10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

A friend and co-worker of mine shared the following with me on Facebook recently:

“Here’s another game of tag: Rules: In your status line, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard–they don’t have to be the “right” or great works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends, including me, so I will see your list.”

Consider this post an “ignoring the rules” kind of thing.

I like this question a lot, but I’m a thinker, I really hate “Here, do this on the spot!” So I am ignoring the “don’t take more than a few minutes” part in the game, and taking my time and offering some reasons behind each entry.  Additional, I am going to try to provide some order to them (though I’ll admit that won’t be perfect probably). Considering the list selections below, my personal criteria for choices, beyond the above question, is that 1. I’ve read each more than once (and several more than twice or thrice) and 2. that I regularly talk about or think about these books in the context of reading in general. So, here we go, starting at #10:

10). A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

While neither the first book I read by Bryson (that was A Walk in the Woods) nor the most “WOW!” inducing book of science I have ever read (not certain on what that one is, possibly either A Brief History of Time  or Dark Banquet but not certain on either, or possibly some other altogether), A Short History of Nearly Everything nonetheless has a staying power with me.  A big part of it I think, is that Bryson’s desire to understand things, his seeming insatiable curiosity (a trait that is apparent in almost all his books) reminds me a lot about myself.  This book explores a ton of questions about how we know what we know about the world.  It is a fantastic primer on science history and theory in general, but furthermore, it is an accessible and easy read. Never pretentious or vain, Bryson successfully invites the reader to partake in the wonder of our understanding of the world.  And it works!  I recommend this book to people all the time, and when I speak to others who have read it themselves, they often have a similar response as I do.

9). Theory of Religion by Georges Bataille

During my undergrad studies in college I pursued a minor degree in Philosophy which means I had a chance to read a lot of philosophical works of various degrees and on various subjects.  I would say that a vast number of these works have had important influences on my life, but none so more than Bataille’s Theory of Religion. Georges Bataille is a little remembered French philosopher and author from the WWII and post war era in France.  His works cover a wide range of topics from economics to human sexuality.  They are often daunting and thick reads, require slow contemplation and repeated rereads to really pull out the threads of what he’s discussing.  As someone who has self-identified as an atheist and agnostic for the past decade or so Theory of Religion has provided me with the most complete set of tools for thinking about humans religosity and acts of the “sacred” and “divine.” Simply put, I find it a continually fascinating read. As is the case with probably all of Bataille’s works, this can be very polarizing material, where some folks (myself included obviously) really love it, while others revile it and think of it as trash.

8). ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

As folks who’ve read this blog or know me pretty well, are probably aware, I’m a big fan of Stephen King.  If asked, “Who is your favorite fiction writer?” I’d be very likely to say “Stephen King” (though depending on my mood I think that Philip Pullman – see below – or Iain M. Banks could be occasionally cited).  ‘Salem’s Lot was not the first book by Stephen King that I ever read ( I think it was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon but I might have read The Shining before that), in fact I don’t even think it was in the fist ten of his books I read, but it is, my favorite of his (The Shining, fyi, is a real close second place).  A big part of it, I think, is that I really think ‘Salem’s Lot is scary.  I know the assumption about Stephen King is that most of his books are “scary,” and certainly to a degree a lot of his works do have frightening bits, but overall, most of his stories have never really significantly scared me.  But ‘Salem’s Lot does, and still does (having just read it again a few months back).  Additionally, I feel that ‘Salem’s Lot is second only to Stoker’s Dracula for contention for the title of “best vampire story.” Over the past several decades I feel like Vampires have gone through some serious de-fanging (pun entirely intended) and really just lack the monstrous qualities that I find appealing about them.  Not so with ‘Salem’s Lot (which admittedly, having been published in 1975, was a bit before this “de-fangathon”).  Hands down the vampires in this story are still tried and true monsters worthy of fear.  Add to that the nightmares of pale skinned floating kids tapping on bedroom windows at night, and you’ve got yourself a wonderful piece of horror.  As a note, which can probably be said of a lot of King’s works as they take on age, ‘Salem’s Lot can sometimes feel a bit dated at times while you read it.  I think this is in part because King, as an author, is so conscientious of popular culture and the general zeitgeist of the time periods in which he writes.  If you just remind yourself that the story is supposed to take place in the ’70s, it is not nearly as big a deal.

7). Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

So, initially I had this slot slated from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, (which is a wonderful and worthy book in many regards, and were this list extended to 20 books, would definitely make the cut), but really, if I’m to include a 19th century piece of literature on this list (which I really wanted to) then Frankenstein has to take the mark. I think, that very likely, Frankenstein was the first “required reading” book I read at school and walked away from thinking “I love this book! This is what good literature is!”  I am not even really sure why that was, but I do recall, reading it in 10th grade, and just being amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  It didn’t even feel like work to read it (how novel for a 10th grader who, I’ll admit, had a lot more on his pubescent mind than reading homework – and this from a teenager who generally loved to read).  Fankenstein had such an impact on me as a high school student that I willingly re-read it again two years later, as a senior, to write my Finals Term Paper.  Additionally, it was through having a conversation about the book with a professor at Plymouth University on a college visit, and being presented with a copy during that discussion, that I both chose where I wanted to go to school for undergraduate studies and determined what major area of study I wanted to pursue (English).  Since high school I’ve re-read Frankenstein at least three more times (and was just recently thinking of picking it up again).  I’ve enjoyed it just as much each time.  Really it is simply a fantastic book and one that’ll always have a place in my heart.

6). Dune by Frank Herbert

I really enjoy Science Fiction (and Fantasy, see below) and really could pretty easily make a list of the “10 Science Fiction Books that Have Stayed With Me” but Dune has long been my favorite.  I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I think that it really just has a lot going for it.  There is incredible world building. There is strange cultures and technology. It deals with grand scales of space and time (it feels “big”). And finally, like I think most good sci-fi does, it challenges the reader to look at the real world in different way.  There is a lot going on in the story, but essentially it is a kind of socio-political commentary, as well as a consideration of the power and influence of “faith” on people.  In the realm of sci-fi Dune is definitely not “hard sci-fi” and is, at times, almost more similar, thematically, to a lot of fantasy novels. At times, on more recent re-reads, a lot about Dune has felt kind of underwhelming or predicable (and not just because I’ve read it several times before) but then I have to remind myself, that a big part of that is because Dune has so heavily influenced the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and a lot of what it does has become a mainstay of the genres. That realization adds to my love of it.  I’ll note here, that a close second for this slot (and another that would show up in a list of 20 books) would be Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

5). The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

In some ways I can contrast my reasons for including The Sun Also Rises on this list with my reasons for including Frankenstein. Whereas Frankenstein makes the cut because I immediately loved it, The Sun Also Rises is here because, at first, I absolutely hated it. The Sun Also Rises was another “required reading” book in high school (I believe for 11th grade English).  I read it (well at least mostly) and hated every second of it.  I just didn’t get it.  What the hell was I supposed to like about this book about a bunch of arrogant self-absorbed lushes in France in the 1920s, bitching and moaning about their lives, while progressively getting tanked on wines and other kinds of booze that I knew very little about?  And then their was Hemingway’s famously minimalist writing style.  It just seemed empty and void and nihilistic and I could not understand, for the life of me, why this book would be worth reading, ever.  All and all I felt bitter towards it and Mr. Hemingway, and decided then and there that I was done with the both of them.  I was, however, wrong about that.  Some years later, while in college (either as a Junior or a Senior, I can’t remember now), having been deeply immersed in an English degree and having read a ton more books and learned a lot more about writing in general, I was working at the school library during winter break (I’d opted to stay on campus that winter).  Being winter break the library was quite quiet and so really I just had a good bit of time to get some leisure reading in (something that was a real pleasure in the literature heavy degree of study, which while it provided for tons of reading, little of it was “for leisure”).  There was a display in the front of the library at the time of the 100 Best English Language Novels of all Time (based on this list, which I think is actually an update of the initial list, but the important thing is that The Sun Also Rises is on it).  I’d taken the time to read one or two books from the list (Watchmen and Lolita) just because it felt like a good way to read some reputedly “great” books.  One day, while working the desk, one of my professors came into the library, and after browsing the display for a bit came over to me with a book in his hand.  He dropped it on the desk in front of me and said “Have you read this?”  I looked at the title, and as you might have guessed, it was The Sun Also Rises. “Yes,” I said, with no enthusiasm. “I didn’t like it at all.” My professor raised an eyebrow at this, “Really?” he asked. “Yeah, I thought it sucked.” This made him laugh and then he said “I dare you to read it again and see if you still feel that way.” You see, this professor had my number down pretty well.  For one thing, he knew that I wasn’t somebody to pass up a challenge like that, but for another thing, I think he knew more about me as a reader than I knew about myself at that moment.  I took his challenge and less than 24 hours later had re-read The Sun Also Rises and walked away from it with an entirely new opinion.  This book didn’t suck at all.  In fact, low and behold, it was amazing.  The writing style was ingenious.  The characters and plot were far more complex than I’d originally thought.  Simply put it was a fantastic book.  I later talked to the professor about it, and asked, “Why?  Why was it so good this time?” and he answered “Because you’re a better reader now.”  And that is why The Sun Also Rises makes this list.

4). Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I first read the the William Shakespeare play Julius Caesar in 10th grade in high school (the same year I read Frankenstein).  Previously I had only read one other Shakespeare play, that being Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade, which I was less than amused with (I think I really just found it boring).  My reading of Romeo and Juliet hadn’t really made me view Shakespeare too negatively, but neither had it really enforced any enthusiasm for the Bard’s works.  Overall I think I was kind of stuck with the general young teenage stereotype that Shakespeare plays used a lot of “thees” and “thous” and were just kind of dull.  Julius Caesar changed my mind about that.  Here was a complex political drama about one of Rome’s most famous citizens.  Here was conspiracy and warfare and grandiose dialogues inflaming the masses.  It was intense and moving and oh so powerful.  It was brutal.  I loved it. And from there fourth I have been a huge Shakespeare fan, at this point having read at least half of his plays (re-reading Julius Caesar at least twice since).  Shakespeare is still taught, hundreds of years after his life, and that reason is simply that his works are really good and have amazing lasting potential.

3). The House with the Clocks in Its Walls by John Bellairs

This book was the first book that ever scared me.  Admittedly, my first encounter was not my own reading, but instead was my father reading it to me.  I don’t remember how old I was at the time, though I am pretty sure I was still in elementary school.  And while I found The House with the Clocks in Its Walls to be suspenseful and often terrifying, I also found it exhilarating.  I fell in love with John Belllairs’ books (and the Edward Gorey illustrations that accompanied them) and proceeded to read pretty much everything he wrote.  Additional, John Bellairs was the first author whom I felt real heartache about learning he had died and would no longer writer any more books (a heartache that has been repeated with the death of many other authors since). The House with the Clocks in its Walls was my first delve into the genre of horror fiction, which has been a favorite ever since (see ‘Salems’ Lot and Frankenstein above).  I’ve re-read several of Bellairs’ stories in the years since my youth, and while it is clear that they are intended as childrens/YA books I’ve continually found myself impressed with just how creepy and scary they can really be.

2).  The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

I suspect that this book (or The Lord of the Rings trilogy) is apt to find itself somewhere on a lot lists like this one by other folks.  I think this because The Hobbit is simply that good and that influential (and hey, the next movie is coming out tomorrow, so there’s some lasting power for you). Here is my story why The Hobbit makes my list (and additionally ranks so high on it).  Prior to reading The Hobbit I liked reading okay, and definitely enjoyed it when my dad read books to me, but I wouldn’t have called myself an enthusiastic reader.  More often I read because I had to in school or because I had nothing better to do, but rarely was it because I just wanted to read and take pleasure in the act of reading.  The Hobbit changed all that.  A friend of mine lent me borrow his copy early on in 5th grade and told me I should read it, saying that it was “the best book ever!” I think at first I was skeptical because again, reading wasn’t really my big thing yet.  But I thought I’d give it a try.  My dad seconded that it was a great book, so that added to my interest a good bit (my dad has always played an influential role in my reading habits).  So I sat myself down with it and began reading. And then kept reading. And then read some more.  In fact, I think it became hard to pry the book from my hands.  And when I was done I immediately asked “what next?”  The flood gates had broken, I’d become a reader, and have been an avid one ever since. I sometimes think that it is likely I would have gotten to that point eventually, even without The Hobbit, but really the point is moot.  Hands down The Hobbit, more so than any other book, was the one that made me fall in love with reading. And it is a beautiful story!  Every time I re-read it I am just moved by how enjoyable and perfect a story it is.  I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy too, but at the end of the day I think The Hobbit is the far superior story.  It is an adventure and fantasy of a wonderful degree, and it, like the trilogy that followed has become an absolute pillar of the entire genre of fantasy.  A lovely wonderful read which I will pick up many times again in the future.

1). His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Okay, I will admit that this number one slot is cheating a bit, because it is essentially three books (The Golden Compass – called Northern Lights in the UK fyi -, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass), but seeing as, since they’ve all been published, I always read them together in a whole single read, I feel okay with this lumping.  I am not sure how many times I have read them (obviously I’ve read The Golden Compass the most, as it was the first book published) but the answer is a lot.  In fact I think I have periodically re-read them about every other year for the past decade.  They are not just my most lasting books, but they are my favorite.  I love them more than  anything else I’ve ever read (and suspect I ever will read).  I can’t entirely pin down what it is about them.  They are fantasies and adventures and I’ve read plenty of others of those over the years.  They are at times somewhat predictable and typical of YA books.  In fact, in some regards, I think they are easy to overlook in regards to other YA fantasy novels (the Harry Potter books certainly overshadowed them) but to me they are perfect.  The world building, the sense of wonder, the suspense,  . . . just Everything! They work for me, and move me, and really hit the mark as the perfect books in my opinion.  I’m well aware that their subject matter has been polarizing (but seriously, find my a book that hasn’t been so) and also that some folks just don’t care for them all that much, but my point in writing this list was never defining an absolute for anybody else.  They are my number one, and I feel nothing but happiness at putting them in that spot.

Alright, so this is a hefty post, but damn if it wasn’t fun to write (I hope you who read it enjoy it too).  A few little Q&A things before I wrap it all up (because, hell, why not).

  • Q: How do you re-read books?  I can never do that. A: I guess it’s not for everybody, but the way I see it it is kind of like re-watching a movie you’ve seen before (which is also not for everybody).  I have a lot of books I have enjoyed a lot, and so want to visit them again.  I’ve also re-read a lot of books that I didn’t enjoy too much the first time, but decided to give them a second chance (see The Sun Also Rises above as a good example).
  • Q: Are these all the books you’ve ever re-read?  If not, what are the others? A: Hahaha . . . not by a long shot, and while I’d love to share more, I think that that list would likely constitute its own books worth material.
  • Q: I can’t believe you have “_______” on your list.  That book sucks. A: Well, for starters that is not really a question, but I think I might still be able to field it.  You see, the wonderful thing about reading is that we each have a right and ability to choose for ourselves what we like and what we don’t like.  I have no doubts that there are folks who dislike every book on my list.  I have no doubts that I’d dislike many books on other people’s lists.  But in the end that is okay.  We are free to enjoy and take pleasure from what we will, and that is a good thing.
  • Q: I can’t believe you left “_______” off your list! A: Again, not a question, and again, kind of the same as above.
  • Q: Are there other books that are close to being on this list? A: Lots! I mentioned both The Brothers Karamazov and Foundation above as two real close calls.  Just off the top of my head I suspect that Moby DickHamlet, and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series would all find a place on a list of 20 books.  There are more, and apt to be others in the future.  I suspect my recent reads of both some of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and John Crowley’s Little, Big will have some major staying power with me in the years to come.  But, like the above question, I could really write a whole book itself in regards to the initial question, so for here I’ll keep it to 10.

Anyways, like I said before, this was a ton of fun.  I really enjoy thinking and writing about books that I have loved, and hope that maybe this post will encourage some people to pick a few of them up and give them a try themselves.

Peace

~Nathaniel

~ by Nathaniel on December 12, 2013.

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