Not too long ago on Facebook, there was a meme making the rounds of 10 books that made an impression; basically an excuse to list one’s favorite books. I’m a sucker for lists and list-making. No one asked me to make a list, so I figured I’d do one for the blog, with explanations. I’m following the guide of books that made an impression, rather than my ten favorite books (which would be hard to figure out). I’m putting them in the approximate order that I read them.
Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley
Perhaps the first book I read by an African American, and considering I was a freshman in college when I read it, that is very sad. Given to me by my sister, a beat up paperback held together with a rubber band. I remember being struck by many moments in the book, first of which was young Malcolm being told by a teacher that he couldn’t be a lawyer when he grew up, instead he should plan on something more realistic. Another moment was his descriptions of getting a “conk,” a lye treatment to straighten his hair. It opened my eyes to a cultural experience that I had never imagined (and later learned even more about when I saw Chris Rock’s Good Hair). I hope to have a lot more to say about Malcolm X soon as I’d like to read the recent biography by Manning Marable.
A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking)
I’ve talked about this book previously and how it changed my views on the universe. Until I read it, I felt comfortable in my insulated worldview of a young universe created approximately 10,000 years ago. It shook everything up.
Rose (Li-Young Lee)
This collection of poems, Lee’s first, is important to me personally for two reasons. I can’t remember reading a contemporary poet’s collection before this one. I was drawn in by the poems about memory and inheritance. It’s a lovely collection. But even more importantly, it was the first gift I gave to my future wife (that and a mix CD—ha! remember those?)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
Searing Vietnam stories that show the power of storytelling in the aftermath of trauma. That doesn’t make it sound nearly as good as it actually is. Memory shifts, unbalancing the reader. And the stories accumulate and adhere and echo, and the fiction all becomes more true.
The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)
Layers of fiction where a novel within a novel is more true than the story the narrator of the main novel tells. I’m not sure if I still go for that kind of book, but at the time I read it, I was fascinated by the slipperiness of truth, and how we tell ourselves stories (even bold fictions) to make sense of our lives.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Kathleen Norris)
This book came at an important time in my life. I had recently moved to North Dakota as a grad student and didn’t know anybody there. I was looking for a different church experience and found comfort in the Episcopal service. I also found Norris, first The Cloister Walk and then Amazing Grace. She talked about Christian community that was rooted in history, tradition, and literature. Her books, too, were comforting.
So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell)
When I first read So Long, See You Tomorrow, I didn’t imagine Maxwell would become my favorite author. I read it too quickly for a class assignment. But I read it again on my own, and then his other novels and stories. I don’t think I’ve come across a writer with so much empathy and compassion for other people. And he writes such beautiful sentences.
Virtually Normal (Andrew Sullivan)
This book (along with What God Has Joined Together by David Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni) made me rethink gay marriage. I realized that disallowing gays and lesbians from traditions and social institutions and then condemning them for not conforming to traditions and social institutions makes no sense. And I’m not the only one. Public opinion on gay marriage has changed quite a bit since he wrote the book in the mid-90s.
My Antonia (Willa Cather)
This is a beautiful coming of age story set on the American prairie, tinged with sadness. The title character is only seen at a distance, through the eyes of the narrator Jim Burden. It’s a story told in episodes, much the way our memory works. I supposedly read it in high school, but I had trouble reading for class back then. I read a lot on my own, but I didn’t like being told to read a book. I rediscovered the book shortly before moving to South Dakota. I wanted to read a novel of the prairie, and I ended up falling in love with Cather’s books.
My Name Is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)
It was hard to choose which Potok book for this list. I’ve only read three of his so far, but I’ve loved each of them (and I just started a fourth). This was the first one I read, and our oldest son’s middle name is Asher. What I love about Potok is that he takes religious belief seriously in his characters. Though his characters live in the world of Hasidim and Orthodox Judaism I can see the similarities and parallels in the fundamentalism I grew up in. Purity and piety are prized above all else. There is no room for art because it is dangerous. Asher Lev wrestles with the twin pulls of God and artistic expression in this beautiful novel. Perhaps I’ll manage to have something worthwhile to say about the current book I’m reading in the near future. I hope not to take so long between posts in the future.