About a year ago, I posted on Austen Authors about the book group I’d joined. Now, several months later, I’m still entranced with the group and its choice of reading materials. Not all have been to my taste, but each book has expanded my viewpoint in one way or another. For example, I don’t always go in for non-fiction, but we’ve read some very good non-fiction this year that I’ve really learned from, and been entertained by as well. Recently, one of the founders of the group (they’ve been going strong for 26 years now, with about four of the original members, and others who have been members for much of that time) sent out a list of Powell’s Bookstore’s 25 Books to Read Before You Die. I found I’d read about nine of them already, and one we’re currently reading in the group.
This got me thinking, if I were to come up with a list of the 10 most influential books in my life, what would it look like? I decided that the criteria had to be books written before 1990 because those have stood the test of time. I love many other, more recent books, but thirty or so years of distance provides you with some perspective. The other criteria was that they had to be originally written in English, which is because, if I think of all the books I’ve loved or have influenced me, I’d have to include those originally written in Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Italian, French, Swedish, and on and on, and that starts to be hard to narrow down. The books on my list also have to be fiction. This is just my criteria, you might have others.
Most of those on my list are considered classics.They have either influenced me as a writer (though I read all of them before I became a writer), they were influential in my life in other ways, or I feel they’ve made a major impact not only on the world of literature, but on the world in general.They are, in no particular order, (drum roll, please):
- Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- Moby Dick – Herman Melville
- Daniel Deronda – George Eliot
- Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
- A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
- Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
- The Lord of the Rings – J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
- The Color Purple – Alice Walker
This was a hard list to compile. Of course, Pride and Prejudice is the reigning queen of them all, but that doesn’t mean it was necessarily more influential to me than some of the others – Their Eyes Were Watching God – in particular. I really wanted to add The Catcher in the Rye, but when one is making a list of ten, one has to be strict. All of these books I’ve read more than once – some of them, (and you can guess which one in particular) many, many times. I’m one of the few people I know that’s read Moby Dick three times. This book speaks to me through its sheer poetry. A more beautifully written novel is hard to find though I know some people have difficulty getting through it. The Color Purple hit me at a very impressionable time in my life, and though I may not have revisited it many times, it’s important to me that it be on this list. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly sentimental about Huckleberry Finn, but I do think it is one of the most important American books ever written. And Daniel Deronda is there, partly because my list cannot be without George Eliot, all of whose books I’ve read and adored, but also because it speaks to issues of race that no other writer was addressing at that time. I notice now that Dickens is conspicuously missing, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love him. Great Expectations was a very pivotal book for me.
I’m sure I’ll think of others I’ve missed, but for now, my list stands. I would love to know if any of these books are on your top ten lists, and what others you’d add!