Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The 22 Most Influential Books of My Life

I recently saw a Facebook "list and tag"-type post about books. Something like, "list 10 books that have stayed with or affected you in someway. Don't think too hard, they don't have to be classics," etc. As my mind skimmed a couple of book titles that have affected me, I decided it might actually be an interesting personal history study to do the challenge, but amended in a couple of ways. So, a few days later, I opened my journal and started writing down the titles of books that impacted me throughout my life, beginning from childhood. I also annotated my list, because book titles aren't much good in a journal without some commentary about why and how they impacted me. I came up with 22 books or sets of books and it was so fun to do that I thought I would reproduce it here, in case the exercise spurs anyone on to a similar, fun set of musings :)

Disclaimers: My memory isn't perfect, of course, and I've read a lot of books throughout my life. I'm sure there are books that did impact me that I can't remember very well and so don't appear here. This is also not a list of books I love. There are books that aren't on this list that I love and books on this list that I don't necessarily love (or don't love as much anymore). Finally, "impact" is a nuanced and complex thing. My annotations describe, as well as possible in my current stage of hindsight, the impact I think the books had on me then and, where relevant, now. It's probably all oversimplified or overly specific but hey, it was fun to think about even if I can't pinpoint how exactly I was impacted and in all the various ways a book affected me.

Ok, so disclaimers out of the way, here we go: 22 books (or sets of books) that have impacted Amy's life along the way (all books are linked so if you're interested in finding out more about any of them, Amazon can tell you all about it!).

Early Years

1. Little Duck's Moving Day: A Little Golden Book my parents read to me over and over again when I was 3 and 4. I remember identifying with it specifically - and it serving as a comfort! - as we prepared for our move to Minnesota. I also remember doing a lot of my early reading in this book. (I am including a picture of the cover here, because for some sad reason, Amazon doesn't have the cover shown!) 

Elementary Years
2. Boxcar Children books: I remember lolling around our school library during library time in my first few grades struggling to find anything I was interested in reading. Then I discovered the Boxcar Children and I gobbled them up! I still remember vividly the moment I discovered them on the shelves and exactly where they were shelved in my school library.

3. Little House on the Prairie books: These books impacted me again and again as I read them through childhood and my young adult years. The detailed stories of life in a different time helped me put my own life in perspective and helped me understand that hard work, obedience, gratitude for what we had, and keeping on despite struggles were virtues that could be cultivated. 

4. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch: This was the 1956 Newbery Medal winner. My mom read this amazing book out loud to us when we were young. It expanded my horizons in ways other books didn't: to think about the wide world, to work hard and value scholarly achievement (not necessarily through formal schooling or degrees), and even to teach that sometimes life is hard. It bothered me that Nat's lovely first wife dies (spoilers, sorry!), but since the book is based on a true story, it sensitively taught a very young girl that death happens and despite the sadness, struggles such as that could be overcome. (I've written about this book on my blog before. To see the post, click here.)

5. Number the Stars: This was a book we read as part of our 4th grade class. It was perhaps my first meaningful and moving exposure to the Holocaust. 

6. The Thoroughbred books: This is one of those manufactured paperback series and can't be considered classics of literature by any means. But in my late elementary years I had become so interested in horses that I wanted to know everything, and a lot of my knowledge about that world of horse raising, racing, jumping, dressage, etc. - which I didn't and never would have real access to - came from this series. Through these books I lived in a horse world in my imagination for several years. 

7. Chronicles of Narnia: My first exposure to fantasy literature and a delight to a girl who wanted more fuel to fire her childhood of enchantment. They have also continued to be favorites throughout my life for their beautifully illustrated themes and their simple power.

Middle School Years

8. Ivanhoe (unabridged): This book was a project I set for myself in 6th grade, perhaps ultimately out of a sense of pride. I was interested and curious in this big, old book on my parents' shelves - that was genuine - but even when it was difficult to understand (mostly always for my 6th grade self), I felt determined to get through it.
    9. The Work and the Glory series: I worked through all of these giant books (novels that detail LDS church history from its beginnings to its settlement in the Salt Lake Valley) during my middle school years. They made me feel like I had a religious heritage; I felt part of something larger than myself. They probably helped me develop confidence in my sense of identity during that time of adolescence when many of my peers were struggling with identity.

    10. Heidi, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and A Little Princess: These were feel-good books about girls (and a boy, in Little Lord Fauntleroy's case) who had strong moral character and courage and also had a strong sense of identity at a young age. They stood for what they believed was right, even in very difficult circumstances. With my own convictions, which were increasingly strengthening, I wanted to be like the protagonists in these books.

    11. The Harry Potter series: I hardly need to link to these, but they have to go high on my list of "impactful" books. My brothers had started reading numbers 1-3 when I was in Middle School and I mocked them a little, since they seemed like silly books. Somehow, I believe in 8th grade, I gave in and started book 1. I was immediately hooked and now I read through the whole series probably every other year. I don't know that I've read any book(s) more. (Just a PS, if you haven't listened to the Jim Dale books on tapes, you are seriously missing out on a gigantic treat. They are fabulous.)

    12. "Harrison Bergeron": My only non-Amazon link because this is a short story. I didn't like it much; it was required reading in class. But it has stuck in my memory and continues to provide a striking illustration for the dangers of policies that try to equalize society to the extent that individual strengths are at risk.

    High School Years

    13. To Kill a Mockingbird: We studied this book in depth my Freshman year of high school and I was moved by its voice, its sensitivity, and its humanness. This book had a profound affect on me again in the summer of 2007 when I would listen to it on tape in my pink Buick driving back and forth to work. The end led me to long periods of deep thought; I was deeply troubled by the injustices in the world.

    14. Watership Down: Another book I read in Freshman English. Not only was it a very exciting read, but it made me think (possibly for the first time) about group dynamics, leadership qualities, and the dangers - sometimes subtle - of various political and community structures, especially as regards the balance between freedom and security. Like other books in this list, it also dealt a lot with courage and impressed upon me how different kinds of courage can function in a society. (Yes, it's about bunnies, but don't be fooled. This book is both intensely action-packed and deeply interesting.)

    15. How to Win Friends and Influence People: This was given to my brother as a gift when we moved between my 9th and 10th grades to California. I read it shortly thereafter and it made me think about how I treated and interacted with others. It also helped me realize that how my transition between a new school and place went largely depended on me. 
    ***This is where I seem to have an inexplicable gap in my reading history. I remember plenty of books I was required to read in 10th and 11th grade English classes (not in 12th grade English. We didn't read or write much in that class. In fact, I don't know what we did that was of any use...) but I don't remember a single one that impacted me or my life in a profound way. In my personal time, I was beginning to focus heavily on daily scripture reading and supplemented my scripture study with books off my parents' shelves like Jesus the Christ, Bruce R. McConkie's Messiah series, and Opening the Seven Seals. These, while I don't list them officially, all helped fashion my religious identity and understanding.***

    College Years

    16. Washington, the Indispensable Man: I read this right before/as my Sophomore year of college was starting. It was the kind of book that filled me with awe just because I could read it (I remember my roommates giggling at me because I openly stated how grateful I was to be able to read!). But the book was so interesting; I was grateful that I had opportunities to learn, that I could learn about and from the lives of incredible people.

    17. Various books related to my studies, like Rivers of Fire; Real Jews; The Chosen; Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers; and War on Sacred Grounds: Books such as these opened my understanding of the complexities of the Middle East and, more broadly, human life and interactions.

    Post-College Years

    18. The Discoverers: I had been given this book as a gift shortly before my wedding, but as my studies absorbed my time, I could only crawl through it until my coursework at Cambridge was finished. It was worth it, though. This is an incredible book unlike any I had ever read before, documenting the history of "discoveries" - famous ones like the European exploration of continents and lands and discoveries I'd never thought of before, like the "discovery" of time or the mapping of the human body. The author does a good job of exploring the discoveries and discovery methods of various peoples and cultures around the world and explains things like why Portugal became such a seafaring nation (as opposed to other European powers) or why China went from centuries of rapid and advanced discovery to relative discovery stagnation. (I've written about this book before on my blog. See my post about it here.)

    19. The Anne of Green Gables books: I had grown up with and LOVED the mini-series and had read the first book during my youth, but it wasn't until I was home with a newborn baby that I finally read all the books. They affected me in my adult life in a way they hadn't in my youth - their tenderness and wisdom were sweet for a new mom.

    20. The Thief books (don't read descriptions of any past the first book or important plot points will be spoiled!): These were just a series of books that blew my mind because they were that good. Dave and I discovered these thanks to family recommendation two years ago. In her novels, the author includes politics, religion, and absorbing tales of human nature in brilliant and fresh ways.

    21. Kristin Lavransdatter: These books are painfully human. I've never felt so much like an author could wheedle into my soul and know all the frail and petty thoughts that I have sometimes, and all of the ways I try to justify myself. But she doesn't point out human sin and weakness in annoying or obvious ways. These books are powerful, painful, matter-of-fact, and overarching all of it is the understanding that despite sin and human failings, redemption can be sought and found.

    22. (Last one!) Lord of the Rings: I read these, I am ashamed to say, for the first time last winter. So good, so astute, such a powerful illustration of good versus evil.