One of the assignments we had in the online discussion board portion of my summer Fiction Writer’s Workshop class was to name our Five Most Influential Books. Everyone agreed that this is an impossible task. I wrote and posted my list quickly, as I knew I was sure to change it within and hour, then again and again a thousand times. While I DID think about other books I would have mentioned if I’d been asked at a different point in time, I’m also kind of glad I took the opportunity to write the first five books that came to my mind. They were:
The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Electric Universe by David Bodanis
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath by Sylvia Plath
and Ulysses by James Joyce.
The first couple of titles were in some ways safest, as not too many people in my class were familiar with those books. Snyder and Bodanis are both writers whose books I buy again and again just to give to other people because I love them so much. Old Holden simply could not be left off the list because I’d be lying solely to avoid cliché of being a Catcher fan. Plus, when I worked at a deli in New Hampshire one summer during college, I sliced J.D. Salinger’s sopressata a few times, which was just about one of the biggest thrills of my whole life (and gave me cred when I was a first year MFA student: I might have submitted weird fantasy YA lit to a serious literary workshop, but I had sliced Salinger’s lunch meat, so I had that going for me.) The Sylvia Plath might have been the first to go in a revision, but since the question was about influential books, not favorite books (TOTALLY different list), I had to confess to my Plath-inspired-dark-angsty-teenage-poetry phase. While I didn’t write any good poems during this period, and I probably didn’t really understand Plath’s poems, I was a teenager, and I was writing passionately, and I think that’s probably a good thing.
And then there’s the old Ulysses, the entry I thought would make me look like I was a big, giant show-off. But here’s the thing about Ulysses. It was REALLY hard to read. It took me a bunch of attempts, and I finally got through it only because I took a class devoted entirely to that book. I couldn’t even read the book when I was in Ireland, despite my efforts. But I did read it, in full, finally, and I have to say that it redefined for me what reading and writing could be. It challenged me, for sure. But I like that. When a book makes me work, it also makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something by reading it (and understanding it, or, in the case of Ulysses, understanding some of it). I love to learn, and I’ve always felt that real learning takes place when we’re a little outside of our comfort zone. Reading Ulysses felt, at times, like an act of pure faith. Do I want to spend all my time reading books that I barely understand and that I sometimes want to throw against a wall? No. But I also hope that I’ll never stop reading books, at least once in a while, that get me out of my comfort zone. Books that make me think about what’s possible in literature, and books that just make me think. So when I look back at my Most Influential Books list a few months after writing it, I’m left not only with all the books that I might have included (Orhan Pamuk, Philip Pullman, John Steinbeck: if only they only called for a list of eight…), but also with the sense that my first impressions may not have been too far off.