On Facebook lately there’s been a thing going around in which someone names the ten books that have been most influential to him or her and then tells someone else to do the same. The lists I’ve seen are variously interesting or arcane but I’ve read them all with trepidation. I hate being called on and I knew my turn would come.
But because the request came from my best friend I’m playing along. The task was a challenge, not because I couldn’t think of any influential books but because there were so many. Does influential mean I was moved to act? To think? To laugh or cry? Has a book changed the direction of my life? It turns out to be all of those things.
There’s no way I could rank these books from most influential to least, so I’m arranging them roughly chronologically according to when they became influential. So, here:
1) Curious George (followed by anything: e.g., …goes to the zoo or …rides a bike or …eats pho for the first time) – I learned to read with Curious George, and that might be the activity that has allowed me the most pleasure in life.
2) Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary – The Ramona books excited me in fifth and sixth grades because the stories and situations seemed relevant to me. There were nice kids and mean kids, as in the real life of a 10-year-old. I remember feeling very bad for Queenie Peavy, whom kids taunted with “Queenie’s daddy’s in a chain gang!”
3) The French Chef Cookbook, by Julia Child – It is hardly a secret that Julia Child is a towering figure in my life. I write and speak about her often. She ignited my passion for cooking – for French food especially – and my interest in French food led me to France, where I have found much pleasure over the years. Rather than rehash my early years with Julia (see this essay from 2013) I’ll simply say that this little paperback book was the beginning of a lifelong adventure in the kitchen.
4) The Benchley Roundup – After my grandfather died and as grandmother moved out of her big house, there was a lot of culling to be done. Along with a flannel Colt 45’s cap and an HO-gauge model of a Pennsylvania Railroad T1 locomotive (FYI the T1 was designed by Raymond Loewy and is the most beautiful train engine ever built), something I snatched was this book. I had been introduced to Robert Benchley by an essay in a seventh grade English textbook (Mrs. Luke’s class). The essay was “The Stranger Within Our Gates” and a love connection was made. Benchley helped to shape my own sense of humor and I pull out this book and other collections often. Here is a passage from “Family Life in America.”
The street was covered with slimy mud. It oozed out from under Bernice’s rubbers in unpleasant bubbles until it seemed to her as if she must kill herself. Hot air coming out from a steam laundry. Hot, stifling air. Bernice didn’t work in the laundry but she wished that she did so the hot air would kill her. She wanted to be stifled. She needed torture to be happy.
You can read a lot more Benchley here and I encourage you to do so.
5) To a God Unknown, by John Steinbeck – Five years after leaving high school I lived in Chicago and was pretty much alone, and I spent a lot of time in the library. (Remember in The Untouchables when Eliot Ness chased Frank Nitti up a staircase and across a rooftop, after which Mr. Nitti tumbled down onto the roof of an automobile, ending up quite dead? That library.) I decided to reread some of the books I’d been required to read in school and see if any of them made a new impression, and while exploring the fiction stacks I came across Steinbeck. I’d read The Grapes of Wrath, of course, and The Red Pony, but many of the other titles were unfamiliar.
To a God Unknown caught my eye and I took it home. It was Steinbeck’s second novel and has something to do with man’s relationship with the earth. What sealed the deal was this language:
He had been upon a star, and now the hills rushed back and robbed him of his aloneness and of his naked thinking. His arms and hands felt heavy and dead, hanging like weights on thick cords from the shoulders that were tired of supporting them.
I was on the 151 Sheridan bus on Lake Shore Drive when I first encountered this passage – just south of North Avenue – and I had rarely felt so chilled by something I’d read. I remember where I was because I jerked my head up when I came to these sentences. As if the words were precious gems and to stare at them might dull their luster, I looked away from the page for a moment before going back in. That passage cemented my appreciation for Steinbeck.
6) East of Eden, by John Steinbeck – This was part of my high school curriculum, too, but I remembered little beyond the basics of the plot. It’s a great, sweeping story on its own and there are people who consider the book to be overly moralistic. For me, East of Eden was a far better lesson in the Genesis story than all my years of Sunday school. A major plot point is a discussion about the meaning of the word timshel. See this:
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
No more important Philosophy of Life concept has ever entered my psyche, and it was born in East of Eden.
7) Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo – This is something else I found on a Chicago Public Library walkabout. I knew Trumbo’s name vaguely, though as a screenwriter, not a novelist. (He wrote Roman Holiday and Spartacus and Exodus and Papillon, among others.) A classic antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun is the first book that made me cry, and no other ever has. I won’t say what part of it made me cry because of the chance that one of you might pick the book up on my suggestion, and I want the moment to burst out at you as it did to me. I never read Johnny Got His Gun a second time but I was thrilled to know that words on paper could affect me so much and I have never forgotten the feeling.
8) The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck – Several years ago I found myself talking to Thom Steinbeck, the author’s elder son. Normally I would consider it impolite to say to someone, “I love your father.” (I certainly didn’t say that to Frank Sinatra, Jr. when I met him those two times.) But something overcame me and I gushed. In our conversation I told Mr. Steinbeck that Discontent was my favorite of his father’s works. His eyes widened and he recoiled a little and said, “That’s not something I hear very much. That’s some dark stuff there.”
When a condition or a problem becomes too great, humans have the protection of not thinking about it. But it goes inward and minces up with a lot of other things already there and what comes out is discontent and uneasiness, guilt and a compulsion to get something–anything–before it is all gone.
I had already experienced the beginnings of a life kissed cruelly by depression and was becoming increasingly in touch with what Steinbeck called a darkness within us, a theme that appeared often in his work. I’ve appreciated knowing about that darkness and understanding it a little, but at the same time I have tried over the years to remember the timshel concept when the darkness elevates itself. Alas, sheer will isn’t always enough to suppress it.
9) Living, Loving, Learning, by Leo Buscaglia – Anyone who watched Oprah Winfrey’s show in the 1980s knows who Leo Buscaglia was. A teacher, writer and speaker, Buscaglia was known as the “Love Doctor” because of the message he worked hard to convey – that love is the great universal connector of people. What resonated with me especially was the idea that love doesn’t come naturally to everybody and must be learned, that it can be learned. What an optimistic, encouraging concept that was to hear!
I’ve said many times to people, including Dr. Buscaglia himself long ago, that the book helped to save my life, and I believe that.
Watch Leo Buscaglia’s passion here.
10) What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman – This is maybe the most unlikely entry on my list. Feynman was a colorful man, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project and who was perhaps best known outside his profession as a member of the commission investigating the Challenger accident. Feynman was the man who dropped a piece of rubber from the famous o-ring into ice water to show how brittle it became in the cold. The subtitle of this book is Further Adventures of a Curious Character, which sums up its author. From no other scientist have I ever heard complicated scientific…well, stuff translated so well and so enthusiastically into language we lay people can grasp. He also fought idiocy.
Here is Prof. Feynman in a video clip.
10.1) The Elements of Style – This is obvious so I won’t waste your time talking about it.
That is my list.