The Books that Changed Me

From childhood, where my mother frequently found me holed up in my closet with all my books stacked in a big pile, slowly reading one and putting it on another pile beside my Playskool oven and stove combo, books have been shaping me. (Alas, I never imagined this rather round and squishy shape being the end result, but I'm working on it, people!) So, when I read The Korean's Top 10 List of Most Influential books, inspired by this NY Times editorial, I made a mental note to make one of my own.

And surprisingly, I actually read my mental note a few days later. Usually those things get put behind large signs that say, "Drink coffee," "Feed the cats," "Shower." They get lost along with all my other mental post-its covered in reminders to pluck my eyebrows, mail that letter, and clean that spoon I found in my cup holder. But this mental note was not lost. Like Ross Douthat and The Korean before me, I'm also not listing my Top 10 Favorite Books. I'm sure the lists would overlap in a lot of places, but I'm going with my gut here. These are in chronological order, approximately. 

1. The Bugg Books by Stephen Cosgrove
 (Granted, a series and not a single book, but influential nonetheless!) My grandmother owned almost all of these "Topsy Turvy" books, that had two front covers and two stories that met in the middle. I would stay up late at night whenever I spent the night at her house reading a story, flipping the book over, and reading another. Every story starts with the same lines:
As you lay on a summer's day
In a cool and shady place,
Don't look up into the skies;
Instead look down and squint your eyes.
              Squint your eyes so very tight,
           And if you wish with all your might,
       You'll find the land of More-Than-Small.
             In this land live buggs- that's all!

These stories were just like the Serendipity books, also written by Stephen Cosgrove, and happened to be the first series of books I ever read my way through in the closet next to my stove. Each story contains a different moral, teaching children to share, to value fellow-bugs over money, to be kind, and to believe in the magic of the animal world. I believe that these books are responsible for my uber-sensitivity when it comes to animals. Believing that even small bugs that are insignificant to me (and all other furry animals for that matter) have their own struggles with good and evil and work so hard to make the right decisions makes it really hard to step on a spider without thinking twice. (Crickets are different, though. They have no moral compass at all, so a swift shoe swat is completely ethical in my view.) I hold Stephen Cosgrove personally responsible for the tears I have shed at even the slightest hint of animal cruelty, the breath-interrupting sobs at those humane society commercials, and the headache I gave myself trying not to cry when the boy had to push the ape and be mean to him in order to get him to leave and be free at the end of that Born To Be Free movie. These books definitely shaped the way I see the world. 

2. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I heard this book before I read it. A good friend in high school, Taylor Jones read this book to me while we sat in the hallway during 3rd period Latin. I was a teacher's assistant and he was in Latin II, but this class was Latin I because the other didn't fit into his schedule. So, most days, we ended up on the cold, hard floor in the hall. I was fascinated with Kerouac immediately. This book changed the way I thought about writing and using profanity in writing. When Taylor read, I could hear Sal and Dean; I could hear how every word fit perfectly, even the bad ones. For a Southern Baptist sophomore in high school, this was life-altering. I didn't choose to use "bad" language myself until college, and even now, I'm very selective about it. My thoughts on what it is that makes profanity profane began that day in the hallway at LaVergne High School.

3. Beowulf.  This book changed the way I interacted with every text I came across afterward. Perhaps this is less the book, but more the teacher under which I read it and discussed it. This was the first book that I felt shift things on my insides, in my soul. I felt other books had perhaps influenced my thinking, but this one affected my heart. Maybe that's vague and perhaps it's not completely something I could ever explain. Can we ever fully comprehend the exact way a book becomes a part of us as we read it? I'm not sure. And I'm okay with that.

4. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie.  For me, this book did for history what the Bugg Books did for animals. It made the people who used to live before me real.  I just happened to pick it up while browsing through the basement floor of Shorter College's musty library. I really had no reason to be down there. All the literature and English major's books were on the second floor, upstairs, where the only bathroom I would poop in besides my own was located. I remember truly connecting with the characters that Massie resurrected and reading the letters between Nicholas and Alexandra, cherishing the way he called her his "wifey."Before reading this, history was hard for me to connect with, even in college. Of course, I had always connected with history through fiction (i.e. Faulkner's Light in August; Ellison's Invisible Man and Juneteenth), but this made me see real people as real people.

5. Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Frazier Nash.  I was a junior in college taking a class with the brilliant Dr. Wilson Hall when I read this book.  It was on his syllabus. Reading this book was my wake up call to the ethics of environmentalism. It is an interesting history of the way America's ideas of wilderness evolved over time. Even the LA Times calls this book one of the hundred most influential books in the last 25 years. Almost all of my ideas about what wilderness is and should be were born in this class, and are a direct by-product of this particular text.

6. The Collected Poems of Anne Sexton. This book had to duke it out with a number of Billy Collins' collections. Because I view Billy Collins as pretty much the master of the English language. Period. However, I think Anne being a woman had something to do with the way I connected with her poems. This collection of poems forced my heart up into my throat so many times. I cried over these verses, I agonized with these lines, and I felt for the first time that someone had looked inside my brain, rooted around in the depths of my darkest corners, and put what they found on paper in the exact words I would have used. Sexton helped me fully realize that good poetry is universal and how. Whenever I want to read good poetry, I reach for this volume. (Billy Collins is such a darn close second. And perhaps he changed the way I wrote more than Sexton ever would. But I think the way Sexton writes about sex and relationships as a woman pushes her up there, just a smidgen.) 

7. The Poisonwood Bible: This book taught me that truth is not the same thing as fact. I found this book on the bookshelf of an 80-year old English woman. Her name was Shiela and she was living in Cornwall when Kenny and I visited her in January of 2007. I began reading it and when we went back to Exeter, headed straight for Blackwell's to purchase my own copy. (I was more eager to get my hands on my own because this amazing girl I attended Shorter with recommended it. And when something has the Joanna Burgess stamp of approval on it, whether it be books, music, or plays, it's worth taking the time to experience it.) This book confirmed so many things I felt about Christianity and it's war on culture that was (and is) so distasteful to me. I also read it during the time when I was discovering how much of our lives are woven into narrative arcs so we can make sense of them. How we turn our lives into stories. How truth resonates through even fictitious characters, places, and circumstances. And how sometimes the truest things never took place at all. 

8. White Guilt: How Black and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era by Shelby Steele. Let me remind you again here that these aren't necessarily the best books I've read, but simply the ones that changed or influenced my thinking the most. This book doesn't necessarily provide very many answers for the continued racial tensions in America, but it does do a good job detailing what's not working and many of the reasons why. I think this book resonated with me because I did and sometimes still do tend to wallow in "white guilt." I almost always side with racial minorities or the weaker party on any issue, regardless of right or wrong. I just feel like the old white men have won so much and made the rules for so long and something in me feels responsible for that, even though I know it's ridiculous. This feeling has many unexpected consequences that I feel Steele illustrates clearly. I guess this book changed the way I think about power, the people who have it, and the people who don't have it.

9. Incandescence: 365 Readings with Women Mystics (Rereleased as A Little Daily Wisdom) by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. This reader definitely influenced my views on Christianity and what it looks like. It introduced me to the Mother in God, the passionate women who shaped our religion and yet so seldom are recognized or even heard of. The mystery of Christ has been lost. We are so afraid of the word "mystical" anyway. This daily reader from Carmen Butcher opened up a feminine side of Christianity that resonated powerfully within me. Her translations are incredible. I feel like these mystics are writing me a letter; my name seems to be at the top of every page, and I imagine their scrawling signatures at the bottom. I love reading of the strength, the vision, and the gentle humility of these amazing, suffering, and saintly women. The binding of my copy is busted and some sections of pages have fallen out. I keep the book together with a rubber band. I know I should purchase a new copy that isn't about to crumble or lose its guts, but I love this book. I love the underlining in it, the notes I made, the way the particular sentences take me back to the feelings I had when I first read them. This is one of those books that leads you down a path of personal revelation, resolution, and revolution. I love it.

10. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: This is one of those books that would also make it onto the list of my top 10 favorite books I've ever read. Reading it while in India was amazing. It, along with White Tiger, finished up the work that the Poisonwood Bible started. The narrative made India come alive for me while I was there. It also made my world so much wider. Roy's writing is perfection. I loved rolling her sentences around in my head. I used to think that Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko was the book with the most perfect word choice, the way her sentences lined up so neatly one after another, flowing into my world and showing me another. But I think Roy finally topped Silko. 

There are so many more books that belong on this list. A few that didn't quite make the cut: A Light in August by William Faulkner; Turtle Island by Gary Snyder; The Gift of Good Earth by Wendell Berry; Bluebeard and almost everything else by Kurt Vonnegut; What We Say Goes by Noam Chomsky; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; The Collected Poems of Charles Bukowski; The Journals of Sylvia Plath; Everything by Rumi; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

I am still being shaped, chipped away at, and refined by the books I read. 
What books have made you who you are?

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