October 11
People who have gone through sorrow are more sympathetic than others, not so much because of what they know about sorrow, but because they know more about happiness. They appreciate its value and its fragility, and welcome it wherever it may be. The Puritan attitude which grudges happiness belongs only to those who have never entered very deeply into life. ----- Freya Stark, Beyond Euphrates


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MARCH 26, 2010 5:27PM

My Top 10 Most Influential Books

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  1. The Reckoning, by David Halberstam  (1986).  One of the first "grown-up" non-fiction books I read.  He lays out the sequence of events behind the American and Japanese automotive industries (ironically Mr. Halberstam died in a car crash in 2007).   My favorite part about this book is when he explains that after WWII, the Americans wanted to help the pitiful, downtrodden Japanese start over (guilty consciences?) so they welcomed them into their manufacturing plants and gave them all the information they asked for.  The Japanese nodded and smiled, taking notes and photos.  Then came up with the Datsun truck (at which the American car makers sneered).  And the rest, they say, is history. 

  2. Lord of the Rings (& the Hobbit and Silmarillon), by J.R.R. Tolkien.   What can I say?  Read this the first time when I was about 12. 

  3. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.  Not sure why -- it's rare for me to remember a title especially of something I read so long ago, I must have been about 13 -- there are scenes in this book that still come up in my mind (especially when I'm sitting in traffic and wish I could zoom in and under and over the other cars).

  4. The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho.  This book opened my eyes -- partly because of the archetypal story and partly because I had essentially written this story for a friend of mine years before I discovered this book.  I still read anything Coelho publishes, but this book was amazing in its simplicity.

  5. The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Obviously, this is a powerful book for anyone who's been raised on a steady diet of Jesus was/is Perfect.  Plus, it blew my mind that my mother-in-law at the time (a Southern Louisiana Catholic) is the one who passed it along to me.

  6. Women Who Run With the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  Duh.

  7. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorn.  My first foray into serious group discussion of symbols, characters, themes, political statements in fiction.  Thank to my English teacher at the time, Mrs. Weise.

  8. Several biographies from when I was about 6-8 years old.  I believe they were all published by the same company -- but I can't figure out who.  I especially remember one about Abe Lincoln and another about Clara Barton.  My grandmother was a church librarian and would lend me stacks of books at a time.  I would swallow these up and come back for more.  I think the non-fiction always intrigued me because it was hard to imagine that Abe and Clara were once kids, too -- and despite all the reasons why they shouldn't have reached their levels of accomplishment, they did.  I still find it amazing to read about another person's achievements. 

  9. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.  This novel was an eye-opener to me -- a switch from the hallowed halls of Texas heroes I grew up with.  Having a Texas Ranger in the family, it gave me a whole new outlook on what my ancestors might have been like, really.

  10. The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell.  In all honesty, it was the series of interviews with Bill Moyers that got me first -- THEN the book(s).  Still, the incredible span of Joseph Campbell's knowledge of all things mythological left me thirsting for more, more, more.


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Oh, interesting list. Campbell, I haven't thought of in years but he was a good one. Never read your top one. Have experienced Hawthorne; loved Lonesome Dove and have read many others by him. Stranger in a Strange Land, I read but I don't remember much for some reason. I love these favorite reading posts that pop up. My top four are Replay, Hawaii, and Mila 18 and Blue Highways. Nice to see you around....
Hey spudman. I was intrigued by the "Most Influential" book criteria. These aren't necessarily my FAVES, but they were influential.
These are just the first that come to mind:

Helen in the Editor's Chair, by Ruth S. Wheeler. Children's book I read in grade school. I was maybe eight or nine. I was so fascinated by the story that I can see myself standing by the piano in our living room when I told my parents I was going to be an editor when I grew up. It had a powerful tornado scene in it, but that's all I remember.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - One of the first books I literally could not put down once I started reading it. I nearly flunked the college course I was supposed to be cramming for the night before the final, because I stayed up all night finishing the book and laffing so hard I thought was losing my mind. Of course, it was the same day of the Cuba missile crisis, which is imprinted on me more for its association with Catch 22 than vice versa. There's an irony there, I just realized.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett - In my opinion the most perfect noir mystery novels ever written. I've read it many times trying to analyze the pacing, scene setting, dialogue - I learn something new with every reading.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - another near perfect novel in my opinion. It awakened the romantic in me with an ambience as thick as a morning fog on the Seine. Years later Moveable Feast revived that same essence in a more sophisticated mind that was already growing weary of romantic expectations.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer - longest non-fiction book I'd read at the time. I was probly in junior high. Brought history to life for me. Fascinated and horrified me.

The Making of the President by Theodore White - I read a couple of Teddy's "Making of the Prez" books, but the first one is the one that hooked me and gave me a more realistic look inside Kennedy's "camelot" than I had ever imagines. The next several of the series weren't nearly as eye-opening, so I think part of the fascination was the initial entry to the genre of the looooong insider's journal.

Speaking of which Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, by Hunter S. Thompson - Wooo! Need I say much about this? I'd read all of his work up to that point - except maybe Hell's Angels, which I read soon thereafter - but this was Teddy White on acid. Woooo! Thompson's ouvre almost killed me, as the man's mythical style enabled my drinking and drug experimentation with a righteous cast that now shames me.

I'll come back with more, but I'm starting to get nervous that this will disappear suddenly, as things are wont to do in composing windows here. I'll do the rest offline and paste them here.... (r)
I like this list. I would replace the Heinlein with either Huxley's "Brave New World" or Gore Vidal's "Julian". I liked Stranger so much when I first read it, I went out of my way to buy it again and reread it, but when I did about fifteen years ago, I felt it didn't hold up. But it was good.

We should have a book club. I'd love that.
Foolish Monkey: I recently found a good book club in my town -- first book (that I attended) was The Prince by Machiavelli. next week it's two science fiction essays by Forster (sorry, can't think of their names). And in May -- Manuscript of Saragossa which I've already been reading it's really cool. As you can see from my list, I don't read a lot of science fiction -- but it would be cool to try an OS book club.
Interesting list, and I'm right there with you on Lonesome Dove!
Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" (and "Maggie Now")
Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy "All the Pretty Horses" "the Crossing" "Cities of the Plain". Maybe "The Road".
Anything by Michael Chabon, particularly "Kavalier and Clay", which I think is pretty damned brilliant. but "Jewish Policeman's Union" was good too. And the Sherlock Holmes parrot one, I can't think of the name.
Of course "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
I've read scads of SF, Philip Dick is good, really juicy crazy.
Anything by Vonnegut, particularly "Cat's Cradle". I still have the paperback I bought 40 years ago. I can't part with it.
Hemmingway, "Sun Also Rises" slays me.
I went nuts with D H Lawrence for a while...just ate him up. And "Lord of the Flies", William Golding. Went nuts with Golding for a while too. Read some crazy book about lobsters or something. He's really an interesting writer/poet. Or was. Probably dead.
Dalton Trumbo, "Johnny", "Catch 22" by Heller.

Pure great trash: Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series, particularly the early books. The later ones were formulaic.

I read so much in spurts, I forget half of what I've read a year later. I just eat up books, like potato chips...that's why I have to keep them because I need to read them every few years.

I love nonfiction. The one about... not seattle slew...Seabiscuit. FABULOUS BOOK. Russell Baker's "Growing Up" is spectacular. "Bronx Primitive" is notable.

I try to do politics, but it just puts me to sleep. But I keep trying.
Funny, when I first read Lonesome Dove it was because a friend raved and raved about it. I had absolutely no interest in Westerns (and growing up in NYC) did not have much knowledge. I fell in love with that book. The first book I can remember having SUCH an impact on my reading (as an adult) (this shows you how deep I go) was The Thornbirds.
Back again for the last three:

Thomas Wolfe - Everything, but I think it was You Can't Go Home Again that sold me on this guy and convinced me that writing was the only worthwhile thing to do. As it's turned out, it's the only thing I've ever felt modestly competent doing. I've never gone back and reread any of his work, but the yes!! certainty I got reading it the first time is still with me. And, yes, it certainly played on my latent romantic nature, which has taken on some serious damage over the years - no shit. I think the reason I'm drawn to satire is that I find it to be an inoculation for fending off full-blown cynicism.

Norman Mailer and Walker Percy - Again, everything. I need story, narrative, characterization, dialogue - a fictionalization, if you will - in order to reach and grasp the philosophical ideas that others can understand by going straight to the philosophers themselves. This may be because I'm a more limbic-driven person than folks with more fully developed intellects. I'm emotional. It's taken me a lifetime to understand this and to recognize the need to regard my emotional reactions, to use an infantry analogy, as reports back to the patrol from the guys walking point - that these first impressions aren't tangibles, that they merely signal that something more tangible is involved.

It was Mailer who introduced me to existentialism. I was gassed in Grant Park, and helped clear the way as friends carried a beaten and bloody Rennie Davis from the front line of charging cops. Moments earlier I had watched Norman Mailer fumble apologetically on the stage his excuse for getting the hell out of their before the shit came down. He was working on a "long piece," he said, and it would be hard to do that while sitting in jail, wouldn't it heh heh heh? Nobody booed, but I was disappointed. I went back to school - U. of Wis. - and wrote my first published piece, a brief column defending Mailer, which ran in the underground paper Connections. Not long afterward Harper's ran an excerpt of the "long piece," which he eventually called Miami and the Siege of Chicago, in which he defended himself in much the same way I had in my silly little column. If he were going to war, he said, he didn't think the ragtag mob of protesters he saw from that stage, some with babies and children in tow, were the kind of soldiers he wanted to fight alongside. While he confirmed my own written theory, I was disappointed that he hadn't had the balls to tell us at the time that this was his reason.

Percy? He captured the spirit of disenchantment that I suppose was broached initially by Sartre and the other chroniclers of pyschic disaffection and breakdown had done decades earlier. But Percy did it with narrative, characters, dialogue and settings that were more real to me than the romantic streets of Paris. I didn't want to be told, I wanted to see, and Percy made me see.

Last book. This takes me over the ten-book limit, but it's changed the way I see the world, which these days can be somewhat vital. I speak of The Way of the Worldby Ron Suskind. Picked it up at the airport while awaiting the arrival of family from somewhere. The subtitle sums up this book's importance: "A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism." That it is, good people. That it most definitely is.

Sorry for being so long, but this topic, which I resisted at first because I was afraid to have to choose from among the many books that have left deep marks in my psyche, but once I took a nibble I was in for the whole bag.
Great list skeletnwmn. If you don't mind here's my partial list:
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
- The Trial
- The Metamorphosis
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X
- To Kill A Mocking Bird
- Running With Scissors (just for fun!)
Hey Skel, I need to take a look at some of these on your list. Maybe I'll start with Lonesome Dove.
Two books that made an enormous impression on me, both by Mary Gordon. "Final Payments" and "The Company of Women."
Recently, "White Like Me" by Tim Rice and as a child,"Eighth Moon." I don't remember the author. All of them made a lasting impression for one reason or another. _r
There's no way I can narrow it down to 10, and at the same time, I can hardly remember what I've read over the years. Sad to be losing my mind so young . . . ;~)

BUT - I really like your list, and am resolved that when I next get a chance to read, I gotta pick up a couple of these . . .
oh YESSSSSS. Kafka. Love me some Kafka. "The Trial" is dazzling.

Also I forgot Steinbeck. How can you have a list without Steinbeck?
Sara, I read The Prince. I liked it but I guess I'm not the philosophy of corporatist type. I like Musashi "Book of Five Rings" better, in terms of strategic thinking.
Oops, I didn't realize this was an Open Call. Tell ya what, I'll post my own, from the comments I made here, and you can delete the comments if you like. Sorry for being such a boob. :-(
All great choices. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne called women "damned scribblers" he created quite a literary heroine in Hester Prynne in Scarlet Letter. She's partially why I'm Scarlett Sumac. Without the A on her chest, of course. I still have to read Heinlein, and Joseph Campbell is telling us very important things. Nice to see you too.
These are books that influenced me -- not necessarily the best books I've ever read, or the books that hold special places in my heart. And I have read so many other books since that have shaped how I think -- but this is my gut level response to Silkwood's open call for INFLUENTIAL books. I liked the idea of thinking of the books that still pop up in my memory all the time.
ahhh...The Alchemist. I find myself buying this book again and again because I pass it on to so many people, usually highschoolers. Truly Influential!
Hi Skel, I try to re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy every year, usually in the fall. I miss that world when I'm not in it.
I'm not familiar with some of these books which you have so succinctly and invitingly mentioned. Mythology is one of my passions, so I've read Campbell for years - thanks for a GREAT list. ~r!
A wide range interesting list. I am so with you on that what is influential is not necessary a favorite and vice versa.
The Scarlet Letter has had a profound and lasting effect on my thinking about culture, society and identity. Campbell's work, too. Love your list.
Wonderful list. I have read a lot of Joseph Campbell. He was the first editor of the Bollingen series, a huge collection inspired by the work of Carl Jung. I've been a fan since college.
Campbell, absolutely. I wonder if they have him on audible?
You're the second person who's mentioned Lonesome Dove. Might have to read that one.
Very nice list. I may very well be the only person who has not read Tolkien (but I'm okay with that.) You have me interested in reading The Alchemist. Thank you for posting, these are fun to read.
I'm just getting around to reading some of these lists. I've read most of yours...Stranger in a Strange Land!!! Just recently told my daughter about my group of oddly asorted friends in High School were really into it...we had water brother ceremonies...were always dropping lines from the book in conversation. Then I remember being a little grossed out by where it lead ;-)