Almost two months ago some of my Facebook friends started challenging me to name ten influential books that have stayed with me. I ignored these challenges because I’ve been reading books for 60+ years of life, 19+ years of school, and 30+ years of teaching literature. It was just too overwhelming to pick ten books on short notice and have it mean anything significant at all.
I did give it some thought, though, and here are my ten books.
1. Alice in Wonderland. My parents read this book to me before I could read it for myself. More than any other children’s book it stirred my imagination and stoked my love of literature from an early age. I even remember having childhood dreams that sprang from the characters and episodes of this children’s fantasy. Only later did I come to appreciate the adult themes.
2. Silver Pennies (http://www.amazon.com/Silver-Pennies-Collection-Modern-Poems/dp/B0037A5UFK). I remember spending hours as a child poring over this children’s poetry collection, memorizing poems, reciting them, acting them out, even taking notes in the margins. This little book did more to stimulate and develop the early love of poetry that has stayed with me to this day.
3. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Having been introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry in Silver Pennies, I went on to read her collected poems in depth, mesmerized by both the style and content. Many of the poems were cryptic riddles, but that only whetted my appetite for the joy of analyzing and interpreting literature, as well as enjoying its sensory and psychological pleasures.
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read this in ninth grade English at my all-white high school in Lynchburg, Virginia, where schools were still segregated in 1960. Having learned about the civil rights movement at the family dinner table, where my father frequently held forth on the evils of racism, Jim Crow, and segregation, I was struck by the bond between Huck, the runaway white orphan, and Jim, the runaway black slave. Later I came to understand the racist elements of the novel, but at the time I was most impressed by the possibilities for interracial friendship and loyalty.
5. To Kill A Mockingbird. I read this novel in tenth grade English at the same white high school and have never forgotten the lesson in social inequality and injustice based on race. My class at E. C. Glass High School was the last all white class to graduate from the school, as it was integrated in my senior year.
I look back in amazement that I read both these books in a segregated high school in the South at the height of the civil rights movement, and, as we studied these novels, we never once had a classroom discussion of how they related to the history unfolding around us.
6. Catcher in the Rye. As a teenager I was captivated by Holden Caulfield’s raw adolescent honesty and aversion to adult “phoniness.” Although I was fairly conformist in those days, I had a secret admiration for the misfits and rebels of society that has stayed with me to this day.
7. The Sound and the Fury. More than anything this novel embodies my sense of southern regionalism, especially in the multiple voices of characters that seemed to echo members of my own family. Though I have now lived longer outside of the South than in it, I still carry with me that underlying burden of Southern history—the loss, the guilt, the love and loyalty, the shame, as well as the enduring sights, sounds, smells of the South—its food, its climate, its landscapes, its flora and fauna, its accents, all of which are bound to my earliest memories.
8. The Marble Faun. Despite my roots in the South, I learned to love the literature of 19th century New England and the mid-Atlantic, going on to write my Master’s thesis on Henry James and my doctoral dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The theme of Americans in Europe, the Old World and the New World, has always drawn me in, and in none more hauntingly than The Marble Faun, in which New England Puritanism and Old World Catholicism are strongly bound up together in ways that have led me to an abiding interest in history, religion, philosophy, human psychology, and ethics.
9. Nature. When I renounced my Southern Baptist upbringing I rejected religion in general. My World and English History professor in college did succeed in sparking my interest in Anglicanism, but it was Transcendentalism that really made an impact. This book-length essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson transcends all Christian denominations and all world religions to achieve a kind of religious philosophy or philosophical religion that eventually led me to Unitarian Universalism. In addition, while most philosophers would laughingly dismiss Emerson as a philosopher, I think his writings show how philosophy and literature can meet and merge.
10. Moby Dick. My love of both literature and philosophy makes me a sucker for the philosophical novel or novel of ideas. This novel is the ultimate smorgasbord of adventure, drama, poetry, comedy, tragedy, allegory, symbolism, psychology, religion, and philosophy, all somehow tied together by unforgettable characters, an unforgettable narrative, and an unforgettable epic style.
Creating this list has accomplished exactly what I thought it would—made me painfully aware of all I have left out. So many books that have made me who I am, enriched my life, and opened my eyes to worlds beyond my own paltry experience.