Prompted by a friend to share 11 fiction books shaped me—as a person, a writer, a reader—I share my list. This is a fun question to consider and I’ve tried to shape this list along a variety of reading experiences, each pointing to different reasons why great fiction is so powerful and transformative. Listed in a loose chronological order, I’ve included a very brief “why”.
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
I have vivid, aching memories as a child of reading these books to myself at a very young age, and how proud I was that I could read these to myself! What I found (and still find) so compelling about these stories is that I seemed to be able to occupy a space inside the inviting world of Frog and Toad, who lived like kids, but had all the freedoms and comforts of grown-up. Read my extended post…
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I loved this book as a child, but never re-read it until I was a mother. This was the first novel I read aloud to my daughter, when she was five. White’s range of characters, humor and wit are unmatched, but it is the ending that always grabs me. Even knowing this, I did not expect to find myself sobbing as I tried to choke out Charlotte’s last chapter, my throat thick with emotion, tears streaming down my face. Such is the power of great writing.
The Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis
It’s funny to think that somewhere, tucked back in our childhood memories, we all have a moment of wanting to find our own special closet which will open up into a wondrous, magical world. I can distinctly recall practically living inside my bedroom closet for months at a time, waiting for that moment to come. This, for me, was the ultimate portal to another world, and has never been surpassed.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I haven’t re-read this book since my father read it aloud to me as a child, and to be honest, I can’t recall much of the plot. This book changed me, however, because it (and the Lord of the Rings) were the only two books my father ever to me, and he did a fantastic job. The shared space of the reading a novel out loud is a dying art form amidst our world jam-packed with HD movies, special effects, immersive games. But I prefer to be able to craft every detail myself in such a saga, it is such a powerful thing.
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
Yes, this is a bit of a jump in the list so far. I’m old enough not to have had any Young Adult fiction available as a teenager, and of all the books that blew my top during those angst-ridden teen years, this was it. Sarte’s one-act play with no breaks is brilliantly terrifying and spurred my first truly cynical view of the world. I would categorize this as my first true leap into really appreciating a concept-driven work.
Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
I read this as an early 20-something, while working a bunch of crappy waitressing jobs. This book challenged and comforted me is such a personal way. I remember walking around, mesmerized, almost on fire, feeling like a had a small Malcolm sitting on my shoulder, debating the various nuances and injustices still present in my world. His story is so inspiring and empowering, it literally electrified me.
Roots by Alex Haley
Inspired by reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was curious to read Alex Haley’s book, which his was inspired to write after his time with Malcolm. As an epic saga, Roots is both excruciating and mesmerizing, reaching back in time to bring to life Haley’s real ancestors. Mid-way through the book, after a small gesture of devastation, I myself was so devastated I sobbed for hours. Few books have had such a gripping, emotional impact on me as this one.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
This is a book to savor, to relish, to drink in. Oh, how annoyed I remember feeling at every small intrusion while reading this book. I just wanted to read, read, bathe in its quiet glory. It’s simply a gorgeous, evocative read that takes its time while lulling you into the fragile disappointments and desires of the adult world with all its failings.
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I think this is the only book I’ve ever read where I thought—they need to make a movie based on this! And how disappointed I am that they still haven’t. How much I wanted to keep these characters alive, to see their faces, their clothes, their comics. This is a fun, engrossing read, but is also thought-provoking and at the end, quite heartbreaking.
White Noise by Don Delillo
Having carved out a career for myself in digital media, this book reflects the sad, looming underpinnings of technology that shape and deaden our experience of the world. Delillo is a masterful writer and his prose commands this relatively short novel, conjuring the vision of media’s soul sucking power while grounding the story in the life of very human, ordinary man.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
I read this quite recently, and it makes a good follow up to White Noise as a critique of technology, though within a futurist setting. Anderson’s play with language in the book is fascinating and devastating. Anyone reading this now will have an all-too-familiar sense of what we are in for as 24/7 consumers living in a techno-driven culture. What I didn’t expect was the emotion power of loss that unfolds in the narrative itself, which haunts me still. Please let this not be our future!