I follow the New York Times Magazine on Twitter. On their Twitter stream you’ll see links to beautifully photographed articles from their Magazine. I love looking at pretty things, and their articles always feature nice photography, whether it’s about fashion, art, architecture, or any other subject for that matter.
In one particular series, they contact a current celebrity and ask them to list ten books they couldn’t do without. It’s the old question, which books would you want with you if you were marooned on a desert island? As an aside, I remember in George W Bush’s Presidential term (#43) he was asked in a different interview that same question. He’d replied “the Bible.” It was 2001, and I was not saved yet, and his answer both confused me and angered me. The Bible?! That boring, dusty thing? I could not for the life of me figure out the attraction.
Now I know. But the question back then as well as this week’s in the NYT to Michelle Dockery is a compelling one. It got me thinking about books that have had an impact on me one way or another. I couldn’t winnow it down to just ten. My list has 15 books, and the era ranges from my high school years through to my fifties (now). They are all old friends, cherished and loved, having transported me to another place or challenging my thinking. If I read some of them now I might have a different reaction. But for who I was at the time of the reading, these books had a great impact on me.
My list will go in chronological order of when I’d read them. Here they are, my top 15 books starting with my faves from High School to now. My faves…apart from the Bible of course.
I loved it. I read it. I re-read it. I read it to my little sister. I talked about it incessantly. I thought I was going to have a heart attack when Smaug departed his cavern and breathed fire in attack over Lake-town, it was THAT exciting. I enjoyed it tremendously. So did everyone else: the book has never been out of print since it was published in 1937.
The Once and Future King
Starting in High School, I had a long-lasting love of the medieval era, armor, weaponry, and most of all King Arthur that lasted well into my thirties. This book kicked it off in my sophomore year. It’s one of the books on the syllabus in my English class, where I was first introduced to it. I read it afterwards many times and enjoyed it each time, getting something new from it with each reading. “Might doesn’t make right.”
All Creatures Great and Small
My best friend’s mom gave me Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small when I was a freshman in high school. I did not enjoy animal stories at that time and I shelved the book. A few years later, being without reading material for the moment and desperate to read anything, I picked up and I’m so glad I did. I loved the book and it became a treasured companion while I read it and a cherished memory for years after. When the BBC TV series came out I watched that too.
I had a Michener run for a while in High School. I remember his book Hawaii best. The exotic locale, the interesting characters, the tsunami, and most of all my horror at what I considered evil work of the missionaries. Those bad, bad missionaries, trying to force a new god on those natives! They were just minding their own business! They were there first! Hawaii entranced me as a kid, I look back now and see it as a towering monument to a secular wold view held by a lost person very distant from God. But the writing was good.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Growing up in the 1960s & 1970s meant the cold war, Iron Curtain, and Russia dominated the news, our thinking, and our lives. Unfortunately as a kid of the 1960s, words like Gulag were part of our vocabulary. I tread Ivan in high school and was much impacted by it. I thought the writing was starkly beautiful in a way that even Hemingway would be envious of. Combined with the knowledge that the author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had actually served in the camps and that this was the first book the Communists had allowed to be published on the subject, made the impact on me even more deep.
I had quite a Stephen King run in the 1970s and early 1980s. He is a Mainer, and he taught as an adjunct at University of Maine at Orono, my alma mater. I saw him frequently on campus and around town. His first book, Carrie, was published just a few years before I got to UMO. By the time The Stand was published in 1978, the year I arrived at the U, the King phenomenon had to taken off just locally in Maine but nationally, too. It was fun to read published books and then spot the actual author, say, at the mall. It was fun to have a writer for a celebrity in our midst. The Stand is considered his greatest work. It IS a great work, just great. It got me thinking about good and evil, what I considered equal forces battling it out. Plus it’s just a gripping yarn.
Ken Follett’s amazingly well researched and deftly written tale of the decades of building a massive cathedral in medieval times fed into my love of the era, as mentioned earlier. I also love architecture, great stories, and good writing, so this book had me at hello.
Bonfire of the Vanities
The 1980s was when was 20-30. I was a new married adult who owned a house, eyeing the American landscape of that era though grown up eyes. The excesses, greed, stock market, Reagnomics, money, finance, real estate were all words that populated the news and our lives as much as Soviet, Russia, nuke, and Gulag had when I was growing up in the ’60s. Wikipedia describes Bonfire as a book “about a drama about ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City” and so, it is a perfect mirror of the era. I’m not a huge fan of author Tom Wolfe but this book was excellent for the time.
Love in the Time of Cholera
I had a South American author run during my late 20s. I read Isabel Allende, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Paul Coelho incessantly. This book of Marquez’ contains my all time favorite opening line of any book (almost tied with Hardy’s in Return of the Native.) “It was inevitable, the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Who wouldn’t love such an opening sentence full of poetry, foreshadowing, and mystery?!
Contrasting the magic realism of the South American Authors are the American cowboy writers I was into, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. I liked the contrast of the lush S. American tropics to the AMerican dusty, tumbleweed west. During the ’90s I traveled widely, including a VW camper van through all the American western states. I fell in love with West Texas. As we traveled through to Big Bend National Park, filming of the epic series based on McMurtry’s book Lonesome Dove had recently just concluded. We stayed a couple of nights at The Gage Hotel, a historic and beautifully appointed hotel filled with furnishings that took you back to the 1830s, and occasionally a real cowboy would stride through and suddenly you were living Lonesome Dove life. As for the book Lonesome Dove, it’s epic. EPIC.
The Shell Seekers
Wikipedia explains, “The Shell Seekers is a 1987 novel by Rosamunde Pilcher. It became one of her most famous best-sellers. It was nominated by the British public in 2003 as one of the top 100 novels in the BBC’s Big Read.” This book isn’t profound or deep. It’s just one of the best reads ever. If you’re looking for a good story and quality writing, this is it.
The first half of the decade I was consumed with launching and running a weekly newspaper in my city of 7000 people. I had been greatly concerned with Robert B. Putnam’s revealing of the decline of civic commitment, loss of political balance, and dearth of wise reporting. So I began a paper, and then along came this book, which mirrored my concerns and had sociological data and a well-researched thesis to support it. This non-fiction book made a tremendous impact nationally, as it did with me.
As for the rest of the first half of the decade, it was spent reading non-fiction about civic endeavors and citizen journalism. As for my private reading not associated with my work, I was being drawn to Jesus and spent any spare moments I had reading material that mirrored that confusing time, such as Buddhist and New Age books that attempted to explain the soul. (Noooo! Anything except Jesus!) I was also selling my business and moving to GA and re-settling alone down south. Not doing a lot of reading.
By now I’m saved, and so my reading material changed and the impacts on me changed too. My world-view had completely shifted from seeing the world and seeking answers about it through fiction, which really is what most fiction is about, to seeing the world through the mind of Christ.
This book, written by John Bunyan in the 1600s, is considered one of the greatest books of all time. An allegory of a Christian’s progress through life, with its joys, trials, and final glorified status, is a pleasure to read, even 400 years after its first publication. Edifying in the extreme, many people consider this book second to the Bible in terms of impact. I enjoyed it so much.
The Lord’s Spirit dispensed discernment to me and I have a heightened sensitivity to unorthodox doctrines, falsity, and hypocrisy. This fiction book by Sinclair Lewis is a devastating (and accurate) portrayal of hypocrisy in a pastor, from its first germ to full blown infection. Its insights were illuminating and fascinating to me, as much as they repelled me also. An incredible book for a Christian to read.
The Little Woman
I’d love for all the paper tiger feminists crying about how life just can’t go on in a day without women (wah we’re so persecuted) to take a look at some of these tremendous Christian women who just went out there and did it. The Little Woman is an autobiography by Gladys Aylward of her voyage to become one of the very first first female missionaries to inland China in the early 1930s. Traipsing mountains, facing jail riots, escaping armies (with 100 orphans in tow) … all in a days’ work. This book shows you what the Lord can do with a willing and obedient heart. It’s a joy to read.
Honorable mentions, books that also impacted me and I couldn’t do without, at least as far as my development at the point at which I was reading them:
- 1984, George Orwell
- Jude the Obscure, Return of the Native, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
- Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen
- Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
- Dune, Frank Herbert
- Watership Down, Richard Adams
- How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
How about you? What books can’t you do without?