I apologize for the lengthy delay since my last post. There are no excuses. Actually, there are many excuses, but no one wants to hear them. But I am back, my faithful dozen readers.
I have been issued the “Ten Books that Stuck with You” challenge. I was going to just post to Facebook, but the blog allows me a little room to ramble. So please, indulge me and enjoy. This may contain some mild spoilers.
- Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
If you don’t know this book, you don’t know me. I’ve read it probably a dozen times. What stuck with me: Brian finding the pilot’s body. Gave me nightmares then and still frightens me now.
- The BFG by Roald Dahl
I would like to list all the Roald Dahl children’s books, but this one was always my favorite (close second: Fantastic Mr. Fox). What stuck with me: It’s okay that burps and farts are funny.
- The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman
Technically a trilogy. Having gone back and reread it as an adult, I can see the flaws in these books, but I read it when I was in their audience sweet spot: 13-15 year old male. What stuck with me: Tasslehoff Burrfoot was always my favorite character.
- The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove
While I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books of all time, it stuck with me. When I read it as a teen, I was amazed at the alternate history concept: what if racist time travelers brought AK-47’s to the Confederacy to ensure they won the Civil War? Wow! Also, I was a sheltered and prudish young fellow, and the level of violence and (relatively tame) nudity was high enough to make me uncomfortable. What stuck with me: machine-gunned bodies stacking up into a wall.
- The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The film Gettysburg got to me first, but the novel resonated with me powerfully, as well. From here, I didn’t learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. I learned about friendship, loss, honor, heroism, and pride. What stuck with me: Little Round Top, of course. Also the brutal speech by Buster Kilrain about the worthlessness of man, perfect counterpoint to Chamberlain’s lofty ideals.
Do we read because of who we are, or are we who we are because of what we read?
- The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
When you are a fifteen year old boy and you read a book about a cat who dies of happiness (that isn’t a spoiler; look at the title), you know you are different from your peers. A beautiful story founded in Buddhism, but accessible to everyone. Jeez, I’m getting a frog in my throat just thinking about the book. What stuck with me: Extreme catharsis from a book that can be read in an hour.
- Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest gets all the attention, and it’s a great novel, but a tidier, better contained one. Kesey pulled all the stops on SAGN. The atmosphere is intense. You will put down the book feeling soaked with Pacific rain, smelling of sawdust, and hearing the roar of the river. What stuck with me: The atmosphere.
- All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Warren won Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry, and it is evident here. ATKM tells an archetypal story about how the ends never justify the means. Using unethical methods to achieve noble goals does not indicate that you are noble; it actually transforms you into the evil you were once combatting. The prose sings. What stuck with me: the whole, crushing, Greek tragedy inevitability of the book from the first page.
- Ulysses by James Joyce
Most people stop reading it because they figure the rewards of the novel can’t be worth all the hard work that goes into understanding it. They are wrong. This is a high input/ high yield book. Joyce literally writes about everything, and after reading it, the world will never be the same for you. What stuck with me: Many parts, but the talk with Deasy, the teacher, still haunts me.
- On Writing by Stephen King
Reading this book was a distinct turning point in my life. I went from being someone who likes to write to being a writer. And King doesn’t glamorize the writing life, either. Succinct, honest, supportive, funny, and revealing, anyone who writes should read King’s memoir, as should anyone who enjoys his writing. What stuck with me: It’s tough to pick one part. My copy has a dog ear or post it on every page. But his “writer’s toolbox” was revelatory to me—here is a professional, successful author, laying out the groundwork for good writing and editing habits.
Honorable Mentions (is that cheating?):
Anything by Ursula K LeGuin (probably my favorite author, but I can’t choose one book. Maybe Lavinia). Anything by Tolstoy (same problem as above). A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (so badly wanted this in the Top 10). The Giver by Lois Lowry. The Odyssey by Homer. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. The Worm Ouroboros by E.R.R. Edding. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer (a kid drowns and another kid uses the word “hell.” Both stunned me in 4th grade). Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The Dead Zone by Stephen King.
This exercise had me thinking a lot. What makes a book “stick” with us? It isn’t always (or usually) about literary quality or merit. On the path to my Master’s degree, I read dozens of books whose titles I can’t even recall. And on my Top 10 are some books of dubious quality. I think most of it has to do with reading the right book at the right time. Read a book too early, and it won’t register with the reader (or in my case, shock him). But read a book too late, and its magic may be lost. I know several people who worship David Eddings’ Belgariad Series. But they probably read it as teens, who are the intended audience. When I read it as a twenty-something, all I saw was a juvenile parade of fantasy tropes. I had read too much fantasy by then to be impressed. And I wonder, too—do the books resonate with us because they speak to values we already have? Or do the books cause us to foster certain values that, later in life, we recognize as important?