Ross Douthat’s blog features (here) what he says is a hot blogosphere trend—writing up the ten most influential books of your life. This blog is definitely devoted to hot trends, so here goes.
It’s not a contest over best books, or even favorite books. It’s more autobiographical than that, and may include books that you now believe are awful. I’ve tried, at Douthat’s suggestion, to stay roughly chronological.
Absalom, Absalom (or anything else) by William Faulkner. When I was in high school I stumbled onto Faulkner. Nobody told me to read him; I found him at the library. His detailed, convoluted, passion-strewn, obsessional world caught me like a bee in molasses. I was an introverted boy, living in a society that didn’t discuss art or literature or psychology or rock and roll or really much of anything beyond sports. (Not even girls.) I got from Faulkner that the world offered much more than the bland surfaces of high school.
Anything by C.S. Lewis. Not quite anything—I’ve never cared for his adult fiction. I started reading Lewis in college and, like so many young Christians, I found myself in the company of the smartest thinker and clearest writer I had ever encountered. He was also gracious, widely educated, and glad to find common ground with those who saw life differently. And he was an orthodox, believing Christian! His ideas still influence me, but his writing style and his generous stance do even more.
The Greening of America, by Charles Reich. I read this when The New Yorker published it in 1969. I was studying in France. My economics professor thought it was a brilliant work. I remember feeling vaguely uneasy, though I wasn’t bright or confident enough to disagree. The book seemed too easy. Consciousness I replaced by Consciousness II, and then (right in our decade!) Consciousness III, the world becoming bright and happy as effortlessly as one species evolves into another. Next year I happened to read E.B. White’s delicious send-up (also in The New Yorker, God-bless-em) The Browning-Off of Pelham Manor. I think that was the moment when I realized the whole thing was silly. Ever since I have been much quicker to trust my gut in treating stuff as ludicrous, even when it comes out of the mouth of experts and sages.
Roger Angell on baseball. While we’re on the subject of The New Yorker, it was there, not in books, that I read Roger Angell. I wish I could write as well as Angell, and I hope his prose shaped mine. But certainly the way he read a baseball game, as an artifact to be savored and analyzed as deeply as any ornate Victorian novel, made an immense intellectual impact on me. Among other things I learned that it’s not just the stuff in books and movies that is worthy of study. Life deserves our full attention, even games.
Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I clearly remember when I fell into Middle Earth. I was backpacking in the southern Sierra, up high where you see mostly rock, ice and sky. Reading every afternoon and evening in my tent, often while the rain came down hard, I found that my backpacking life and the life of Frodo were merging. Carrying my pack up the steep terrain during the day, eating meager meals by a stream at lunch, I got confused. Was I a hobbit, or a human? Almost all of the fiction I had enjoyed (and still enjoy) was realistic, most of it in the twentieth-century style full of disappointing endings and troubled, alienated humanity. Tolkien awakened my intuition and imagination. He suggested a wider world than the twentieth century suspected. Oddly, I believe he prepared me for Victorian novels.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. What can I say? I am suspicious of anyone who does not include this in his list of most influential books. Simply the greatest novel ever written, so utterly engrossing, so utterly human and so utterly hopeful. Discovering this was better than finding a million dollars by the road. I mean it.
Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch. I’ve read a lot of history, but this is by far the most fun of any. It tells the story of the early years of the Civil Rights movement, mainly revolving around Martin Luther King’s participation but with occasional diversions. I couldn’t put it down. I laughed and I cried. I learned our nation’s most heroic moral tale, which gave me hope in the possibility of change.
Hope for society is the most basic difference between liberalism and conservatism. I have a lot of conservatism in my fundamental social philosophy, but Parting the Waters and the story it tells enhanced my liberalism. Without it I might have ended up sour and skeptical about everything, a real curmudgeon.
Foolishness to the Greeks, by Lesslie Newbigin. This little book changed my understanding of the relationship between western civilization and Christianity. I thought we were fighting a rear-guard action to preserve what was left—a losing battle, as it happened. Newbigin helped me see us the western church not as a preservation society but as a mission society—and a mission society preaching to a tough tribe. That’s a very big change in mindset.
Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright. Wright made me read my gospels all over again. It induced a true paradigm shift, which had to do with seeing Jesus as a historical character, and thus as a movement leader, a thinker, a politician, a Jew. The texts began to explode in unfamiliar ways.
Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charles Dickens. Okay, I know that’s cheating. I read a few English Victorian novels in college and beyond, but I only really discovered them a decade after leaving school. They changed my life, giving me literature I never grow tired of. I can’t say that of anything written in the last one hundred years
The Aubrey-Maturin Series, by Patrick O’Brian. Except for this, that is. Twenty books that are really 20 chapters of one book, written in English narrative prose worthy of Jane Austen. They get treated with disdain because they are sea stories. Most women don’t find them interesting. (They are mostly about men and men’s activities). I won’t argue about their value, any more than I would argue about whether my wife is beautiful. I just don’t want to live life without them.