My friend Daniel shared an interesting post on Facebook: his top-ten books that have “stayed with him.” I take that to mean: books that are almost integral to your personality; books that you’ve read several times in your life that continue to be meaningful and thought-provoking. I LOVE the idea of this list, especially while pondering the problem my students face with their struggle to become fluent readers. I hope that they will have a list like this when they “grow up.”
Here is my list, and I tried to be accurate with the order of when I first read each one:
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
Roots by Alex Haley
Different Seasons by Stephen King
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Earth Abides by George Stewart
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Something I find very interesting about my list is the influence of the people who gave or recommended these books to me. Most of them came from my stepmom Nancy. She gave me Gone with the Wind in paperback when I was in fourth grade. I still have that copy and it is, hands-down, one of my most cherished belongings. I’ve also read it multiple times. The scenes I’ve created in my head of Scarlet and Mammy and Rhett Butler are real live memories. They are like people I grew up with. Mammy says that Rhett is just a “mule in horse harness.” Man, I really feel that! Re-reading Gone With the Wind as an adult, and juxtaposing it with Roots, was sobering and enlightening. I still have a sentimental regard for GWtW, but I consider it differently now. And the afterword of Roots? It has to be one of the best things I’ve read ever.
Roots and Different Seasons (the novellas contained inspired three pretty great movies. “Shawshank Redemption,” anyone?) were also books Nancy shared with me, and she probably gave me my copy of Silence of the Lambs as well. But Mr. Smith (see this post) handed me a copy of Dandelion Wine when I was in fifth grade. I have enjoyed reading it several times through the years, and it spoke to me as a youth and as a grown woman. It is poetic and magical, not quite what you imagine when you see that Ray Bradbury is the author. Mr. Smith also recommended Blink when I was an adult. It blows my mind every time I read it, and I’ve since read each book Malcolm Gladwell has published. He is, hands down, my favorite non-fiction writer. (His podcast “Revisionist History” can’t be missed!)
It may seem creepy that Silence of the Lambs is on my list. Whatever. I just re-read it this summer during jury duty, and it still resonates. Thomas Harris turned the hunt for a serial killer into something beautiful to me. His use of language is sparkling and direct. Clarice Starling is one of my favorite characters, along with Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. They were intelligent young women who fought against a world that wanted to keep them categorized as mere “pretty girls.” I can pick up either of these novels and read happily with delighted suspense as to what will happen to my heroines.
The Sherlock Holmes stories are fun, yes, but it always stuck in my mind: the importance of paying attention to details. Not that I can solve any crimes: years ago I tried to question my daughter Daisy, who was under the influence of pain medication from her wisdom teeth removal, about who had snuck out a downstairs window. There were fingerprints in the dust on the window screen and the sill, but who made them? Her loopy response was the same as when she was alert: it must have been a robber. (She never did give up her sister, who confessed years later to sneaking out to meet friends.) Anyway, Sherlock Holmes instilled a personal regard for keeping quiet and paying attention my environment.
The Count of Monte Cristo is plainly a fantastic story of a good man, unjustly accused and punished, who is sustained by the idea, and execution, of revenge. And his revenge is so grand and calculating! I love this story. I love the ending, with everything in its place; the hero victorious (but not healed by his win) and the villain vanquished.
If you haven’t read Earth Abides I won’t tell you that you need to, but dang, I enjoyed the heck out of this book. I recommend it to others often, and refer to it frequently in my head: what would I do if everyone on the planet, but for a select few, contracted a deadly virus and died? It was written in the 40’s, before The Walking Dead and World War Z and all the other humankind-in-peril, apocalyptic stories became mainstream… well before the Corona virus outbreak. There is no enemy, in the usual sense, aside from the virus that quickly annihilates modern society; just human nature, and Nature-nature. I also think about approaching problems differently, especially with students with learning disabilities. Isherwood tries to instill in his “tribe” the needed knowledge to regain use of the now defunct tools of society, like how to fix cars, guns, and houses. He wants his tribe to learn to read, as the knowledge of the whole world is contained in the libraries. He finally realizes that he has to teach them other things in order to ensure their survival. I keep this idea at the top of my brain: I love to read and I enjoy writing, and I can’t measure the value of my own success without these skills. However, some people need other things first in order to survive. Their success will be measured differently, and that is ok. Everything happens in its time.