So Kelsey asked me to name some books that influenced me, which is a near impossible task and brings to forefront the question of who I am as an adult versus who I was as a child—both people intimately shaped by books, but very different kinds. Is it the books as I read as a kid, the ones I devoured nonstop as I ate through the pages of the Manchester Elementary School library? Holes, Maniac Magee, Wayside School, the Secret Garden, Say Goodnight Gracie, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Dealing With Dragons, the Princess and the Goblins, The House With The Clock In Its Walls, the entire Oz series, the Chronicles of Narnia or more specifically the one scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Lucy is reading the spellbook in the room with the door that won’t close, the Golden Compass with its adventure or the Subtle Knife with its sadness and bitterness or the Amber Spyglass with its meandering growing-up, are we talking Sabriel, Tamora Pierce, Tithe, the Diamond Age? Are we talking about Harry Potter, who grew up alongside me? What about Jane Eyre, the first ever “grown up” book I fell into entirely? What about Sandman, or the Wheel of Time, or The Black Cauldron series? Why, as a child, did it not matter what I read, what genre it was, how old it was, what it was about…. but we know, of course.
As a kid I mostly read indiscriminately, as many bored, over-intelligent children who only had dial up internet did. As an adult who took reading seriously enough to get an English major, I am all too aware of the fractions in what I read, the way readers parse themselves out—scifi, fantasy, romance, literary fiction, classics, realistic fiction, the dubious whatever genre the NYT bestseller list is. Like everything else in adult life, reading is more complex, not just because there are MORE books (though there are so, so, so many more) but because you have less time to read them, being busy with adult life, and so sorting them into categories seems helpful and can become ultimately restricting. So now that I’ve rigamaroled my way around to stating the obvious, here are ten books that are influential to me:
1. Go, Dog. Go! – P.D. Eastman
If you have never read Go, Dog. Go! I recommend you do so immediately. It is published by the same people who publish all the Dr Seuss books. It’s got a big cardboard cover and tall eight and a half by eleven pages. The plot, whatever of it there is, describes actions of various dogs as they wander in and around their strangely empty, yet whimsically decorated green and white world—the dogs have a house resting atop a rowboat, the dogs go into scary looking hedge mazes, the dogs rush through dangerous traffic, the dogs drive cars with comically small windshields. Some of the dogs carry on conversations that are repeated, with slight variations, without the help of dialogue tags throughout the book, conversations my grandmother & I still quote back and forth to each other to this day:
“Do you like my hat?”
“I do not like your hat.”
At the very end of this book is a scene of a dog party in the treetops, where dogs set off fireworks, jump on trampolines, take naps, eat cake, play ping pong, and generally have a party far superior than any party I’ve ever been able to attend. On the top of a tree. And there is some resolution for the hat-wearing dogs, after all.
It was a book my grandmother read to me ever since I can remember, and in her house in the hills of southeastern Kentucky with wood-paneled walls and sunlight coming in through the small back window and raspberry bushes growing outside—so nostalgia, and sweet and sour fruits, and family, and dogs. Unlike the dogs my grandmother kept, these dogs never run away, or got run over, or got abandoned by their owners and wandered into her yard—they went swimming together, or rowed boats at night, or played banjo on the river, and had all the cars stop for them. Someday I’ll have a Go, Dog. Go! party, and you’re all invited.
2. Howl’s Moving Castle – Dianna Wynne Jones
Distinct memories of being fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and reading this every single month. If you’ve seen the Miyazaki film based on the novel but haven’t read the book, you are (I promise) missing out. It is probably no mistake that as an awkward, out-of-place teenager (are there any other kind?) I identified too much with dutiful Sophie Hatter, who always takes for granted that because she is the oldest child, she will inherit her father’s business, and carry on her family traditions, and have nothing else interesting happen to her. It’s a story about a person with no ambition, who feels very trapped, who inadvertently gets pushed into adventures and in the course of them has to face her own sense of self-unimportance. It is notable that in typing that sentence was the first time I ever realized this was a novel about someone who has to stop feeling hopeless and realize that her life does, too, matter—that’s how subtle the message is. But besides that, it’s above all things an adventure book, in a world where there are wizards, and magic, and battles, and witches, and spells, but that the main character is a hat maker who doesn’t really think her life is anything important. There’s a reason Miyazaki chose it to animate. If you love the plot point of ordinary people coming to realize they can do more with their lives, and doing it not through heroic wars and battles but through cleaning, and trying as best they can to help out—in short, if you ever felt like everything you did was unimportant and unglamarous and getting you nowhere, you can relate.
Bonus: other books I read once a month around age sixteen include Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk. As I grow up I would hesitate to recommend Fight Club, because I think there are much better books out there, but as a sixteen year old who was starting to struggle with expectations of how modern people live, and starting to see & despise elements of the society I lived in, I had to read it again and again. I will also add that every other Chuck Palahniuk book I read seemed to be a more boring copy of Fight Club, probably because he writes all his books about the same things with ever-increasing amounts of gore & shocking stories. I would not recommend it now because it has no compassion—because I think I can’t read a book that treats women that way anymore, and because I no longer think reading books about white man pain is super useful now that we’ve had that narrative shoved down our throats our entire lives. I am accepting applications for books that sixteen year olds should read when they are feeling antiestablishment INSTEAD of Fight Club, so if you have any, please tell me what they are & I’ll send a memo to my former self.
3. Night Watch – Terry Pratchett
I will defend Terry Pratchett into my death. These books are funny, and compassionate, and serious, and every single time I re-read them I find something new, or something resonates with me in a new way. This year, with the police violence in Ferguson, I could not stop thinking of Night Watch—a book set in the fictional planet of Discworld, in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork, which is a book about a policeman who accidentally gets thrown back in time & has to try to stop a revolution that shaped the life of his younger self. It’s a book that has a lot to say about the interaction between people in power and the people who are not, either in the form of nobility and commoners, policemen and citizens, soldiers and civilians, and the important differences between them all. It also has time travel, which is like my favorite thing. It also features Sam Vimes who is probably the best hero I can think of in modern literature. It also has dwarves, and assassins, and wizards, and werewolves, and Death, and the People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road, and Vetinari. If you’ve never read a Discworld book, I don’t know that you should start here—Vimes’ arc goes through many books, from Feet of Clay, Men at Arms, Jingo (another fantastic book critiquing jingjoism and foreign policy), Snuff, the Fifth Elephant, etc—but to me, Night Watch will always be the top. Other books you should read by Terry Pratchett include: Going Postal! Haven’t you always wanted to read a book where a con artist is put in charge of the most inefficient government-run system—the post office—and turns it into a gigantic success? YOU DID. You should also read Small Gods! Would you like a funny, amazing critique of the religion versus belief, with looks into systematic corruption, magic, religious law, and a talking turtle? Yes, yes you would. Pyramids! How about books about magic and geometry? Or Hogfather, if you’re more into the dark pagan origins of mid-winter holidays and also would love to read a book where the grim reaper is a protagonist! YOU WOULD. In short, if I had not read Terry Pratchett as avidly as I did as a teenager, I am pretty sure I would be a worse person today.
4. Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Whoa this list just jumped in age real fast. Hi! Here are books I liked as an adult! Welcome to the Postmodern Literature category! It is so hard to decide if Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day goes here, because I love them so much I wish I could rip them into tiny pieces and stab them under my skin so I could carry them forever (FOREVER), but Gravity’s Rainbow gets the honor because it came first and bit big pieces into my soul in a way no other book had ever done ever. It doesn’t have sky pirates, or the wild west, or spies, or Russian wastelands, or threesomes the way Against the Day does, but Gravity’s Rainbow is not missing out on the adventure front in any way whatsoever. Do you want to read the world’s cleverest book about WWII, rocket scientists, Pavlovian training, Nazis, singing dwarves, and concentration camps, which also happens to be interspersed with songs the entire time? Unfortunately I cannot recommend Gravity’s Rainbow, because all the world’s extant copies have been shredded so I can devour them and keep them inside of me forever. Also it’s like a thousand pages of postmodern beauty, and if you’re not ready, you’re not ready. If you read Catch-22 like four times and wish Kurt Vonnegut was more playful, then maybe you should start thinking about reading Gravity’s Rainbow.
5. Dhalgren – Samuel Delaney
So this is Dhalgren, and it is a book I love a lot. If you would like a reason to read Dhalgren, here are a few: it is about a city that is always on fire! It has time travel? The narrative goes in a circle, Finnegan’s Wake style! It is science fiction (question mark). It has a scene where someone falls down an elevator shaft. It has people who live in a park, and people who are in gangs, and normal families trying to live normal lives but in a city which is always on fire. It has atmosphere pouring out of its ears. It has a lot of sex in it. The individual sentences are insanely beautiful. These are facts about Dhalgren.
6. House of Leaves – Mark Danielwski
Honestly this book will probably not stay on this list forever (I feel pretty confident that the other ones will). But since I can just list off postmodern books all day here is the postmodern horror story, told through four or five layers of narration. It has a tattoo artist, and an old man who dies with a mysterious book left unpublished, and a mysterious documentary about a haunted house, and lots of interesting science about caving, and technical things about filmmaking, and minotaurs, and people who are institutionalized for psychiatric illness. Mostly it is a book about a haunted house, written in multiple colors with lots of different fonts. It slides into your brain and makes it hard to sleep at night. The physical act of reading is manipulated by the layout of the text in a way I have never experienced with another book and which is done masterfully here. After you read this, you will be disappointed by every single haunted house movie (except maybe the Shining, but I wouldn’t know, because I’m still too scared to watch it).
7. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
Hahahahahaha oh man Infinite Jest. What a joke, right. Right. There is nothing I can say about Infinite Jest, not because other people have said it—this book is too long and too new for anyone to even think that people have fully approached every single angle to it—but because it renders me speechless. (Yet I continue to type.) For all intents and purposes, statistically as well as significantly, this is the only novel I read in med school. This is a book about a kid who eats poisonous mushrooms and grows up to be a famous tennis player, and an inmate who lives in a halfway house in Boston, and about a filmmaker named James Candenza, and also takes place in a world where America and Canada are at war and there are lots of jokes about bearded, flannel-wearing terrorists, and upstate New York has been turned into a giant industrial waste dumping site that has polluted much of the Northeast United States and also Canada. Also it is about many other things, like pharmacology, and what life is like in a private boys school, and some of the dangers of living in modern society. It is a book written by the most talented personal essayist (god bless you DFW but “fiction”) and fights every step of the way. If you are dissatisfied but cannot express why, Infinite Jest will. It is funny but ultimately too depressing to read. Despite that I read it!!!!!!!! Hello!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t know if I can in good faith recommend that people read it—I think it is a thing that people seek out when they feel compelled to, and it expresses some deep need inside of them that they have never before been able to put to words.
Okay so anyway there are some books and things I feel about them. I think I was supposed to tag more people to do this, maybe, or something, but if anyone even bothers to read this thing you should get to do it or not if you want to! It is totally up to you. Whatever you do or however you feel, I hope you will read more books that you like.