Recently, a couple of my lovely fellow English majors challenged me to post a list of the top ten books that have influenced me. They’re calling it the Book Challenge or something on Facebook. Well, I compiled the list, and I posted it, and as I wrote each title into that little status bar, I realized this list was incomplete without exploration and discussion. What good is sharing the title of a book if I don’t describe why it made the list? Plus, ten is clearly an inadequate number. I’ll add a few in an “Honorable Mention” section, just for the books that didn’t immediately come to mind. Here we go!
Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown
My first excursion into Rushdie did not, as one might expect, include Midnight’s Children or his Satanic Verses. Instead, on the suggestion of a friend, I delved into this fascinating novel that leaps from contemporary California to Kashmir in the 1960s to World War II and back again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so incredibly shattered by an author’s ability to portray loss, heartbreak, violence, and the many other themes that contribute to the agonizing tale of Shalimar. Rushdie’s sheer delight in language shines in this richly textured novel; on more than one occasion, I wanted nothing more than to tear my eyes away from the pages so I could escape the suffering within them, but Rushdie’s language captivates. It’s luxurious. And so Shalimar the Clown made me fall in love with language all over again.
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
My first attempt to read this Faulkner great (or at least the Benji section; I didn’t even reach the Quentin section before starting over) was miserable and painful. My second attempt ended in awe and admiration. See the previous post for the most profound reasons for this book’s impact on me; but beyond that, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness delighted me with its simple brilliance. I will always love Virginia Woolf above others, but Faulkner’s style is equally—and, in some ways, more so—impressive, especially in his ability to convey the impressionistic mind of developmentally-delayed Benji. Faulkner showed me that language can do far, far more than simply tell; it can show.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
I don’t even know where to begin with this one; it remains one of my absolute favorites after several years. Egan is a beautiful writer with an impressionistic, transcendental style, in that she lifts you out of her story’s disjointed timeline only to drop you back into a new place, time, and life. Plus, I’ve never seen anyone write music as well as Egan—and by that, I mean she writes about its relationship to life and soul with startling dexterity. When I had the pleasure of studying Goon Squad in a class last semester, I came to the rather pompous conclusion that music is “the great unifier of humanity.” By this, I meant that music—as Egan tells it, at least—provides a common theme to life and its meaning: constant change. Goon Squad made me realize that we aren’t supposed to pinpoint the essence of life, as it were. We’re simply supposed to accept constant change and live. Hell of a message, isn’t it?
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first literary works I tackled on my own. In retrospect, that was a poor choice, but it has given me the added benefit of discovering new heights of meaning every time I read it—if only because I read it so poorly the first time. Woolf introduced me to stream of consciousness, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Encountering that mode of writing has made me more aware of my own processes of consciousness. Beyond that, though, Mrs. Dalloway is just a beautiful book. Woolf’s delight in language is even more powerful than Rushdie’s, considering the quotidian nature of her subjects; her ability to reveal so much significance in the everyday is powerful and inspiring.
Margaret Atwood, the Maddadam Trilogy
Atwood’s trilogy combines hilarity, pain, destruction, loss, and survival into one wild, shockingly realistic dystopian tale. I won’t go into specifics here. I can say, though, that this trilogy left me with the most profound feeling of despair for the future of the human race. If that isn’t impact, I don’t know what is.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
This book has the longest-lasting impact of any on this list: it inspired a six year old to tackle a proper book on her own for the first time, triggering a lifetime of literary passion. I never tire of returning to this book; it’s like an old friend, and I know I’ll continue to adore it for years to come. I will shamelessly maintain that I probably received much of my moral education from Harry Potter, and it started here.
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Thanks to Rushdie and Roy, I gained a powerful introduction to South Asian literature, which has become a major area of fascination in my studies and personal reading. Roy has an incredible ability to write from children’s perspectives, and the gravity of the story she tells is only heightened by her young characters’ perspectives. With all the confusion and suffering in this small, beautiful, painful novel, Roy still managed to leave me feeling optimistic with the promise of “tomorrow.”
Pablo Neruda, Collected Poems
Neruda’s one of the sexiest poets around. Also: odes to random things like artichokes. He’s brilliant and quirky and passionate, and he showed me that poetry defies restrictions. His poem “Horses” remains one of my favorites.
T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”
The beginning of my masochistic descent into Modernism. It takes an excruciating amount of effort for me to analyze Eliot (this one’s more straightforward, actually), but it’s so satisfying and thrilling to do so. Such brilliant language—I mean, I consider this brief moment one of the most powerfully affecting lines I’ve ever read: “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” Fantastic. “Rhapsody” began my love affair with Modernist literature.
James Joyce, Ulysses
Oh, Ulysses. I’ve never viewed a book with the same mixture of adoration, fear, and loathing; but I can’t deny that I overwhelmingly feel a great deal of affection for Joyce’s masterpiece. Of all the books I’ve studied during my undergraduate career, this novel has demanded the most intellectual effort. After Ulysses, I think—dare I say it?—that I have learned to read intelligently and discerningly. Also, I can’t deny that I absolutely revel in the madness of “Circe.” Oh, Leopold Bloom. Yes I said yes I will yes.
There are many more works that have left me with profound impact: Love in the Time of Cholera, 1984, any number of Emerson essays, the Communist Manifesto (only joking, honest), A Farewell to Arms (possibly the only book I’ve ever flung across the room while sobbing my heart out at 4 a.m.). To detail each one would take more time than I have, considering I’m preparing to publish this at 2 a.m.; perhaps another descriptive list waits in the future. For now, though, I’ve given you the first ten that came to mind in the moment. Cheers!