I’ve always been a voracious reader, ever since I could physically hold a book in my hands I’ve been reading nonstop. I’m not sure why, I think perhaps for the escapism of it all, but as a kid my parents had a hard time keeping me in books and our library card became my best friend. Reading throughout one’s life has benefits that I don’t think are emphasized enough. Reading helped me learn and grow, taught me about things I would never learn in school, made me oddly good at trivia contests and at the end of the day, those thousands of books have all combined to make me the person I am today. That being said, I certainly don’t remember every book I’ve read and only a small percentage of them are what I would call important in the grand scheme of things. There are a few though that weren’t just nice reads, but which have been transformative in my life. Last week a friend of mine on Facebook shared the seven books that have most impacted his life. It was an interesting exercise and that prompted me to consider what would be on my own list. So I went to my bookcase and took a look around and discovered, thankfully, that I still own most of those oh-so-important works and I decided to share them with you here. These books weren’t just nice to read, for one reason or another they changed my life in the powerful way that only a great book can do.
In NO particular order:
1. The Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
Everyone always says that On The Road is their favorite Kerouac book, but I think that’s because they haven’t read anything else by him. Sure, On The Road is a seminal piece of literature, but I think it’s only by reading all of his works that you truly get to understand not only the man, but the messages Kerouac was trying to so desperately share with the world. It’s a semi-fictional account of Kerouac’s own search for meaning in life, and how he sought a certain peace in the wilds of the American West. At one point the main character, who is in fact Kerouac, works as a fire lookout in a National Park; a lonely job, but an opportunity to gain inner strength and to probe the depths of his own personality. I read this in college, when I went through my own Beat phase. It was a hard time in my life and like Kerouac I was seeking deeper meaning, I still am actually, and this novel helped point me towards a path of looking for life’s meaning not in other people but from within myself.
2. Charlie Brown ‘Cyclopedia: Volume 10 Featuring People Around The World
As I mentioned, I especially read a lot as a kid and one of my earliest memories is of reading the complete set of Charlie Brown Encyclopedias, cover-to-cover dozens of times over. They were for kids, so more brief educational books than anything else and it was this approachable format that ultimately won me over. Some I liked more than others, foreshadowing my future interests the science books were boring, but it was the volume devoted to world culture that really got me excited. There was nothing I enjoyed more than reading about foreign countries, their people and all of their seemingly strange cultures. It seemed like a world away from my pedestrian room in Northeast Pennsylvania covered with Garfield posters. It was a world I wanted to know more about and while these books didn’t create my wanderlust, that’s always been there, it was an important early source of fanning those flames.
3. The Good News Bible
I’m not a religious person, nor was I raised in a particularly religious family. But, for whatever reason, my parents decided early on to expose us kids to the world of church and religion. Looking back, it still seems strange given their practically agnostic outlook on the world, but those boring Sunday school classes had a more important role in my life than I could have ever imagined. Again, I am most definitely not a religious person and probably rank fairly high on the agnostic scale, but I have always and will always be fascinated by religions – all of them. I love learning about them, their core texts and what their important values are. Maybe I just want to better understand the forces that move 99.9% of the world’s population, but whatever the reason I have spent a lot of time learning about world religion. But it all started in that humble Lutheran church and the moment when I first received a copy of the Good News Bible. The pastor of the church gave it to me after a successful completion of my First Communion duties. A former hippie, he was the quintessential liberal Lutheran, which now explains the somewhat touchy-feely version of the bible he gifted me. I was affected by my voracious reading of the tome not in the ways one might expect. There were no revelations, no moment when I communed with God. Instead it was the stories themselves that resonated with me, valuable life lessons that still in large part shape my actions today. In particular, the Beatitudes – eight blessings from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew – still show me the power that lies not only in good deeds, but in forgiveness. Themes that are carried on through to the Lord’s Prayer, my favorite prayer, and a simple but powerful pronouncement of everything that Christianity holds dear. If you really stop to think about it the phrase, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” may be one of the most powerful ever communicated in the whole of Western Civilization.
4. Maurice – E.M. Forster
British literature is perhaps my favorite genre and within that broad category, the works by the Bloomsbury Group – a set of writers, artists, thinkers and others in the early 20th century – are without a doubt my favorite. Leading the way, at least for me, is the novelist E.M. Forster. More famous for works like Howards End, A Passage To India, and A Room With A View, it was one of his lesser known, but controversial, works that not only spoke to me but helped me through an extraordinarily hard time in my life. Unless you’ve spent some time studying him, then you probably don’t know that Forster himself was gay. In Edwardian England though that really wasn’t a possibility if you wanted to live a happy life that didn’t involve jail time. I won’t go into his full biography, but this repression affected Forster throughout his life and except for a brief romance in India, he himself felt trapped not only by social mores, but by class and the expectations that society thrust upon him. These are all themes that occur throughout all of his books, but it was in Maurice, not published until after his death, that we get an inkling of what being gay meant to Forster and how it so severely affected his life. I read this transformative novel at a time in my life when I too was fiercely repressed, which in turn expressed itself in many self-destructive ways. I was in pain and didn’t even know it, but Forster and his novels, in particular Maurice, showed me that not only wasn’t I alone, but that if I ever wanted a chance at happiness in life then I’d better learn to accept myself for who I am and to learn how to be happy. For as much joy as Forster has given to the world, he himself was never happy, a fact that still deeply saddens me today, but using his own life lessons as an exemplar I have tried, tried very hard, to be as honest with myself as possible and to try to live a life that is open to the possibility of joy and not one that is purposefully closed off to it.
5. Travels – Michael Crichton
We all know Crichton as the genius behind the tech-thriller genre with works like The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, and of course Jurassic Park. But in 1988 he wrote a book about his life and his travels, both physical and meta-physical. Crichton’s life was a lot more interesting than I had previously thought, and learning about how he started his career (he paid for his Harvard Medical School training with the profits from The Andromeda Strain) turned out to be more important to me personally than I could have realized. Crichton always had a fascination with the world, in foreign cultures and with mystic encounters that bend and commingle the worlds of science and mysticism. Reading this at a time in my life when my own wanderlust was threatening to burst, it was an escape to areas of the planet so far flung that their distance almost defies imagination. I ached with the desire to travel alongside Crichton, to walk with tribes in ancient jungles and to experience the world as he did – with an open and curious mind. It was an early introduction to the wonders of the world and the many human cultures that grace the planet. It helped me refine my own travel desires that go beyond seeing just pretty sights, which are great, but to also learn from my travels as much as I possibly can. Crichton’s own travels around the world necessarily changed him, as travel changes all of us, but his experiences were more momentous than the average person’s. I quickly realized the reasons for this was that he wasn’t just open to that education, but actively sought it out. An important lesson for all of us I think.
6. The Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
There was a time in my life when I made a point to reread this classic work of fiction once a year, like clockwork. While that tradition dropped off long ago, it’s one that I may institute once again. Why was it so important to me? Probably for the same reasons that make it such an important work of literature. Not unlike millions of other teens, I had a fair amount of angst, although most of it was internalized. Like Holden Caulfield I felt a certain level of alienation and lack of identity. For me a lot of that came from the aforementioned repression of being gay; hiding an important part of yourself for years on end takes a toll not even our straight allies fully comprehend. Reading about Holden and his own life showed me that I wasn’t alone and while he had entirely different issues, I came to realize that we all go through periods of identity loss and ostracization. It’s how we deal with them and learn from them that is ultimately important.
7. The Stranger – Albert Camus
It may seem like there are quite a few melancholy novels on this list, but ultimately their messages aren’t about sadness but about strength, and I think the same can be said for The Stranger. Arguably Camus’ most important work, this novel explores the depths of absurdism and existentialism. Briefly, Camus believed that human life has no rational order, but civilization always tries to create a rational structure where none exists. He and Sartre would take these tenets to their logical extremes, that human life is meaningless, a thought process that I don’t actually share. But absurdism and the belief that life is itself without structure or plan did speak to me and to a point still does. One doesn’t read Camus to cheer up, and whether or not you believe his take on the universe it’s an interesting mental exercise to contemplate his philosophy. For me, Camus’ absurdism was a relief, to know that the social norms and expectations didn’t have to be necessarily followed, which I took to their logical conclusion in eschewing a traditional career and instead finding my own path. While Camus may have been mistaken, in my opinion, about certain things, on that he was right.
8. Winnie-The-Pooh – A.A. Milne
I love this collection by Milne for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that they’re just nice stories. Of course if one looks for them, one can almost always find deeper meanings in whatever books we read and the Pooh books are no exception. Stopping a moment to look at the collection of characters, they each seem to personify different aspects of our own characters. Simple and naïve, intellectual but bossy, down and depressed, emotional and thoughtful – we all have these qualities within us but hopefully have learned to balance them. That’s an important message I think in these books, balance, and it hearkens back to a lesson taught to me early on as a child “Everything in moderation.” While I’ve constantly struggled with living by this maxim, it’s a good one and although I am all too prone to being more like Eeyore than Pooh, it is this moderation of emotions and actions that is important in all of our lives. Then again, Faulkner once replied to a question about one of his books with the quip, “Sometimes a book is just a book.” And so it is.
What books have affected you the most in your life?