Saturday, September 15, 2012

Books That Changed Me.

Through the maze of the Interwebs, I stumbled upon this sweet video yesterday of bookstore employees and patrons listing the books that changed their lives, and it made me start to think about my own. It's hard to distinguish between just 'favorite books' and 'books that changed your life.' They can often be the same thing, but they just as often can differ. For instance, I frequently name To Kill a Mockingbird as my favorite book, even though naming a single favorite of anything is so hard, but I didn't include it in this list.

I view 'life changing' as meaning: 1) changing or enriching my previous viewpoints on a subject; or 2) influencing my life in a lasting way. Accordingly, while I'm mainly a fiction reader, a lot of these turned out to be non-fiction. In any case, here's my list of 10 that I came up with over the last 24 hours, that I will inevitably want to shift and add on to as soon as I press publish.

1. Matilda, Roald Dahl

In everything I've read about literacy research, the first book(s) you fall in love with influence the rest of your reading career. Basically, you might not ever even having a reading career if you don't find that "home-run book," the book that makes you fall in love with reading. For a lot of non-readers, the issue often isn't a matter of ignorance, it's simply a matter of having never found that book. Anyway, literacy rants! Roald Dahl was what made me fall in love with reading, and although I devoured almost all of his books, I paged through Matilda the most times as a small person. As an adult, I hardly ever re-read anything due to all my Reading Stress of all the books I have yet to read. Whenever I hear about people re-reading things, I always think to myself, "But, there just isn't TIME!" But as an elementary schooler, I don't know how many times I re-read Matilda. A tale about a girl who, after devouring every book in the library, can do magical things through the power of her mind alone, while rising above the idiotic adults in her world? Sounds like the perfect story to me!

Tied with Matilda is The BFG, which was always my favorite Dahl book in terms of pure imagination and fun.

2. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

I read this book of my own volition in high school for whatever nerdy reason, and it remains one of the most amazing reading experiences of my life. It was one of the first significant works of non-fiction I'd read on my own, and all the knowledge and urgent pleading within it fueled an environmental fervor in me that was really strong throughout high school, and which has continued in less stringent but still consistently present ways throughout my life, to the point where environmental studies was a serious consideration in both undergrad and grad school thoughts. Ha, funny me, thinking I could do science! Regardless of the personal influence activism-wise, I couldn't get over how well written and power packed the whole thing was: every page so eloquently said, so passionate, without tipping into sentimentality, and with so much solid fact backing up every single statement. I still have a hard time believing that anyone could read this and dispute anything Carson said within it, and I think very few people have. It is a masterful, near perfect work of non-fiction. Beyond that, or perhaps in direct consequence of that, this book, more than almost any other book, shows that Books Matter: the issue the whole book deals with is the effect of pesticides, DDT specifically, on ecological systems. Silent Spring can be cited as a direct influence for the nationwide banning of DDT shortly after its publication. Indeed, this book is often credited as kick-starting the entire environmental movement that swept the country in the 1970s. Not bad for one book.

3. High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver

Take everything I just said about being blown away by the power of eloquence in non-fiction, and apply it on a more personal level here. I always loved Barbara Kingsolver's books, and read many of her fiction ones, but for some reason her essays impacted me the most, with this older collection being particularly fantastic. While most of the pieces included slant political--her protest against the first Gulf War in Jabberwocky being one of the most famous, which I've written about in here before--there's so much of her personal life wrapped up in all of it. She intertwines facts with her own personal experience to make her point, and in the end this is what I feel closest to in my own writing. Whenever I finished a Kingsolver book in high school, I was always left with the feeling as soon as I reached the last page of wanting to jump from my bed and start writing myself. Commenting on the wider world by telling your own stories: it's what creates empathy between all of us. What always impressed me too was Kingsolver's ability to be researched, to be impassioned, but most of all be unapologetic. Her strength and conviction was moving.

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, &
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Yes, I'm lumping some books together, even if they are very different books, because they give me similar feelings. Both of these novels influenced me in the way of The Word As Art, in the way that I didn't know what the hell was going on half the time in either novel (although I don't know if Invisible Cities can really be considered a novel, but rather a series of vignettes), but I didn't care, because it sounded so pretty and wonderful either way! And as those pretty words twist around our brains, they take us to gloriously strange places we never knew existed. "Magical realism," they call it, which is a pretty good phrase. Nothing can quite describe the feeling a good string of words put together in a certain way can create, other than magic.

5. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Nellie Y. McKay

OK, so I don't know if including a Norton Anthology on here seems super douche-y or not, but oh well. As a lit/writing major in college, I took a whole lot of literature classes, but African American Lit was without a doubt the best one. "American" Lit, British Lit, all the others, they reviewed names and texts I had at least heard of before, but as I read pieces from this anthology throughout that semester, from slave narratives to Toni Morrison, I couldn't believe how many of these remarkable works I hadn't just not read before, but that had never been mentioned in any English or History classes in my high school. Basically, this class made me realize how white-washed our entire history and culture is, and maybe that sounds like a naive realization now, but it felt huge at the time. I'm still a firm believer that this is one of the most important books I will ever own, and will forever be an advocate of African American Literature being a REQUIREMENT at all high schools, let alone colleges. It's pretty gross that it's not.

6. Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, &
The Power of Reading, Stephen D. Krashen

In terms of my education/literacy advocate life, these two books remain the most powerful and important ones I've read. Kozol has written many books in his lifetime, but Savage Inequalities remains the classic, still touted by educational activists around the country. It is impossible to read anything Kozol writes and not be outraged. No, I take that back; you may be able to read Savage Inequalities and not be outraged, but if so, I don't want to know you. Seriously. I keep telling myself that I need to catch up on Kozol's other works, so I can be reminded of how important it is that we all give a shit about our schools and the society that inevitably reflects the injustices born in them. Less social activism, more research, The Power of Reading is undoubtedly a drier read but gives solid evidence for--uh, er, the power of reading--at every turn, and also disputes the effectiveness of the way a lot of English classrooms address reading. (Guess what, forcing kids to read shit they don't want to read doesn't work!) It seems sad that we would even have to defend the importance of reading in education, ever, but this volume is an essential for every librarian and teacher to have whenever someone challenges them to bring up research to back the sentiment. Because this book shows that the research is there.

7. Maus, Art Spiegelman, &
The Arrival, Shaun Tan

It seems cliche to even mention Maus, because how many essays have been written about how much Maus changed everything? A ton of them, that's how many. But I wanted to include graphic novels in here somehow, and being that Maus pretty much began the graphic novel genre as we know it, and as it was the first I ever read, it had to be included. Similarly but differently, Shaun Tan's The Arrival taught me the power of wordless stories. I've read a few wordless picture books, which are also always surprisingly effective, but The Arrival, while certainly far from being a gigantic tome or anything, took the artform to a different height and depth. The story of an immigrant and his family, it says more about the experience of being thrown into a new world in a shockingly powerful and moving way, while containing hardly a single word of text. Amazing.

 8. The Pigman, Paul Zindel, &
A Solitary Blue, Cynthia Voigt, &
The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier

All right, all right, I know I'm pushing it by including THREE in one here. It's a little out of hand, but, I can do what I want. My bestest friend and fellow book fiend Sam chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower in response to the "What book changed your life?" question, saying that it was both happy and sad; it taught her it was okay to be sad at a time in her life when she was quite sad, i.e., high school. Being as I also loved this book, and my entire teenagedom was also a big angst fest, I wondered why it didn't come to my own mind first. I started thinking about what books kept me in the best company when I was at my loneliest, and while I read Perks and Catcher in the Rye and On the Road like the rest of us lonely teenaged freaks, these three books, all written in the 70s and 80s, occupy the top spots in my heart forever and I couldn't leave any of them out. The Chocolate War is shockingly violent and angry, feelings every teenager knows well. In A Solitary Blue (I also devoured every other Cynthia Voigt book), the loner main character relates to blue herons because they're always alone. (Talk about the angst!) The Pigman, then, deviates a little from the other two because it's not about a single angry or lonely person, but two people--and an old man--being lonely together. And there was something about that sentiment that appealed to me most of all.

9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

While the previous three books definitely qualify as young adult (some of the first "young adult" novels in the modern "young adult" movement, in fact), I realized that I should include a contemporary young adult novel as contemporary young adult is purportedly "my thing," and it would seem strange if I didn't include one on this list. As this remains my favorite contemporary young adult novel, this one it is. I wrote a whole blog post about it once so I don't need to prattle on even longer about it, but listen, it is good. Sherman Alexie is wonderful, and important.

10. The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

Duh. Was there any doubt? And you know why? Because that feeling my number one choice on this list, those Roald Dahl books, gave me when I was a kid? Of being able to fall completely into another world through reading? These books reminded me that I could still feel that, at any age, and that that feeling is more magical than can be described. And that, my friends, is absolutely priceless, and the most important reading lesson that can be taught.

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