Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Only I will remain.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I haven't started A Passage to India yet, so instead I'll write about something else entirely. There's a little exercise circulating around the literary sphere of the internet in which bloggers are picking out and explaining the ten books that have most strongly influenced their world views. It's an interesting question, so I thought I'd participate and see what I could come up with. Many of the people who've done it already have listed things like Proust and Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill, which, frankly, I find hard to believe, but there you are. I'll be honest about mine - they're not going to include philosophy books. It's not the way I work. You want to change my world view? Get me involved in your story and then blow me away with a new and revolutionary idea in the context of the narrative. Works every time.

In no particular order:

1. His Dark Materials, especially The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman
You may or may not recognize that this is, in fact, both a children's book and a fantasy novel. Nonetheless, I'm not sure any book has ever had quite as strong an effect on me. It's odd, considering the fact that, though I like it, it's not as if it's my favorite book in the world. The story that the physicist, Mary Malone, tells about herself is one of the most powerful moments I've ever experienced in fiction. Her realization that, as a nun, she was spending her entire life living for the afterlife, when all she wanted to do was experience the pleasure of a kiss and the taste of marzipan made me shiver all over. I realized, by reading this book, that I've long held the belief that life is to be lived, not to be worried over, and that appreciating what is beautiful and good is, perhaps, the reason for being.

2. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
If you've only seen the movie, do me the favor of reading the novel. It's not as much for children as it seems, and regardless, it's delightful and entertaining, so it won't be any great burden. I list this book because it taught me, and reminds me, each time I think of it, that the possibilities of the world are endless. Ende offers that idea realistically, regardless of the fantasy setting - the possibilities are not always pleasant, and are, in fact, fraught with danger, but they are worth taking risks to explore.

3. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Even thinking about this book makes my entire chest sort of contract with emotion. The characters are so well drawn that you want them for your friends, and that's a major part of the attraction, but the influence of the book comes in changing the way its reader thinks about class and nationality. It's almost anthropological, but simultaneously deeply emotional. I often think of it when I hear about difficulties with foreign policy. It taught me that there are enormous dangers to be overcome when cultures intersect, but that patience and a great willingness to forgive can accomplish the task. I'm not sure that there's a more important lesson for the modern world, actually.

4. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri's biggest influence on me is inherent in her writing style itself. I've never read writing that is so evocative and uses so few words. Her writing has taught me to smooth out both my own writing and even the way that I think about things, sometimes. Thoughts, much like the written word, benefit from the kind of stark efficiency that Lahiri represents. She is a master of the language, but also of her characters. Her plots are as simple as her diction, and yet they come back to me often and inform my interpretation of strangers and their situations. When I consider the lives of those I don't know, I often think of Lahiri's short stories, and they are, in a way, avenues by which I am able to relate to those around me.

5. The Giver, Lois Lowry
Lowry succeeded in shifting my perspective on the world when I first read this book. It was a great story, but more than that, it made me appreciate something I had completely and utterly taken for granted before that point. The value of history and memory has never been hit home as hard for me as it was in this book. Also, the idea of the value of precision of language in the futuristic society in the novel sometimes comes back to me at odd moments. In my perfect society, there would definitely be precision of language.

6. Dune, Frank Herbert
I wouldn't say this has changed my worldview quite as much as it has acted as an anchor for me. The real lesson I learned from it was to consider the sweep of the future in moments of everyday life and to think of the great breadth of the effects of the decisions one makes. Also, I can and do recite the Bene Gesserit litany against fear from memory. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's weirdly effective in moments of crisis.

7. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
It's the Ixchel as much as anything that I think about the most often from this book. They're the eyeless, earless, mouthless aliens that care for Meg after she's been burned by the evil cold darkness around Camazotz. There's a moment in which Meg tries to explain what her friends are like, and all she can come up with is what they look and sound like, and the Ixchel, of course, not having eyes and ears, can't understand. It coaxed me into trying to understand the nature of things beyond their appearances and even their physical attributes, and to think of the universe not necessarily as a visible entity, but as a real one. Also, I learned about tesseracts, and everyone loves tesseracts.

8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
If you think you understand the emotions and motivations behind revolutions, you ought to read this book in order to reconsider them. It might simply confirm your ideas, but it might also change them. I didn't understand the American Revolution until I read it, and it was fairly mind-blowing when I did. I think it was the first book I ever read that made me want to jump out of my chair and go do something, regardless of the fact that I was not currently oppressed. It's got some nice linguistic ideas in it, too.

9. White Lotus, John Hersey
From this novel I learned about the brutality and dehumanization of slavery and abuse, but also about passive resistance and nonviolence. It's not that I didn't understand the concepts before, but Hersey puts them into a context in which it's impossible not to feel the emotions that come with them, and therefore to understand them on a far deeper level. I think I also got an education in cultural difference, and learned that it can be both fascinating and exploitable.

10. Medea, Euripides
The depth of human rage and pain comes through in this play like it does in no other work that I've read. The fact that it succeeded, when I read it, of making me feel pity and sympathy for a woman who tortured and killed her husband's lover, that lover's father, and her own children was pretty astonishing. What's even more astonishing is that it managed this feat 1600 years after it was written. So, its effect on me was to impart both an understanding of the agony of the soul and its need for revenge and the timelessness of great literature and the human condition.

You'll notice that kind of a lot of these are fantasy, science fiction, and children's literature. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I read a lot when I was young - far more than average - and a lot of books that influenced me did so when I was a kid because that's when I ran into their new and innovative ideas. By the time I was reading grown-up books, I'd already encountered a lot of the major literary themes. The second reason, though, is that fantasy and science fiction have a power that often goes beyond that of regular fiction - to make us consider that which is completely different from us and to realize in it deep truths about ourselves and our world. Regular fiction sometimes has this power, but the moment of realization is never as strong for me as when it comes through the medium of the unfamiliar.

This exercise was both harder and more enlightening than I thought it would be. If you guys would like to give it a shot, I'd love to hear what you've got to say.


  1. I don't know if I'll give it a shot or not, but I certainly enjoyed reading what you had to say on the subject. It would be hard for me to choose the ten books, harder yet to explain their presence on the list.

  2. Actually, Medea impacted you about 2400 years after it was written. Just sayin' :)

  3. You're right! It was 431 B.C.E.! I'm a terrible person.

  4. Great list, Claire. I have been meaning to read Dune, actually, and this has convinced me of its importance. I also appreciate the little blurb about science fiction. I don't know about you, but I often feel that people who don't read science fiction don't really respect it. I don't think you can understand the breadth and depth of sci-fi until you've really tried to read it. It's not all about robots and computers!

    I may have to try this little exercise on my own blog.

  5. My mind is a-churnin', but before I wait for it to calm down, I wanted to say that John Stuart Mill is pretty cool and his views on supererogation did change the way I judge myself and others. It gentled me.

    (He argues that those who go above and beyond the call of duty should be praised, but those who do not should not be made to feel bad about merely doing what is right and good.)

  6. It's not that I don't think John Stuart Mill can be influential (though I have not read him myself), it was just that lots of people had only things like that on their lists, and I was forced to think, "Really, guys? Wasn't there ONE work of fiction you found influential?" Although, you never know with you philosophy types. ;)

  7. Claire, I just read The Sparrow and am almost done with the sequel, Children of God . . . thanks for including Mary Doria Russell on your list! Such powerful books. I am going to be thinking about them for a LONG time.

  8. Hey, my sister and I are both still looking for our door into summer.



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