Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ten Most Influential Books

I heard about the NYTimes challenge on Ask a Korean's blog, but of course William and Danielle beat me to it. It took me a long time to figure out and filter what books had the biggest influence on my thinking (because the books that have influenced my writing the most are an entirely different set). I will list these roughly chronologically in the order that I encountered them in my life and why they had such a lasting impact.

1. Free to Be You and Me and the 1988 sequel, Free to Be a Family, was originally a folk song album and television show from the 1970s designed by Marlo Thomas and others to combat gender stereotypes in children's' stories. I listened to the album on Mom's old record player and read and re-read the stories so many times I still have them all practically memorized. Like I explained on my other blog, I was raised feminist.

2. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein began a lifelong love affair with poetry and the English language. I still have about 20 poems from this book memorized (among my favorites are "The Garden," the title poem, and "Snowman") and carried a battered, well-loved copy of this book (the same one I've had since childhood) with me to Korea. Whenever I have a bad day, I can take out this gem, read a poem from it, and magically be transported to a place beyond happiness and peace. Not only are the messages in the poems full of irreverence and magic, but the poems themselves are musical and funny. Because of Silverstein, I wrote poetry for most of my life, and though I have shifted mostly to prose at this point in my life, I remain forever devoted to the study and worship of verse. Especially silly stuff.

3. Letters to Judy: What Kids Wish They Could Tell You by brilliant young adult novelist, Judy Blume, was purchased by my mother in an attempt to better prepare herself for my adolescence. I quickly usurped it and spent hours pouring over the letters written to her by kids, not too unlike myself, who read her books and felt in her a kindred spirit--an adult who might actually be able to understand what they were going through. Her empathy with teens of all backgrounds and her desire to help communicate with the parents of those teens was admirable. This book taught me a lot about being a teen, but even more about being a good person. Although it has been many years since I have re-read the now yellowing pages, I believe that much of my empathy for and love of teens as a high school teacher grew out of this book.

4. A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. I know what you're thinking... does Shakespeare really influence anyone's thinking all that much? I mean, I know we love him and appreciate him and all that... but really? Shakespeare? Ok... I know this sounds really pretentious, but Shakespeare (and other Renaissance poets, actually) speaks to me. On a deeply personal level. Although Silverstein awakened my interest in poetry at a young age, when I first read Midsummer in seventh grade, I felt like I belonged in this world. I did not struggle with the language or themes at all--reading this play (and the other Shakespeare plays I read after) was like breathing for me--as effortless and as essential. Here is a story about female friendship betrayals, loyalty to a fairy world, striving for artistic excellence and failing, unrequited love, overbearing parents... It spoke to me on so many levels--the humor, the sadness, the wit, the magic. I have since read many other Shakespeare plays, and each one has affected me in similar ways, but of course this first encounter was the most powerful. I was lucky enough in 2006 to get to perform as Helena with The Port Tobacco Players and it was a transcendent experience. There. Now you know. I'm a Bard-worshipping fool.

5. In ninth grade, I was assigned Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which is a wholly unremarkable book in the field of literary classics. I didn't particularly like any of the characters--they were whiny and entirely too passive for my tastes. I empathized most with the shrill, sickly, and controlling wife Zeena who is "holding" Ethan and Mattie back from pursuing their love and dreams. Furthermore, the book almost glorifies suicide as a valid solution to a seemingly impossible situation--gross! However, the experience of reading it changed my life and the way that I have read every book since then.

I think every smart kid studying literature in high school asks themselves: We look at all these themes and deep meaning and other such things in the books we read, but did the authors really mean to put them there? Aren't they just trying to tell a good story? Is literary analysis really just a bunch of erudite bullshit? Well, Wharton's novel was the first book where I saw the intentionality of the writer in making the setting reflect the internal mood of the characters--where I saw the motifs of light and seeing being woven with care to create a greater message about the control we might have over our own fate and Ethan's blindness to it. Perhaps the slight inferiority of the prose was the reason it was easier to see Wharton's heavy hand, but either way, I have read books since then with an eye for the author's purpose and never since thought literary analysis was anything but engaging in one of the most satisfying intellectual pleasures which is available to man. Or woman, if you prefer.

6. I first read Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright in tenth grade and was so absorbed by his prose and presentation of race and identity that I immediately checked out Native Son from the library. Reading Native Son on my own seems to have given me a radically different perspective on the book than most of my friends who read it with a high school teacher's guidance. I believe that we are not supposed to like Bigger (I hate him). His murder of his girlfriend (while on the run for the "crime" for which he is not responsible) was beyond cruel and cannot be blamed entirely on the racial atmosphere of Chicago. Bigger's continued unrepentance in the face of death further supports my belief that he is supposed to serve as a warning to young, black men not to let the racial injustices of the world corrupt and pollute their essence, not to excuse the violence of black men because the society is so stacked against them (as I have been told is the common interpretation of the book). His words have had a lasting influence on my understanding of race and of people different from myself (taking care not to oversimplify their lives based on my own faulty understanding) as well as on the need for personal responsibility in the face of difficulties both personal and political.

On another note, I think Wright is one of the finest writers and greatest minds ever to have lived, and find it disgusting that the majority of 20th century critics have relegated his accomplishments to being within the sphere of black civil rights writers. The issues he raises in his books resonate across human experience. What is perhaps most upsetting to me is that Wright died early (at the age of 52) in 1960, without ever getting to see the changes on American society wrought by the civil rights movement. Teaching Black Boy to tenth graders has only strengthened my love for this writer and his work.

7. In my first semester of college, I took a sophomore level literature survey with one of the most brilliant professors I had the joy of encountering, Donna Richardson. We began with a survey of Romantic poetry and in order to deal with the complexity of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, three other members of the class and myself formed a twice-weekly study group that became almost legendary (students not in the class would ask to participate). Blake, along with Wordsworth and Shelley, helped me understand Christianity's influence on English literature in new ways. I never converted, but I became a lot more empathetic and curious about religion--even joining a non-denominational Bible study group and becoming obsessed with Milton's Paradise Lost and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.

Although this experience would have changed my reading forever had tragedy not struck the group, the drowning death of one of the study group's founding members, Justin Bates (who did, not coincidentally, convert to born-again Christianity at the end of the semester of our study group), at the end of that first year of university reinforced the power and the potential danger of studying literature. By the time I watched Dead Poet's Society, I didn't even need to see the end. I had already lived it.

8. Ok, I love my parents dearly, and they are talented at many things, but they are not so good with money. After my first year in college, I realized that I needed to learn about personal finance if I was ever going to become an independent young woman. So I started reading the website, The Motley Fool, and then picked up You Have More Than You Think from the library. Although it is not my favorite personal finance book that I have read since then, I credit the book and the website with giving me my basic introduction to the language and principles of personal finance and putting me on a path to financial responsibility and independence.

9. I'm going to get a lot of crap for listing this in my ten most influential books, but I have to put it here for many, many reasons. I read it because my boyfriend in college was reading it for a philosophy class. Before I explain how a tome such as The Rules, which is so often criticized for its shallowness and anti-feminist rhetoric, ended up on this list, let me clarify what I think about the "method" for snaring "Mr. Right" espoused by the book: It's crap. The kind of man you get for stifling your opinions and emotions and faking how interesting you are is likely stupid (to be taken in by your antics) and chauvanistic (for believing that women shouldn't be too emotional or opinionated). I do not recommend anyone follow the ridiculous suggestions offered up by the book. That said...

Reading the introduction and the premise behind The Rules taught me a lot about how to set boundaries in relationships and how to value myself and my own opinions (including my opinion to reject the method in the book--ironically). Behind the ridiculousness of its packaging, the authors really want to help women who never bother to assess the behavior of men as telling you something about how they value (or don't as the case may be) you from their treatment of you. People who want to be in your life and will treat you with kindness and love behave in certain, predictable ways. While the book ironically recommends that women not behave in these ways towards men because men will become uninterested in them immediately (giving little credit to the brainpower of either gender), the lessons on lessening co-dependency and building trust slowly and appropriately in my life were well taken. This book also sparked an interest in other relationship books that led to my discovering ones that are much more useful and compelling in both the theory and the recommended practices. So yes, The Rules, you're on my list. And it is really a greater honor than you deserve.

10. Frank McCourt retired from teaching high school English and promptly wrote three memoirs destined to become classics within a very short time. Teacher Man was the last of the series that began with the highly acclaimed Angela's Ashes, and of course I read all three. I read a lot of teacher memoirs and biographies in my early years of teaching, but most of them were about amazing sacrifice and near-martyrdom of teachers. In America, we are in love with the teacher image that involves giving up everything of yourself to the noble altar of education. What I loved about McCourt's book is that it is refreshingly honest and doubting. Here is a man who was without a doubt a great teacher, but he talks about the great intentions we have on Friday nights to finally get caught up with all the grading, immediately waylaid by Friday Happy Hours with our co-workers. About struggling with students who challenge not just your authority, but your entire vision of what is true in the world. About dreaming of publishing your own writing, but being too caught up in the worlds of your students' writing to find the time. About feeling like you are swimming in mediocrity in a world that at once dismisses your profession and glorifies it in false ways. Actually, after writing this, I feel like I want to run out and read it again!

And so... those are the ten. Some books that barely missed the list include everything by Dostoevsky, War and Peace, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Things We Carried by Tim O'Brien, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, everything by Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the plays of Tennessee Williams (especially The Glass Menagerie).

1 comment:

  1. Wow...Judy Blume and Shel Silverstein. That's a blast from the past. :)

    ReplyDelete

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