! Just bought A wrinkle in time for my soon to be 10 year old bookworms Birthday.(along with the other 4 books in the series) Also read every Anne book as a child and am currently reading them with my daughter. And well, I adore anything by Jane Austen.

Janssen said...

I love Anne of Green Gables, but I have special place in my heart for the Emily books by L. M. Montgomery.

This is a fantastic post!

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

There were many books (mostly fantasy) that I adored and read repeatedly as a teenager (The Hobbit, The Hero and the Crown, Dealing with Dragons), but though the genre as a whole taught me to value certain attributes like self-reliance and integrity, I hesitate to say that particular books influenced me a great deal. I tended to enjoy books like ice cream cones - I happily devoured them then moved on to the next thing.