Books and Influence

I’ve seen a few people talking about books that influenced you and with A Wrinkle in Time coming out soon it reminded me of how lucky I am to have had a lifelong astrong connection with books.

I’ll start off by saying that I actually read A Ring of Endless Light (also written by Madeleine L’Engle) before we read A Wrinkle in Time in class in 5th grade. A Ring of Endless Light left such an impression on me that one teacher thought I was suicidal since I started taking out books with themes surrounding death and suicide for a while after because I was so interested in its themes. Endless Light is a fairly well known book and they even made a terrible Disney movie out of it that basically removed all the major themes but I’ve actually never heard anyone else talk about reading it?

My love of books was probably fueled from an early age by my parents. My mother, an avid reader and sci fi lover, passed stories down to me through traditional bedtime stories as well as more challenging books read out loud and discussed. My father, a strictly non-fiction reader, read the newspaper out loud every day and often discussed his readings of law journals, dockets, and contracts with me.

I was a voracious reader as well as a completionist who wanted to finish not just whole series of books (like the Cam Jansen series) but also an authors entire works which often led to a journey in to the adult fiction section. A lucky placement in geography landed me in a library system which had extraordinary access to books about nearly every topic and I took full advantage of it.

Elementary School

Entering school was a boon. Owing to a series of exceptional experiences, I was in classes with teachers who were interested and engaged with their students. Reading was a major priority and I remember that the library in our school wing at one point was themed differently every week. From classes, I really remember were The Cay and Maniac Magee and how we used them as starters for discussions surrounding racism, classism, and homelessness. We also read a (fictionalized history book) about Natives being pushed off their land at the end of the Revolutionary War but for the life of me I cannot recall its name because it was pretty blah and also 3rd grade but I think about it sometimes.

I know we read classics I ended up loving like Where the Sidewalk Ends because we had to memorize and recite a poem from the book AND a poem we created. Also From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler because I got in a friendship ending argument over that book. Obviously there were a lot more but they just didn’t make an impression on me.

Since I was a prolific reader on my own it’s hard to remember if a book was assigned or if I read it myself but I know we read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 (in 3rd grade) but I remember hating it so I’m surprised because I went and picked up Dear Mr. Henshaw and Strider on my own after that anyway (same author, different series). I loved those so much I wrote a thank you letter to the author after finishing them.

We read a lot of books that made some impression on me but that I didn’t love. I think in this age bracket lots of “classics” just have less to them or maybe I just read them so long ago they don’t resonate the same way closer things do? I started reading a lot of YA series during these years though and the only one I can say has rippled with me through time is  Animorphs and that deserves note.

I also loved murder mysteries and during a difficult time, I bonded with a teacher who would share Sherlock books with me as well as thick tomes of turn of the century American literature. I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass probably 3 or 4 times through. I also had a fascination with haiku and couplets. I started reading a lot of non-fiction starting around age 9 or 10. I would read the Guinness World Records from cover to cover for some reason. This is when I started getting in to comics as well.

Middle / High School

In middle and high school, almost all the books we were assigned I had already read. The type of impression that left on me was that “classic” literature was too small a circle. I even took in a class in high school that was just reading past best seller books and writing diary entries around them. I read three books a week in that class, powering through a ton of mediocre garbage. Credit where credit is due: That class is the only reason I read Harry Potter at all.

In middle school books really helped me. In school the only book I really remember from that period was Island of the Blue Dolphins. On my own, I read 1984 which left an unimaginable impression on me during the camping trip I read it on (so much so that I ran through the forest in the middle of the night because I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the world upon finishing that book). I read Siddhartha, and then as much as I could about religion in general. I read leagues of sci fi and fantasy novels, a few too many to name drop. One of the strangest books to make an impression on me was a book I found in a pile of refuse books my mother had, The Encyclopedia of Ancient and Forbidden Knowledge. Which I hid from my mother, despite the book being an innocent reference book about the occult. It touched on so many things and led me down many rabbit holes of knowledge in my life. Which brings me to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Language which helped solidify my interest in linguistics.

During high school were assigned No Exit in class which led me to follow up with reading Being and Nothingness, a tome which I still have with meAlso from school a slew of classics that stayed with me Antigone, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching GodInvisible Man The Stranger, The Metamorphosis (which led me to read The Trial). Many notables during this time including When Rabbit Howls, Tulips and Chimneys (reading a poem from this during class got me sent to the principals), Down and Out in Paris and London, The Bell Jar, and Slaughterhouse Five.

I feel like Death of a Salesmen should get a shout out here because we read it in school and it made such a lasting impression on me that I sometimes simply think of it out of the blue, but I didn’t really like it.

I also read tons and tons of comics and manga but I didn’t want to include those on this list because they’re much less finite and written by so many people .

College

Landing in college, the first book I read for myself was a good one: Catch 22. A book which stays fresh in my mind to this day.

Most of my time in college was taken up with reading non-fiction and textbooks, a practice I still employ. It’s harder to say what does and doesn’t impact you in the world of non-fiction though because it contains bits and pieces directly from other places. Or it’s all books with names like Inflectional Morphology: A Theory of Paradigm Structure. So I’m basically just going to take about the best class I took in college based on its reading material: Satire.

The teacher a sly, thin 60-ish year old woman who dressed in mostly black and walked like minx, simply gliding around the small classroom. We read 10 books, watched 5 movies, and read over a dozen short stories in the 15 week class and I loved all but one of them.

Most noted among the books though were Candide and Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus itself an odd case of middle child among Vonnegut’s books but it got right down to the core of me. Having already read and loved a Vonnegut book (and the Vonnegut book at that), I’m still not sure why it never resonated with me in the same way as Hocus Pocus does. The books share themes, ideas, and tones but the gut punch never came for me in Slaughterhouse. As a bonus the class caused me to read a couple hundred more satire books. With varying success.

The one other notable book in college is an odd one I read for the Honors Writing Course I aced but regret taking. I had enjoyed a book a few years earlier, Refinements of Love: A Novel About Clover and Henry Adams which is an interesting but largely unremarkable book but for this class we read an actual book written by Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, an oddity of an autobiography written in third person about the turn of the century. I got stuck on his words a lot. Many passages remind of the perpetual motion machines and the predictive computer in Hocus Pocus. In Adam’s words:

[H]e found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.

The Beyond

Free of assigned reading for the first time since I could read the whole world opened up to me. One of my first novels I read outside of the school system was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I also devoured whole the book Snow. I finally read The Scarlet Pimpernel, which turned from one of my favorite plays to one of my favorite books that became a play. Americanah is a particularly lovely one from recent memory. Favorites such as Never Let Me Go, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and White Teeth will probably be with me for a long time.

Also one very middling steampunk novel really stuck with me, Dream of Perpetual Motion. I think like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (which is bad, just skip it), the title lends Dream of Perpetual Motion a little more weight than it deserves for its under baked use of a great premise.

It’s hard to say what books will stick to me like glue moving in to the future and I’ve no doubt missed MANY favorites in here but I think this is where I’m going to leave you – wanting a little more.

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