One of my friends recently tagged me in one of those ubiquitous, share-because-you-care challenges in which you list 10 books that have affected you in some way. I thought I would take a bit to expand on the 10 books that have hit hard:
1. The Berenstain Bears Series, by Jan and Stan Berenstain: To this day, I can never spell “Berenstain” correctly (as a kid, I pronounced it “burn-stein”). Nonetheless, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Sister Bear, and Brother Bear were the family that taught me to read, and to Jan and Stan, I will be forever thankful. Aside: there’s this one Berenstain Bears book I was obsessed with that had colorful illustrations of food … in retrospect, I was probably more interested in the animated produce than the words on the page.
2. The Boxcar Children Series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner: If the Berenstain Bears were what taught me to read, then the Boxcar Children were what made me fall in love with reading. While other children did normal suburban-children things like play outside, attend sleepovers, or learn to be regular humans in this world, I holed up at our local Borders Bookstore for hours on end to read about the adventures of Henry, Jesse, Violet, and Benny. I’m convinced my TV bingeing habits today derive from my Boxcar binges as a child.
3. The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling: This one goes without explanation. My best friend is Hermione Granger, my hero is Luna Lovegood, and my enemy for life is Harry I-am-so-incompetent Potter. Jo Rowling opened me up to a world of imagination and fantasy and love. They said Jack and Rose had a tragic story, but at least their’s was a requited love. For me, the saddest chapter in all of literature remains “The Prince’s Tale.” Sam Smith ain’t got nothin’ on Severus Snape. Nobody ain’t got nothin’ on Severus Snape.
4. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf: This is what art looks like. So many writers strive to be artists, but so few actually deserve the title they longingly work for. Woolf is, without a trace of doubt in anyone’s mind, a true artist. No one has a grasp on words and phrases like Virginia Woolf does. If I looked at a flower, I would write: “Here lays a flower. It is pretty.” When Virginia Woolf looks at flowers and subsequently writes about them, you understand the meaning of life. If you want to watch a master of language at work, read Mrs. Dalloway. Within the span of 200 whirlwind pages, Woolf touches on fundamental truths of life, death, war, love, and pain in ways no other author does, or can. Dalloway also has one of the best endings in literary history — the first time I read the last page of the novel, I nearly cried over how fucking beautiful it was.
5. A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf: Not only is Woolf a literary genius, she’s also a boss when it comes to non-fiction. A Room of One’s Own is Woolf’s most accessible work (I recommend it to everyone), and it was the first feminist piece I ever read. I finished it in two sittings, and afterwards I was like, “Damn the world was shit for women and still is. At least it’s no longer 1929. Feminism RAHHH.”
6. The Know-it-All, by A.J. Jacobs: The first humor book I ever read, Jacobs gave me insight into what funny on paper looked like. I revisited this book a lot as a kid. I didn’t know what SNL was until high school, I wasn’t familiar with stand-up comedy until college, and I had no idea that there was an entire market for writing jokes — this book was my first, and for a long time only, introduction into humor. I’m not sure where my sense of humor derives from, but I’m pretty sure that this book, which I think my cousin randomly received as a gift and maybe a total of 10 people have actually read, shaped a lot of the way I wrote in middle school. Its influence has probably even carried over to the way I write Facebook statuses today.
7. The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin: For those of you who wonder where my obsession with the Supreme Court comes from, it all starts here. Two years ago, I attended the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. with my mom. She heard laughter coming from one of the tents and said, “Let’s go listen over there.” We sat down and it happened to be Jeffrey Toobin speaking about his latest book on the Supreme Court. It was highly entertaining and at the time, since I didn’t know anything about SCOTUS, extremely informative. Afterwards, we were in the book sale tent looking at The Oath, and Toobin sidles up to me and goes, “Do you want me to sign that for you?”
Flustered, I said sure. “What’s your name?” he asked.
I told him, and he signed the book, “Lynn – Enjoy! Jeffrey Toobin.”
Now I had to buy the book since he had signed my goddamn name into it. I was so pissed at the time — Jeffrey Toobin, a columnist for The New Yorker and preeminent reporter on the Supreme Court, had just steamrolled me into buying his book. He was making me drop $28 all because I told him my name and said yes to his signature.
Turns out, that was the book that sparked my interest in SCOTUS. After reading about the ridiculous characters in Toobin’s portrayal of the current Supreme Court and its interactions with the Obama White House, I went and watched a SCOTUS hearing in person. The rest is history.
8. This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz: Too often, the immigrant narrative is ignored or overshadowed in the American canon. Junot Diaz has taken monumental steps to rectify that. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao kicked it off and won the Pulitzer, but This is How You Lose Her is the far more poignant, painful depiction of what it means to be a first-generation immigrant in this country. It actually makes me very sad that I don’t have more writers of color on this list. Junot Diaz reps hard, and does it unapologetically.
9. Zone One, Colson Whitehead: A zombie tale written in beautiful prose. A science fiction narrative that is on the surface about blood and guts, but really about the mediocrity of America. What it says about racial stereotyping/assumptions will blow your mind. Or more so, your racial prejudices as you read the book will blow your mind and make you ashamed. At least it did for me.
10. The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk: Not necessarily the most well-written or presented, but this non-fiction book questioning the importance of genetics really opened my eyes to the fact that we are, more than anything, shaped by environmental and social circumstances. Genetics has very little, if at all, to do with how a person performs or what they become.
We make our own luck.
What are your favorites? Comment below, I’m interested in seeing people’s lists!