John Wilson, the editor of Books & Culture, devoted his column in the current issue to a list of the ten books that have most influenced him. His list is quirky and fun, as one would expect, and it started me thinking about the books that have most shaped me. Here are a few of mine, which I hope will spur comments or, better yet, your own list:
1. The Bible: I’m tempted to suggest that, for Christians at least, the list should be defined as the most influential books other than the Bible. But for most of us, that wouldn’t be the real list. I didn’t grow up in the church, and reading the Bible after my sophomore year in college had a Damascus Road effect on me. The first thing that struck me was the psychological depth of the key figures. Even before I finished Genesis, I knew they were, and it was, true.
2. Eileen Simpson, Poets in Their Youth. Simpson was the first wife of the poet John Berryman; this memoir recounts the coming of age of Berryman and his generation of poets, especially Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz. I still find the intensity of their commitment to poetry both unbearable and irresistible.
3. Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection. Really an extention of No. 2, and vice versa. I bought the elegant little brown Faber and Faber paperback while living in London for seven months in the year between college and law school. Lowell was the first poet I loved. He was the rare poet who shed a successful style (the thundering, formally rhymed poems of his early career) and adopted others. I love best the poems of Life Studies, the 1959 book that launched confessional poetry, which is full of evocative lines like “Crows maunder on the petrified fairway” in “Waking in the Blue,” a poem about his stay in a country club-like mental institution.
4. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: Another book on my London reading list. Whatever one thinks of the religion and evolution debate, it’s hard to deny the beauty and power of the book that touched it off. Darwin was a poignant, meticulous, visionary man, and it comes through on nearly every page. (One surprise: the Galapagos Islands figure much less prominently than I would have imagined.)
5. Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins. As a high school and college kid with vaguely literary aspirations living in the South in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it would have been hard to escape Percy’s influence. This is a strange, unsettling book, but it seems to me to capture the anxieties of a strange, unsettling time. John Wilson’s inclusion on his list of Message in a Bottle, Percy’s essays on language, called this one to mind.
6. Vladamir Nabokov, Speak, Memory. For me, Nabokov occupies the same place in my affections as Pablo Picasso does among artists: I deeply admire his work, but don’t love it. Nabokov is a little too calculated for my tastes. But I make an exception for his memoir, Speak, Memory. It’s the most elegant, moving, subtly crafted memoir I’ve ever read. I often open it at random and read a page or two, just to experience the prose.
7. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. I think this is the most nearly perfect novel written in English. It’s hard to think of 1920s America without thinking of this book. It will be interesting to see how it ages now that the central motif—a man trying to insinuate himself into the propertied class—no longer resonates in the same way, with the decline of the WASP.
8. Golden Guide to Butterflies; Mammals; Birds; Reptiles and Amphibians. Okay, this is cheating a little. But I spent much of my childhood chasing butterflies and studying the pictures in these guidebooks. I read the text too, and learned how to make a butterfly net and to tell the difference between Piliated and Ivory Billed woodpeckers (one is a majestic horse, the other a unicorn, in the birding world).
9. C.S. Lewis’s essays. I came to Lewis late, and find the Lewis cult in some Christian circles suffocating. But no one could capture a core theological concept (or a literary one, for that matter) in a memorable metaphor like he could, and make natural law lite so much fun to read. I especially love, and repeatedly return to, “The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses” and “Reflections on the Psalms.”
So what books changed your world?