So, there was yet another Facebook “game” going around where the person tagged was to list ten books that had made them who they were today. At first I thought nothing of it, but the idea nagged at me. This was not “My Ten Favorite Books” or “Ten Books that Influenced Me” or “Ten Books I Would Take With Me on a Trip to Mars”, but ten books that contributed to making me the person I am today.
I certainly have lots of books – scads of them, reams and reams of them – that I love or that have influenced me, that are very near and dear to my heart and I want to shout their praises from the mountaintops, but have they contributed to the person I am today? Well, yes in that they gave me pleasure or insight or heartache, that they made me feel or think or even act, but I wanted to look deeper, to those books that, had I not had them in my life at that point in time, could very well have changed the course of my life as to render me unrecognizable to the self I am now.
I came to recognize that this did not mean that the books on the list did not need to still hold sway over me; I did not need to agree with them anymore or feel loyal to them (although I do, actually, to many of them). Heck, some of them I may never feel the need to read again. Their plotlines or subject matter may have faded within my memory – or every word could still be familiar and welcome. But each of them held up to the inquiry: did they contribute towards making me who I am today?
Surprising, this was both an easy and an incredibly difficult task, but I think after days of consideration, reflection, addition and rejection, I came up with a pretty comprehensive list of Ten Books that Made Me Who I Am. Of course, it being me, I couldn’t just list them. I had to add a brief synopsis of why these particular books influenced me. My apologies if it seems I failed in the “brief” aspect of that task.
I also found it interesting in that, although my mother was the most influential person in fostering my love of reading (which is a big part, a huge part of who I am), the books I associate with influence most often touched on my father. Someday I’ll have to spend a lazy afternoon on my porch, sipping something cool and refreshing, and think on this a bit further.
But without belaboring the point any further, here is my list of Ten Books that Made Me Who I Am, in somewhat chronological order.
The Bible – various authors, various versions
My father was a United Methodist minister; my mother, a quintessential minister’s wife. They did not merely perform those roles, they genuinely lived them – part and parcel of who they were. We kids were raised with a New Testament mentality – love thy neighbor as thyself, cast no stones, and above all, if you do this unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto Me. The Bible was the blueprint of my parents’ lives and for many, many years, my own life (I read it often, and knew it well) but I was not discouraged from following my own heart and mind in different directions if compelled to do so, which eventually I was (always, always, cradled in the faith of my parents that no matter where I went or what I did, I would be a beloved child of God). How could this book, even though I have since moved away from it, not have had a huge influence on the person I am today?
Hymnal of the United Methodist Church – various
While the Bible held many of the stories of my childhood, the hymnal held its poetry. Sure, I had Mother Goose and Ogden Nash and Dr. Seuss, and other songs were embedded in my childhood, but the hymns – they were the lilt and the joy and the conviction of our religious household. Even today I can easily recall “I Went to the Garden Alone” or “The Old Rugged Cross”, or my father’s favorite, “How Great Thou Art”. And the Christmas hymns! While I don’t question the decision to raise my children outside of an established church, I am saddened that they missed out on experiencing those hymns as more than quaint carols of the season, but as a communal celebration of all that is blessed and holy.
Why the Bells Chimed – Raymond MacDonald Alden
It was a tradition with my father that at Christmas Eve services he would forgo the usual sermon and instead share a story that embodied the season. For many years, the story he read from the pulpit was Why the Bells Chimed, a short fable where the sacrifice of a poor boy named Pedro allowed for a Christmas Eve miracle. I was raised understanding that putting others before yourself, quietly and without fanfare, was the true path of righteousness – something I still believe. Raymond MacDonald Alden’s precious tale brings this sentiment to life, and to this day I can hear the love in my father’s voice as he shared it with his congregation in the hush of the holiest night of the year.
Field Guide to Birds of North America – Roger Tory Peterson
My father was a devoted man of God, but the 70 and 80 hour weeks dedicated to his congregation were draining, so each summer he would take an entire month off and we would pile into our Volkswagen van and drive cross country – one year East, the next year West – camping, hiking, mountain climbing, and getting back in touch with nature. My father, who we could go for days without seeing outside of the church or his study (except he always made time to sit down and eat dinner with us), would suddenly have time to make pancakes the size of a cast iron skillet over the open fire, or sit and count hummingbirds enticed to the feeder of red-colored sugar water hung from our tent flap. He loved to watch and identify birds, and often when I was even a wee bitty thing, he would get me up at the crack of dawn and we would traipse over meadow and vale, listening for bird call, referencing our well worn Field Guide to identify as many birds as we could. Those quiet mornings, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world and in the precious company of my father, are some of my most cherished memories.
Oliver Twist– Charles Dickens
When I was in third grade, I discovered “Oliver Twist” – it completely gutted me. Maybe it was because Oliver and I were somewhat the same age, but I was utterly taken with the different experiences Oliver had with friendship and assumed friendship, and all the different takes on family, all so different from my own. Then one day in the library I found a treasure: a copy of the soundtrack for the musical “Oliver!”. I listened to it obsessively, memorizing all the lyrics. But that wasn’t enough – although I had a penchant for shyness, I devised a short version of the book incorporating some of the songs from the musical and recruited neighborhood friends to put on a weekend of performances in my back yard. At the final performance, the other kids gave me six red roses which took me totally by surprise; their gesture touched me greatly. For the first time, I glimpsed the potential that could be unleashed by following your heart.
The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
In sixth grade, we had moved to a small, hardscrabble town built where multiple rail lines converged. I struggled with being bullied, trying to pass unnoticed at a tough school where being different meant being a target. But I adored my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Gieselman. Every day he would take time to read out loud to us, something I realized was a novelty for many of my classmates (which really put the bullying into perspective). Mr. Gieselman could entrance the entire room with his readings, and none more so than when he read The Hobbit. I had never encountered epic fantasy like this, and I was utterly taken its scope and amazing adventures. When Mr. Gieselman suggested that I continue reading The Lord of the Rings on my own, I knew I had been given the keys to a kingdom that would harbor me for the rest of my life.
Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
In high school, I discovered a different type of sweeping epic. Scarlett O’Hara was everything I was not: pretty, charming, popular, but also vain, selfish, conniving. I didn’t like her, but I did admire that she refused to be defeated even if it meant simply not accepting something that stood in her way. But Gone With the Wind also made me realize that facts and dates on a timeline are only part of what make up a history, that it is also shaped by everyday folks pressed into extraordinary times. Scarlett O’Hara may have been a fictional character, but the South that came to life in Margaret Mitchell’s masterpiece was not. It made me realize that you have to go beyond the litany of dates and locations to understand history, and involve yourself in the living, breathing stories of the people who lived during those times – whether you be considering the history of a country, of a world, or of a single life.
The Riverside Shakespeare – William Shakespeare
What can I say? I grew up with the Bard. I read his plays all through school, I attended civic and community performances, even was involved with a few. Shakespeare has always been the epitome of literary joy for me. But his words also brought me my first plane ride, my first transatlantic travel (flying to England to study Shakespeare in college) – and my husband (we met at the Wisconsin Shakespeare Festival, where he was the lighting designer/pre-show juggler and I was visiting a friend in the performing company). His words have permeated my life, his stories have populated my imagination, and his impact has shaped my world. The Riverside Shakespeare that still holds a place of honor in my house was a gift from my parents – an extravagance they could ill afford, and yet one that has lasted in my home, and my heart, for decades since.
Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History – Stephen Jay Gould
When my son was young, he was really into dinosaurs. So, as many a dutiful parent have done before me, I learned all I could about dinosaurs to share in his enthusiasm. This led me to my own reading on evolutionary theory and biodiversity, a study I took to heart for many years. But it was upon reading Stephen Jay Gould’s stunning book on the evolution of Cambrian organisms that I came to realize just how miraculous it is that our world as we know it exists. Gould believed that chance was a decisive factor in determining which species would evolve and which would die out, not merely the ability to adapt. Yet rather than likening our existence to a crapshoot, this amazing paleontologist saw it as a celebration of who we are as a species, and urged the reader to embrace the miracle of all existence. From him, I learned that from the smallest of circumstances can come literal explosions of change – and just how exciting and captivating that possibility can be, for our world and for ourselves.
Kushiel’s Dart – Jacqueline Carey
By the time you become a mature adult, you realize that sexuality is an important part of who you are. By this point in our lives, most of us have rejected that sexuality is shameful, and we’re tired of it being treated with a snickering immaturity, but we’re also tired of being manipulated into thinking that sexuality needs must be heightened, hyped and sensationalized – yet that seems to be the overriding view of sexuality given to a reader of popular literature. Thank heavens for Jacqueline Carey! Sexuality (even deviant sexuality) and sensuality is a big part of her epic fantasy novels set in Terre d’Ange (the Kushiel Legacy series and the Naamah Trilogy), but it is not overdone; it becomes part of her world, not an abhorrent aspect of her world. At a time in my life when I desperately needed to be comfortable with who I was, Jacqueline Carey affirmed that not only was this possible, but it could also be beautiful.
So there you have it – the ten books that made me who I am today. Now the question is: what are YOUR ten books?