Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.
I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!
It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)
1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney
I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!
Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.
4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein
A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition: history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.
5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.
6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor Frankl
The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.
7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher
I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.
I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.
9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander
I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.
10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.
Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!