After reading this great post about the ten books that most influenced an author over at First Thoughts (one of my favorite blogs) a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on my own list. The list changed drastically over a few drafts, and I’ve been surprised by the final results.
These are not necessarily my favorite books (though many of them are), nor are they what I’d consider the best books I’ve read (though, again, some of them are). These are the books that have most contributed to who I am today. For better or for worse, these are the ones that stuck with me, changed me, that left some deep imprint impossible to explain me now without.
The only caveat here is that I decided not to include any scripture on this list. For it to be accurate, they should be on here, but I ran into too many problems. Should I count them all as one monolithic book called “Scripture,” separate them into Standard Works, or separate them even further into individual texts by author? The more I broke them down, the more I had to wrangle with how to rank them. It got too thorny, and I just decided to ignore that altogether for this list.
The original list at First Thoughts, along with many of the comments afterwards, cheated by doubling up on books and squeezing more than ten onto these “top ten” lists. This draft has significantly fewer than my first couple, but I’ve still elected to cheat, also. My top ten list has twelve titles. If you really want to be a purist, cut off the last two.
I’ve listed them here roughly in order of just how much they’ve shaped me, and I’ve included the general period in my life when I read them.
1. Hugh Nibley, Nibley On the Timely and the Timeless (college). This isn’t my favorite Nibley book (his Book of Mormon works or Approaching Zion would probably get that nod), but this “greatest hits” collection deeply impressed me at the time with its range of classical literacy to social criticism to studious, spiritual discipleship. It was the first Nibley book I read cover to cover, and started me on the path to the rest of his oeuvre. The way that I read scripture, study history, and understand the practical relations between things ancient, esoteric, and pragmatically modern are all heavily influenced by his life and work (though, since reading his biography–which I took with me to read on my honeymoon because it had just come out and I couldn’t wait to start it–I have attenuated this idolizing a bit and tried to expand my circle of influence). Undeniably, his books have had more of a profound effect on me than any other. I bought an old copy from E-bay several years ago…right before it was reprinted in a new edition.
2. Hopkins and Sugerman, No One Here Gets Out Alive (high school). I owe this one to my older brother. Like all boys, I worshipped my older brother, so when I was old enough to emulate his adoration of classic rock, I followed suit. I came across this biography of Doors frontman Jim Morrison and devoured it. For a moody, pretentious adolescent, it provided a role model worthy of my own egomaniacal imagination. This book’s influence reached far beyond my devoted memorizing of every note on the legendary Best of the Doors two CD set. Even back then, I would read biographies with an eye especially keen for what great people had done at my age. Morrison had been, above all, a voracious, even a ferocious, reader, and a nascent poet.
My own forays into poetry reading and writing were not terribly productive (though I still like The Lords and the New Creatures), the titles and authors cited by Hopkins and Sugerman as formative on Morrison–James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, the Romantics and French Symbolists–became my bread and butter for years, and sprouted branches of further influence that still dominate what I read today. Though I certainly no longer emulate Morrison or his lifestyle, I can’t deny that this book has had a huge impact on me over the years. Just last week I was flipping through radio stations and heard “L.A. Woman,” and I fondly paused to listen to some of it. This book may be dormant, but it is in my DNA.
3. Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (early 20’s). Perhaps significantly, this was the first major book I remember reading after my youthful divorce, at a time when I suppose I was trying to “find myself.” This may seem like an unusual, maybe even a prosaic, guide to discovery, but it connected with me in a powerful way. I found in it a realized vindication of all my latent desires for self-improvement, for significance, for greatness. I clearly recall thinking about almost every decision I made for a couple of years after reading it, “Wait, is this really a quadrant two activity?” Hey, there are worse ways to live. Before reading this, I often said I wouldn’t be caught dead scheduling my life in a planner (this was still under the influence of Jim Morrison, I suppose). After reading The 7 Habits, that changed overnight. I’ve been attached to planners ever since, to my infinite benefit.
I’ve been wanting to read this again for a couple of years now, to see what else I can get out of it…
4. Sheri Dew, Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (early 20’s and again in early 30’s). I read this the first time when I was still coming back into activity in the LDS Church (really, just starting out maturely for the first time), and found in this magnificent epic life a primer, a history of the Church in the 20th century. I learned a lot of basic history from it, and was overwhelmed by the scope of spiritual grandeur to find in one humble life directed in the right way. I came back to it just a few years ago and, as I wrote about Jim Morrison, especially paid attention to where my own life found me then–a young husband and father, balancing the needs of a growing family with deeper demands to Church and community, establishing myself in a career and trying to keep up with it all. I still remember the most impressive parts, which I’ve documented here. I should read it again after another ten years and see what new riches it has to propel me with then…
5. (tie) Frederic Bastiat, The Law (college), and Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (late 20’s). The first title is a little book, a translation from a 19th-century French work, that a leader at church with whom I worked closely gave me when I expressed a growing interest in politics. Bastiat explains simply, clearly, and forcefully that the only legitimate function of government is to protect private safety and property. I read John Stuart Mill’s similarly concise and classic On Liberty several years ago and loved it, but the less famous Bastiat is the superior thinker. I’ve thought of myself basically as a libertarian ever since. Speaking of an unwavering devotion to freedom, Bastiat is tied for influence with another political tract that emphasizes liberty, though one that I’ve read much more recently and one that is *ahem* significantly less concise.
No, Atlas Shrugged isn’t perfect, but its status as a mainstream underground classic (a bestseller that is religiously ignored culturally), makes me want to love it even more. I’m so glad to have read it, especially as I have been able to use it (like the author of this classic rant in the Wall Street Journal did) as a touchstone and metaphor for practically everything that has happened in the world in the years since I did so (as readers of this blog can no doubt wearily aver).
6. Henry David Thoreau, Walden (late 20’s). Though I’d read sections of this over many years, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I sat down and swallowed this philosophical memoir cover to cover. By the time I had done so, my copy was marked on almost every page. I’ve used excerpts from this in almost every class I’ve taught since then, and have recently resolved to make it the flagship introduction to my American Literature classes from now on. I had a high school teacher who once noted that steady readers all have those old cherished books that they can dip into for sanity. Mine is Walden.
7. (tie) Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych, and James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man (college). The single biggest surprise for me about this list has been how few literary novels are on it, and how far down on the list they are. Still, it is what it is. I remember reading the little Tolstoy novella for a World Literature assignment in college, one morning between classes, on a threadbare old couch on the second story of the old student union at UNLV, in the dimly obscured early sun. I was as absorbed in it as I’ve ever been in anything I’ve ever read. This story of a man facing imminent death coming to terms with the wasted falsity of his entire life woke me up like a face full of freezing water. I’ve never looked at relationships, work, or values, or much of anything, the same since. If I’m a serious, grave person at heart, thank Tolstoy.
The Joyce entry mostly has embedded itself into my being as a work of art for art’s sake. This is my ideal conception of the written word as an art form. The second and fourth chapters in particular still resonate with me as the eternal chords of perfection in this form, like a note struck on a divine instrument at the dawn of time. I once thought of painting something, if I were a painter, from the point of view of someone lying on a couch, holding up an open copy of this book, as if the viewer were reading it. The visible pages would dominate the canvas, but around it would clearly be a landscape of breathtaking, earth shattering beauty, peopled with all the best joy life has to offer. However, only the words on the page, at the center of the painting, would be clear. The rest would be merely background, a border, a blurry afterthought. This may not be totally healthy, but such is often my view of life, and it’s largely due to Joyce.
8. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (late 20’s). Like Atlas Shrugged, this is one that I have seen in almost everything since reading it and, like Walden, this is one which has found its way into untold class lessons. Postman’s voice is clearer to me than that conscience in my own mind. His warnings are so prescient, his understanding of society so profound, I honestly can’t fathom how anyone could resist him. I’ve read less persuasive prose from Plato and Aristotle. If you’re seeing this and Walden on here and wondering if I’m some kind of reactionary Luddite now, you may not be too far off. I’ve never believed in keeping my head in the sand.
9. Hickman and Weiss, The Dragonlance Chronicles (junior high school). This trilogy represents the oldest entry in my chronology, and the only fantasy. In fact, this epic was the starting point for all my fantasy reading–perhaps all my beloved genre reading–including who knows how many more of these Dungeons and Dragons books thereafter. This is far from the most literate of fantasy novels, but it greatly broadened my horizons at the time. I’ve checked Dragons of Autumn Twilight out of the library twice in the last several years at high stress times to help escape for a bit, and have found it a welcome old friend both times.
I also have to wonder now just how much reading this prepared me to later convert to the LDS Church. As Hickman is LDS himself, there is a lot of borrowing from Mormon history in the plot, so much so that when I was meeting with missionaries, I quickly recognized where Hickman had gotten some of his ideas.
Warning: Do not waste your time with the direct to video animated movie of Dragons of Autumn Twilight from a few years ago. It’s beyond awful.
10. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy (high school). How could this NOT be on here? What else has contributed more to my pervasive (and predictable, and punctilious) sense of humor more than this? (Other than Calvin and Hobbes, and Dave Barry, and Monty Python…) Here’s how influential this is on me: just last week, I recommended it to my daughter, who was looking for something different. (She had made the mistake of saying something about towels…) She loves it and now my son wants to read it next. And the legacy of influence continues…