Saturday, March 27, 2010

Influential, and all that …

There has been this meme going around the Big Bloggers. Name the 10 books that most influenced you. Somewhere in the back of my mind I feel like I’ve done this before. But I can’t remember when or what I said. So what the hay, I’ll do it again.

I should say that, as I looked at this list, I wondered why none of the great philosophers that I read when I was in school made the list. I’m sure they influenced my thinking as a whole. I’m sure that there were many other books that influenced me. But I’m limiting my list to books that influenced me in the sense that I can trace a change in the way I thought or behaved from the time that I read that book.

Remember, these are books that influenced me, not my favorite books.

  1. Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelman. “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived 12 little girls in two straight lines they left the house at half past nine in rain or shine the smallest one was Madeleine …” This was the book that made me want to learn to read by myself so I could stop bugging other people to read it to me. And learning to read was the most important thing that ever happened to me. (It also began my lifelong fascination with boarding school literature.)
  2. The Witch Tree Symbol by Carolyn Keene. When I was about seven years old, one of our baby sitters who was going away to college gave my sister and I all of her old Nancy Drew books. They were too old for us and they sat on the steps going down to our basement for a very long time until I was about eight years old when, bored, I picked up one to read. It was The Witch Tree Symbol and, rightly or wrongly, I remember it as the first “chapter book” I ever read. I remember that reading it was a stretch for me at first, I didn’t understand all the vocabulary, but it was worth the effort. Over the rest of my childhood and young adulthood I read all the Nancy Drew books and discovered that girls could be smart and pretty and adventurous, all at the same time.
  3. The Torah. Not the bible, although surely that influenced me. My dad had a leather copy of a book that was The Torah which was, as far as I could tell, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. But written in slightly (or very) different language from what I heard in church. I don’t remember why I picked it up and read it but I read it from cover to cover. I’ve never thought of bible “stories” the same since then. There was nothing very spiritual in that book, all the adultery, and murder, and incest and other human frailties were there. It seemed much more real to me than the cleaned up versions I usually heard. And it made me realize that editing is everything. Even in religion.
  4. The Making of the President, 1960, by Theodore White. This was my dad’s book. (I should see if he still has it or if it was given away when they moved). It sat on the “adult” bookshelf at home and I picked it up when I was in eighth grade when no one was around and I was bored. I can’t say that I never looked at a presidential election the same way again – I hadn’t lived through that many presidential elections. But it did change the way I looked at them; it fascinated me. I can’t say that it is what made me political, but it is what made me understand that politics isn’t just personal on the local level (I knew that from personal experience) but even on the presidential level. It also was a book that made me want to read non-fiction for pleasure, not just as assigned schoolwork.
  5. Cows Pigs Wars & Witches: The Symbols of Culture by Marvin Harris. This was assigned reading in a Political Anthropology class that I took the last semester in college. The class fit into my schedule and the hours counted toward what I needed to graduate. It ended up being one of the best classes I’ve ever taken and I still have this book. When a group of people are doing something that looks, to you, like insanity it is more than likely not insane. It probably means that there is something about them and their culture you don’t understand.
  6. Robert Kennedy and his Times, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I didn’t read this when it first came out, I was a freshman in college and I had too much else to read. But I read it a few years later. I was old enough to remember Bobby Kennedy’s run for president and his murder. But like many of my generation I tried not to think about it. As one of my work colleagues who is almost exactly my age explained to someone younger than us last year, when we were growing up the idea of assassination was “normal”. The idea that riots could break out anyplace, anytime, was “normal”. And when that “normalness” gave way to a different, more calm, kind of normalness it was tempting to forget those earlier times. This book made it possible to look back at a time from my childhood through the eyes of an adult. It made me see the good, but it made me hope never to live through that kind of time again.
  7. What’s Bred in the Bone by Robertson Davies. This is an odd one. It isn’t even close to being my favorite novel by Robertson Davies but it is the first of his novels that I read. And it made me realize that I knew nothing of art and that I was even a little afraid of art. My fear sprang from an elementary school art teacher who belittled those of us who had no talent for creating art. Over the years I had convinced myself that I just didn’t like art. But when I read this novel I realized that wasn’t true. I liked to look at art but I was afraid of expressing any opinion about it. So I signed up for an art appreciation class at the museum and I never looked back. Now I wouldn’t give up looking and learning about art for anything.
  8. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. I picked this book up at The Missouri Historical Society when I was doing some research into French colonization of the Upper Mississippi. White’s examination of the relationship between the Native Americans living around Lake Michigan and the French Voyageurs they encountered during this time period made me look at all of American History differently and pushed me into reading source materials from that time with a different eye.
  9. The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems, by CS Lewis. It didn’t answer any questions for me but it profoundly affected my idea of the meaning of the word “love”.
  10. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde. I read this book within the last couple of years and I blogged extensively about it when I read it so I won’t go into it here. But since I read it I’ve thought about it regularly in many contexts and it is giving me a new perspective on the concept of satisfaction with a life’s work.