When did I first decide that I wanted to write? It’s funny… I don’t remember. I wouldn’t say that I have always wanted to write, but I can say that I’ve always loved to read.
This week, one of the assignments that my writing partner and I gave each other was to choose a book that made us want to write… and of course, I could not think of just one. Which led me to wonder, is it fair to try and only choose one, or would it be more honest to say that it was all books, or maybe the act of reading itself that gave me the urge to write? For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I’m hesitant to try and answer that question. At times, a single phrase in a book overwhelms me with inspiration. Other times, I find a deep sense of gratification in the story as a whole. And then there are the moments when the sheer act of turning a page, of smelling an old book, of holding it with both hands, is a deeply spiritual, emotional experience.
As we discussed our picks, I was struck anew with the realization of how deeply influential good writing is and how transformative it is when people learn to read. As a young girl, my days were filled with great stories, pages, and words. When my frizzy-haired, stick-figured self had no one to relate to, I always found deep comfort in the weight of a book in my hands, and a deeply awkward main character, not unlike myself, that could be found within it’s pages.
And at every stage of my life, it seems, I’ve found book after book that meets me where I am emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and it takes me somewhere new. Even better, I love to find out that the people who wrote them were also once awkward, inquisitive, imaginative young people that found books and authors that inspired them, too.
The Official List:
1. I Think that It is Wonderful - I read this over and over when I was little! The start of my love for poetry.
2. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume – between the ages of 8 and 13, I read this about 400 times! It was the first book that I remember mentioning World War II, Hitler, and anything about being a Jew. Note to teachers and parents: I recall this book much easier than any elementary school history lesson…
3. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster – the first book where my teacher told us to think about writing themes and messages, rather than merely text.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle – between the ages of 10 and 14, I read this about 800 times! The characters were so unique, but utterly relatable.
5. Harry Potter (1-7), J.K. Rowling – controversial those these books were in my household, they had a huge impact on my life and my desire to write. My own peers, kids who at one point felt indifferent to reading where consuming these books like after-school snacks – all 700+ pages of each one! And suddenly, the underdogs, the awkward, geeky kids had a hero who fit their mold. And suddenly, it was cool for teenagers to talk about the things that are important in life, like love, friendship, good versus evil, and ask ourselves, could we be as brave as Harry, Ron, or Hermione?
6. A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray – initially, it was the sheer gorgeousness of the cover that made me pick this one up. But the style of writing, the character of Gemma Doyle, and the recurring theme of coming of age as a young woman had me hooked from the first page. (Sadly, the sequels don’t quite live up.)
7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – by the time I finished college, I had read this book for a class no less than 5 times. A little daunting after the third time, but I still love it. The first time I was assigned to read it was in my high school British Literature class, and after reading it we had to write a 10-12 page research paper. To this day, that paper is one of my proudest accomplishments [135 points out of a possible 135 points from one of the most demanding teachers at our school!) and I am still utterly fascinated by the layers and layers of meaning to be found between it’s pages, not to mention the inspiring author herself who dominated her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron – at the age of 18, no less!
8. The Reader, Bernard Schlink – It’s simple: this book changed my life. I was working at my hometown library as a page, and one day I came across this book. The cover looked interesting, but I was drawn to the simple, mysterious title more than anything. It was the Oprah’s Book Club seal on the cover that kept me from actually checking out for 6 months… When I finally did pick it up, I found a story so rich with compassion and raw, utterly human history that I could not believe that I had not even heard of it before. It’s been made into a great film, but I highly suggest you read the book first. If I had to choose, this would be the book that made me want to be a writer.
9. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – If I were stranded on an island and could only bring with me one book, this would be it. The characters, the plot, the writing – all work together to create this magnificent and completely original love story. It’s like listening to your favorite album on repeat – it just never gets old, and you feel like the characters are real, like they live in your head, and that each word was written for you. DO NOT under any circumstances see the film before you read the book, or I swear you may never pick it up. Even if you read it first, I’d say the movie is a rental at best. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, that cinematic “interpretation” is like getting McDonald’s when you ordered filet mignon.
10. Atonement, Ian McEwan – Of all the books I could have chosen to take with me when I traveled in Europe, I impulse-purchased this one in the airport just before we left American soil. Talk about context. Once again, the writing itself is reason enough to love it, but the characters and the story are so vivid and heartbreaking that it was glued to my hands for the first two weeks, save for that whole seeing the world part of my trip… Again, this book has a film adaptation, and I am happy to say that it is every bit as good as the book itself, although I always recommend reading it first.
Tell me, what are your favorite books?