Recently I’d read Brian Klems’ article at Writer’s Digest about the 10 books that had stayed with him in some way after reading them. It inspired me to start thinking about my own list – and what good timing! Within days, two friends on Facebook tagged me on their top 10 lists and challenged me to share mine. Now that I’ve posted my list there, I thought I’d publish it here at the blog, along with the reasons why I chose each book – or in some cases, series.
This is probably cheating, because this and #2 would fill all 10 spots automatically. However, I have to give Tolkien and the Lords Of The Rings trilogy due credit for being my gateway to fantasy literature. I don’t know if I’d be writing the novel I’m working on today if I hadn’t picked up that series. Also, the LOTR trilogy was responsible for rekindling my love of reading in 2003. I went through a period in high school where I absolutely resented reading. Most of the assigned stories didn’t appeal to me; and with little time to read for pleasure, I lost interest in the activity altogether. It wasn’t until I saw the LOTR film trilogy and decided to read the source material that I finally enjoyed reading again. Now I can’t stop! So, thank you from the bottom of my heart, Tolkien.
See what I meant above by “cheating”? *winks* But holy broomsticks, I love the Harry Potter books. Not only did it further fuel my love of fantasy literature, but it’s become (in my eyes) the epitome of a novel series. I remember feeling jaw-droppingly awed at how Rowling was able to connect so many seemingly unrelated plotlines together in the last couple books. That hasn’t changed today. The Harry Potter is also a fantastic example of how setting plays a huge role in storytelling, and how important secondary characters are to the “big picture.” For these and many other reasons, no other magical realm besides Middle-Earth has felt more real and vivid to me – and left such a meaningful impact on me – than Harry’s.
Paulo Coelho isn’t known for his writing technique, yet I adore his short and simple tales because they’re moving and powerful – and I always learn something from them. The Alchemist is no exception. On the surface it’s a story about a shepherd boy who leaves his life in Spain to search for treasure in Egypt. Once I dug into the meat of The Alchemist, however, I realized it’s a philosophical teaching disguised as a fable. Many novels have explored the value of following one’s heart, the lessons learned along the way, and how the Universe conspires to help us fulfill our life purpose. For me, none have done so with the same impact as this one. You don’t have to be religious to understand – or believe – the meaning of this quote from the titular character: “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself… And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
It’s funny to write about The Alchemist years after finishing it, and realize how its themes apply much more strongly to my life now than it did then. Maybe it’s time to read that novel again…
What a coincidence that this book is listed next to The Alchemist. Allan Hunter’s The Path of Synchronicity explores the concept of synchronicity and how to allow more of it in our lives by living in harmony with our true selves and in the flow of life’s events rather than resisting them. It’s an insightful, intelligent, and carefully researched guide that stays in touch with the emotional side of the subject. And in some ways, The Path of Synchronicity was a savior for me. I read it while recovering from situational depression about 2 years ago. The lessons I learned from this book didn’t just give me hope; they inspired me to change my outlook and embrace more spirituality in my life. Between this and the more recently published Gratitude and Beyond: Five Insights for a Fulfilled Life, I owe a million thanks to Hunter and his illuminating soul-work.
The Road scared the daylights out of me. No other story contains such a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future: ashen snowfalls, shells of incinerated towns, no protection from the elements, scarce food, cannibalism, living day to day with the knowledge that death nips at one’s heels. Despite my terror, though, I couldn’t put this book down. I rooted for the anonymous man and his son not because I wanted them to survive, but because they are (in McCarthy’s own words) “each the other’s world entire.” Their love and reliance on one another sustains them, and the devastating thought of one leaving the other behind before the end drove me from one page to the next. I also admired Cormac McCarthy’s dark yet vivid prose. It leaps off the page and immerses you in the dying world. Every sentence is polished and purposeful, every description concise and poetic. It’s an incredible example of how the writing’s quality can strengthen a story’s impact – and, when a story is already as impactful as The Road¸ how it can haunt you for the rest of your life.
Scott O’Dell was my favorite author when I was a teenager, and my introduction to historical fiction. His tales of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples fascinated me, teaching me about their customs and beliefs and transporting me to a simpler, more nature-centric time. Black Star, Bright Dawn had always been a stand-out for me, though, and recently I re-read it to see what I noticed as an adult. I came away with a better understanding of why I’d held the character Bright Dawn so dear. She’s resourceful and resilient, and she leads her young life with integrity and an unquestioning sense of family duty. In some ways, it’s no surprise that Bright Dawn took her father’s place in the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, yet the fear of whether she’ll survive the elements and reach the end of the dangerous course still riveted me. Also, Bright Dawn’s relationship with her lead sled dog Black Star is one of the most touching animal-and-human relationships in literature. The half-Husky, half-wolf assumes more than the role of his owner’s guide; he’s also her best friend, protector, and motivator to finish the race.
I first read James McBride’s The Color of Water sometime during my late teens, and then led a “guided lecture” on it during an English Capstone class during my final semester of college. It was the only memoir in our class’s curriculum. Then again, no one can call it just another memoir on the issue of race. This dual-perspective autobiography presents a “double-edged sword” view on the topic: Not only does James share his struggles of race and identity from his youth, but his mother Ruth (an unforgettable example of blunt honesty, tough love, and true courage) also offers her first-person account of growing up in a white Jewish family and then marrying a black man in 1942. And while The Color of Water demonstrates that nobody is safe from prejudice and hatred, it also proves that love, family, and faith know no boundaries – and when those three qualities unite, they make an insurmountable team. If anything, read this for Ruth McBride’s sake.
I almost listed Le Guin’s sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness here instead, but it didn’t feel right. A Wizard of Earthsea deserves that right because it was my first novel by the author who’s now my favorite writer of all time. Of course the story matters, too: The young mage Ged tampers with his world’s magic system and releases a terrible creature only he can confront – a creature that may be his very own shadow-self. As I’ve read more of Le Guin’s works since A Wizard of Earthsea, however, I’ve come to appreciate so much about her craft: her versatility in genre (fantasy and science fiction) and type of work (novels, short stories, poetry), her succinct yet graceful prose, her emphasis on harmony in all its forms, and her boundless imagination. If you enjoy any kind of speculative fiction, you must read Ursula K. Le Guin. Feel free to shoot me a message if you’d like a recommendation. 😉
While most classic literature doesn’t appeal to me, Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre moved me more deeply than most contemporary stories I’ve read. Yes, the romance between the title character and her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester, brings me to my knees (emotionally, not literally). However, as I’ve re-read the novel and seen various screen adaptations, I’ve realized what makes Jane so remarkable. She shows tremendous resolve and integrity from her loveless childhood through the joys and tumult of her adulthood. And when Mr. Rochester begs Jane to flee with him to France and be his mistress, Jane stays true to her morals and leaves him despite her love for him. No wonder some readers were appalled by Jane Eyre when it was first published; women exhibiting independence and self-respect was unheard of the mid-1800s. Nevertheless, Jane’s gentle assertiveness and unwavering faith have made her one of the most admirable female characters in literature – and one I continue to look up to today.
I already knew a bit about autism before reading Mark Haddon’s debut novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The youngest son of one of my cousins has a severe case of the neurodevelopmental disorder. So, I picked up Incident knowing the protagonist would be a sort of case study (since every autism patient has a unique set of behaviors) – and walked away enlightened by 15-year-old Christopher’s viewpoint and overjoyed by how he faced his fears to try to solve the mystery of the death of his neighbor’s poodle. Readers learn how Christopher’s mind works by deconstructing what he doesn’t understand into mathematical equations and physical laws, how sensory stimulation overwhelms him, how he takes everything he sees and is told at face value. While Christopher struggles to understand and identify the emotions of others, his tenacity, bravery, and compassion for living things makes him unfailingly loveable. I doubt I’ll find such a unique literary premise so deftly and thoughtfully delivered as this one for a long time.
What books have stayed with you over the years? Feel free to share your picks or links to your lists by commenting below. I’d love to see your lists and what we have in common – or how our lists are different!