Miranda started this series off with her five books, and now it’s my turn.
I love lists, I love books, and I love attention. So I’m on it.
Don’t expect me to wax euphoric about how important books have been in my life. I mean, they totally have been, and I was hooked on books before I even started kindergarten. If I had one wish, it would probably be “more time to read,” although maybe not, because that didn’t work out so hot for Burgess Meredith in that “Twilight Zone” episode. Still, I miss the days when I could do nothing all day but read. Those were good goddamned times.
The point is, reading is a very personal experience. Instead of sharing how it makes me feel, I’d rather you think about how it makes you feel. And if doesn’t make you feel, you should consider doing more reading. Because it’s amazing to enter another person’s imagination and embrace their reality as your own, if only for a little while.
This is why I became a writer. The thought of creating a reality that someone else might want to enter, and enjoy, was a huge turn on for me. This was before I even knew what sex was.
Back to my list.
These are not the five best books I’ve ever read. Or even the five books I’ve enjoyed the most, although I did enjoy them all, multiple times over. A book doesn’t have to be great literature to have an impact. Truth: Moby-Dick is maybe the worst book I ever read. Sorry, Herman Melville. Greater minds than mine have dubbed your book a masterpiece, but in my junior year of high school, it tortured me for weeks. (OK, Queequeg was pretty cool, I’ll give you that.)
Here’s what did make my list of influential books. If you’re not familiar with any of them, give them a look. Let me know what you think.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. My love of historical fiction began here. And my love of the elegant language of another era. I adore the unabashed sincerity and sentimentality of this book. The story of Amy and the limes tore my heart out. Laurie’s unrequited love for Jo made me swoon. And Jo! Josephine March, the unconventional tomboy writer who became my literary soulmate when I was in the third grade and gave me hope for the future. She remains my spirit animal to this day. I’m about due to re-read this classic, and I think I’m going to do just that between now and Christmas. (If you don’t own it already, please, please try to track down an edition with illustrations by Louis Jambor. They make the story come alive.)
Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Maud Hart Lovelace. The entire Betsy-Tacy series is near and dear to my heart, but this second entry epitomizes it for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read these books about a little girl named Betsy Ray growing up in turn-of-the-20th-century Minnesota. Did I mention that Betsy is a budding writer whose imagination sometimes gets the best of her? Also, we both ended up marrying a guy named Joe, although I think that worked out better for her. I love these books, and they currently occupy a place of honor on my bookshelf. Oh, and I picked Betsy-Tacy and Tib because Tib was a little blonde German girl from Milwaukee, just like me! Growing up in the 70s, you have no idea how refreshing it was to read something about Milwaukee that didn’t reference Fonzie.
Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh. Sensing a theme here? Yep, Harriet is an aspiring reporter who carries a notebook everywhere she goes so she can take notes on the antics of those around her. Harriet inspired my own passion for notebooks. I have dozens of them, each a snapshot of its era, containing poems, song lyrics, fragments of stories and musings on my life at the moment. We are both compulsive capturers of moments, and without Harriet’s example, I probably would have thought it was a silly and worthless thing to do. I owe this book a lot.
Lizard Music, D. Manus Pinkwater. Daniel Pinkwater has written many young-adult books. This is the one that shaped my life. If you want to understand my sense of humor, read Lizard Music. I discovered this book when I was about 10, and to this day it’s one of only a handful of books that can make me laugh out loud. Everything in it is funny. Combining a young misfit named Victor, Walter Cronkite, a cab driver named Chicken Man, and an invisible island populated by intelligent lizards, I promise it will amuse, entertain, and edify you. I introduced my Precocious Daughter to this book when she was 10, and she also loved it, thus confirming my faith in genetics and good taste.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger. I read Catcher in the Rye when I was, I don’t know, 12? 14? Because I thought it was a book I should read at that age. And I enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until I read Nine Stories in high school that I became truly obsessed with Salinger. This slim volume not only exposed me to how great short stories could be, but convinced me that I myself would never master the medium. How the fuck can anyone match the greatness of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé – With Love and Squalor”? I could not, clearly. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent the ensuing decades trying to craft something – anything – to equal his prose in these stories. And failing. But that’s OK. After all, the only thing more important to a writer than a role model is an unattainable standard.
I feel as if I’m leaving so many worthy titles off this list. But these are a good start.
Share your own inspirations, please.
Read more of Chuck here.