Friday, September 12, 2014

10 Books That Affected Me

Roger did this list over on his blog, and it got me thinking about which 10 books I'd put on my own list. So let's see what I can come up with. 10 books that aren't necessarily my favorites, but that really affected me in my life.

(I'd love to put these in biographical order, but these are just as they come to me.)

Charlotte's Web by EB White. I have to pick this one; it's the first novel I ever read on my own, the summer before I started first grade. I was always in advanced reading groups as a kid, until I got to high school and lost my confidence. Two things really worked against me: first, I failed the mandatory freshman speech class because, after years of being bullied and ridiculed, I had developed terrible stage fright and a fear of public speaking, so rather than have everyone staring at me I just didn't do any of the work and flunked; second, I ended up with a terrible case of bronchitis between the first and second semesters of my freshman year, which negatively affected my English 101 grade. After those incidents, they put me in the slow lane, so I excelled in English classes that didn't really challenge me. Read some good books and had one great teacher, but I guess I've always wondered a little if I was really that good of a writer, or if I just did really well in classes that didn't demand much. All because of bullying and illness. But I always remember that I was one of the most advanced readers in my grade school. And I always remember that I unconsciously learned that being fat and sensitive completely negates your humanity in the eyes of others. Yay, school!

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. A collection of essays about skepticism, critical thinking, and the scientific method. It's designed for laypeople and very, very accessible. I read this just as I was starting college, and it really changed the way I thought about a lot of things in life. This one not only affected me, it altered me.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. I read this science fiction novel when I was probably a little too young to fully understand it. When I was 6 or 7, Piper's Fuzzy books were re-released with these beautiful Michael Whelan covers, and bits of them were even condensed into storybooks (I remember being struck with them at Toys 'R' Us). The novel's a bit heady for a 7 year-old, though, as it involves a court case to determine the sapience of primitive/developing creatures on an alien planet. But it was the first time I really thought deeply about intelligence and exploitation, and taught me to be empathetic.

Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects by Thomas G. Smith. As I've said a lot, when I was a kid I wanted to work in puppets, animation, or special effects. So I used to get a lot of big, oversized books from the library and read them over and over again to see how such things were done. This was a favorite of mine; I read it a few times and would just marvel at how practical special effects were done. Just thinking of this book takes me back to winter afternoons alone, bundled up and caught up in the magic of special effects and eating peanut butter sandwiches. I don't even eat peanut butter sandwiches anymore, but they used to be my favorite food, and I ate a lot of them while sitting and reading this book.

(I also want to mention, not as part of the list, a number of other books that I similarly experienced and ate up, often while eating peanut butter sandwiches: Don Shay's The Making of Jurassic Park, Charles Champlin's George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, Gene Roddenberry & Susan Sackett's The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, and a trio of books by Christopher Finch: The Art of Walt Disney, Jim Henson: The Works, and Of Muppets and Men: The Making of The Muppet Show. To say nothing of many, many issues of Starlog and Cinefex...)

Watership Down by Richard Adams. This was the biggest book I'd ever read when I was a grade-schooler. I really wanted to read it because they had shown the animated movie on television and I immediately fell in love with that. I guess I always liked things that seemed dark, intense, weird and emotional. I need to read this again; I read it once in grade school, again in high school, and never since. Some people had The Lord of the Rings, but this was mine. I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until I was 24.

Travels by Michael Crichton. After Jurassic Park came out, I read a LOT of Michael Crichton's books, but this is the one that really stuck with me forever. It's an autobiographical book; Crichton doesn't tell the story of his life, but gives us a series of episodes and tells us what he's learned in his travels. I liked it a lot because I have problems with anger and impatience, and in every story, Crichton details how his own problems with anger and impatience nearly ruined trips or kept him from enjoying experiences, and ultimately how his experiences have taught him to have patience, both with life and with himself. I still have difficulties with that--and Crichton stressed that he had those same problems over and over again--but it's nice to keep in mind that, yes, patience can pay off, being polite works better than being angry, and holding everyone to the standards of your own experiences is shortsighted.

Alright, this is where I cheat. Three art books that I used to get from the library all the time and which not only fueled my art as a kid, but my fantasy worlds and even the way I relate to nature: Gnomes by Will Huygen and Rien Poortvilet, Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, and The Dinosaurs by William Stout. I count these as one because they're so linked in my mind. To this day, I still don't have a copy of Gnomes. I'll have to look into that.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. This is probably my favorite novel. I think what it comes down to for me is that it's a story about how the circumstances of your upbringing don't have to make you a victim.

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I know this is about a young girl going through puberty, but it really affected me for a long time. Girls used to make fun of me for even having read it. The thing is, like a lot of kids my age, I had really liked Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge. So for Christmas or my birthday or something, someone gave me a boxed set that had those two books, plus Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, which was about one of the same characters. All those books took place in the same fictional world. But it also included Margaret, an unrelated fourth book which was aimed at slightly older readers. So I went right from a book about a girl who was trying to make friends in her new grade school and having nightmares about the Headless Horseman to a much more frank book about a girl having her first period, worried about the development of her body, and searching for meaning in the various religions. But, I mean, it's a good book, it's just not necessarily for me. But I think that reading it made me more empathetic to what girls go through, and it made me understand that people aren't always irritable or mean because you're such a bad person, but because everyone is going through their own thing and sometimes it's really difficult for them. It was a good lesson in not judging people by their behavior.

There are so many more books I can think of, but the last one I'll add is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle. This one routinely ends up on lists of the worst-ever movie novelizations, but I quite like this strange, metaphysical take on Spielberg's movie, told from the point of view of the strange, unknowable alien. It's trippy and weird, but it's heartfelt and it pleases me deeply.

4 comments:

Rajesh said...

Great list of books.

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, an interesting list. I tried not to overthink mine, until after the fact, when I said, "But what about..."

Tallulah Morehead said...

Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND changed what I thought about everything when I first read it at age 14. I've since read it 15 or 20 times.

At the other extreme, Mary Baker Eddy's SCIENCE & HEALTH WITH KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, which was forced on me growing up, has done more damage to me, to my life and to my family, than any other book. It almost literally killed my parents, and my grandparents, and it caused me lots of emotional, and LOTS of physical, pain. An evil book.

Other books that have been important to me for major portions of my life? Well, in no particular order, LITTLE ME (and the rest of Patrick Dennis's oevre), CATCH-22, Richard Dawkins's THE GOD DELUSION (Which sits on my shelf next to Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World; if you liked the one, you'll love the other), all 14 of Charles Dickens's novels, though A TALE OF TWO CITIES is my favorite of them, DRACULA (since I wrote a stage adaptation of it that was successful). Mervyn LeRoy's IT TAKE MORE THAN TALENT had a major influence over my life, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories have been a huge part of my life, HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES particularly, since I was 8 years old. Ray Bradbury was the first professional writer I ever met and was an influence on my becoming a writer, and I wouldn't have met him that first time, when I was 17, if I hadn't read and fallen in love with THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES when I was 8. I had read 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA at least 6 times by the time I was 12. L. Frank Baum's 14 OZ books, all read when my age was single digits (Later all reread, in order, in my mid-30s), helped cement me as a lifelong reader, and lover of imaginative and/or humorous fiction over "Realistic" works.

But the book which has meant the most to me, that changed my life for the best, has only been with me for 14 years: MY LUSH LIFE by me.

David Evans said...

Yes, Travels is really impressive, and made me think. Much more interesting than most of his novels - though I have a soft spot for Eaters Of The Dead.
The Carl Sagan too.
I haven't read anything else on your list! That's surprising.