10 Books That Continue to Affect Me and/or Stay With Me Over Time
I have been tapped to do the 10-favourite-books meme on Facebook by both Sven and Amber, but I can't follow rules, so I've expanded the meme to be a list of 10 books that continue to affect me and/or stay with me over time, and I'm posting this on my blog rather than on Facebook. What a rebel.
You will notice that none of the books on my list came out within the last 15 years. Literature seems to have dug its deepest hooks into me before the age of 25, and, if I am to be honest, my primary source of reading material these days is the internet. This is a terrible, horrible, no good thing to have to confess: I've been working on getting through Tina Fey's Bossypants since May.
You may call me an ignoramus now. I can take it.
But, BUT, as much as other people have been accused of lying about their lists in order to impress their friends, I have actually read every book on this list in its entirety, and, yes, that does include the Bible, which I read cover to cover in high school. I even read all the dead boring stuff about who beget whom that goes on forever and has no plot. I don't recommend it.
On with the list!
10 Books That Continue to Affect Me and/or Stay With Me Over Time
I'm not a Christian now, but I was raised within the Mennonite church, and The Bible was the basis for moulding my thoughts and actions for the first 19 years of my life. Luckily, I was raised with a fairly scholarly view of the book in Sunday School, so we talked about its history and the issues with translation from its original languages, and we were encouraged to question the meaning behind passages and tease out their depth. This has lead to an ongoing curiosity and courage to question, even as someone having left the faith.
P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother?
When I was about four-and-a-half, I asked my father to read this book to me, but he said he was too busy. His refusal enraged me, and I stomped off to my room pissed that I couldn't experience the book because of him. But then it hit me: I could experience the book if I could read it. I sat down and went over every word, sounding them out, pressing my finger under each of them to keep my place, figuring out how the spelling and sounds went together. How reading worked clicked in my brain that afternoon, and Are You My Mother? became the first book I ever read by myself. That book also birthed the first major incident that made me feel individually powerful and able. I felt like a small god.
When I was sure I could do it well, I stomped back out of my room, sat down in my father's lap, and I read Are You My Mother? to him like a goddamn boss.
George Orwell's 1984
I first read this book in grade seven. It wasn't assigned reading, but something about it grabbed me. It could have been that the actual year in which I first read it was 1984. I was not good at identifying the obvious when I was 12.
I read it once, couldn't believe the literary goldmine I had found, and then read it at least five more times over the next ten years. I read it during recess, I read it at the lake over summer, and I even read it during a minor vein-rerouting surgery on my hand.
My teenage years were heavy with depression, paranoia, and well-concealed delusions that I was being watched at all times by, at turns, aliens, my parents, "the doctors", or God, who was going to reveal my true nature as a prophet any day. You might think that reading a book about my delusions as a dark and terrible reality was not a good idea, but I found it comforting, and I think it helped me fictionalize most of the paranoia that plagued me. Thanks, George.
Carlos Castañeda's series, beginning with The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge
I think I managed to get through the first eight books in this series. They purport to be about real, magical incidents, but they are largely fiction built on the foundations of anthropological study. The first three books were actually his research log while he was an anthropology student at the University of California. I knew this at the time I read them, but it didn't stop me from seriously considering some of the stories, as though I could actually learn to fly through the air on energy lines I cast with my urine.
What these books gave me, though, was an understanding that my actions, even the ones that seemed insignificant, such as how I held my hands when I walked, bore an effect on my life. They were my first lesson in mindfulness. I slowed down, I made an effort to pay attention, and I learned to focus on what my body told me. I realize now that these were my first lessons in understanding and dealing with my anxiety.
My reading also inspired a few good mushroom and acid trips. Ah, youth.
Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist
I think I would hate this book now. I haven't looked at it in years, but I recall it being a bit of a spiritual Hallmark card in long form. At the time, though, in my early twenties, I loved the idea of transformation, evolution, and exercising what control we can to their effect. I didn't necessarily buy the idea of magical wish-fulfilment promised in the book, but I liked the sense of possibility that came with it, and I needed a lot of that sense in those days.
"Where there is no hope, there is still possibility." — me.
Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude
A criticism of this ten-books meme bugged me a bit (and it's actually why I bothered doing this meme in the first place) when it stated:
"One Hundred Years Of Solitude"? You read that in 10th grade. I know because I was in that English class with you.
I did not read it in the tenth grade. I read it in my first year of university. And it was for my History of the Americas class. And I read it four times. So there.
This book kicks a million kinds of ass all over the place, and everyone should read it.
Rainer Maria Rilke's Uncollected Poems: Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow
My father and I went for coffee one afternoon. We didn't do this often, so it felt like an occasion when we did. After we had coffee, we walked up the street a bit toward his car, and I asked if we could go into a book store along the way. When he saw me going back to the same book of poetry again and again, he offered to buy it for me.
It felt like a deeply symbolic act. My father is not one who gets my love for writing or creating in general, but he made a gift of it to me without obligation to do so. I felt seen, and I can recall the specific scent of that book in that moment even now as I remember.
And, sweet jeebus, the stuff in this book is good. Snow had me at this untitled poem: "We don't know what we spend: / all that's named is past and each being / invents itself at the last second / and will hear nothing ..."
Richard Wright's The Outsider
It has been a long time since I read this book, and it sits on my shelf asking for another round, but I hesitate to pick it up, because I found it so affecting. It inhabited my dreams and left my heart sore and tired. This probably means that I should open it again.
I picked The Outsider out of a remaindered book pile for a dollar and had no idea that I was getting myself into vicariously living an incredible portrayal of American racism and what it can mean in the lives of black people. I was a white girl in a predominantly white neighbourhood who was deeply steeped in whiteness, though, and so I came to the book from a remove, as though it were an historical artefact, as though its descriptions were no longer a reality. I know now that none of this is in the past, and maybe that's why it scares me a little.
Good books should scare us a little, though, and that's why The Outsider should be required reading for all of North America. It will hurt your heart and wake you up.
Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance
When I read this book, I was living in a run-down townhouse with a couple of roommates. I spent most of my time running between three jobs, and no matter how carefully I rearranged my room or how much I tried to fill the house with the familiar smell of my favourite soup recipe, I was unmoored there. I felt like a guest who kept leaving but wouldn't leave.
I dove into stories and music and writing to avoid the lonely sense of not belonging, and one of my distractions was A Fine Balance. It was long and earthy and gritty and sad. It made an individual's life seem so small yet impossibly large. I ate up the words like I had a bad case of pica.
When I wasn't reading it, I imagined being the girl on the cover balanced so elegantly atop someone's thumb. She was free for a moment, literally elevated above the crowd, and I imagined that she could see a great distance beyond their upturned faces with no one to narrate for her what she was seeing.
Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water
It's strange, my connection with this book. I barely remember the storyline. This might be because it ranges from the here and now to blurring the boundaries between Christian and first nations stories, shifting playfully to blur our own presumptions and attitudes, maybe.
I do remember that it made me laugh out loud, even though I was alone, and it showed some of my whiteness to me in a way that made me want to go along with it. It winked and teased and made me want to be a better and more adventurous writer. Lighten up, it said. Stop being such a jerk.
Of course, this isn't a book review. This is a 20-year-old memory of a book. And it's a good one.
So, ten books, people. What are yours? YOU'RE ALL TAPPED.