Reading book by Elizabeth Strout

10 Influential Books

My mama and I got to talking about the books that have influenced us last weekend after that memo that was doing the rounds of the world wide web. I thought it would be a fitting idea for a blog post apropos to this little journal’s literary bent (I try!)

I would love to know your most influential books (either in the comments or leave a link to your blog.) For the sake of brevity, I have only included actual books (not plays or poems or essay collections, though they’ve influenced me plenty too) and thought up this list quite spontaneously on my way to work. For the ten listed here, there must be at least fifty more I love and think of often. All to say, this is by no means an exhaustive inventory, but such are the trials and tribulations of a bookworm. You know how it is, don’t you?

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1.     A Summer To Die, Lois Lowry

I first came across this in the school library in my early teens. Needless to say, it never went back (sorry Ms Howard!) and I still have the same battered old paperback wrapped in crinkly laminate on my shelf. It is the simple and heart-breaking account of a young girl’s attempt to process her sister’s cancer diagnosis.  Its themes are universal and I re-read it every year.

2.     The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

I credit this book with reinforcing my already burgeoning feminist leanings as a teenager. I think it should be required reading for boys and girls alike. It’s a chilling dystopia about the subjugation of women, based entirely on events that have either happened in real life or are documented in the Bible. Thought-provoking and incredibly important.

3.     To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Books you read at school have the reputation of being especially formative and I suppose my education was no exception. I had wonderful literature teachers who fostered debate and discussion, and who loved characters in books with a ferocity that matched my own. I fell in love with kind, troubled Atticus, mischevious Jem and tomboyish Scout. Set in the Deep South of the 1930s, this novel also brought history to life and it has stayed with me ever since.

4.     The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank

I read the diary after finding it on a shelf at home aged ten, and thereafter became mildly obsessed with Anne’s story – so much so that my parents carted me off to Amsterdam to feed my passion and visit the Frank attic. I empathised with Anne so deeply: her dreams, hopes and anxieties, her diary-writing, her flights of fancy, infatuations and family relationships. Of course, that was where the similarities between our personal narratives ended – I could hardly imagine the terror of being locked away in an attic and the quiet bravery of those in Prinsengracht. No matter how many times I read it, it never loses its relevance.

5.     Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild

The wonder of this book lies in its details – white organdie petticoats and audition dresses in black velvet, strolls down the Cromwell Road on rainy days, Posy’s coral necklace, Cook whisking up fudge in the kitchen, Uncle Gum’s fossils in the living room and birthday cakes laced with hidden gold crowns. I was a ballet dancer in my youth, ten whole years of pliés, arabesques and fifth position, so of course I loved Ballet Shoes. And I still do.

6.     Great House, Nicole Krauss

A divorced writer in New York, an ailing judge in Jerusalem, an American student in Oxford, a German novelist in London – the interweaving thread that connects them all is a hulking great desk that once belonged to a famed Chilean poet. It questions how we think about memory and loss. The first time I read this book, I finished it in a single sitting. I have re-read it a dozen times since and I still finish it wondering, asking questions, not quite sure of its ambiguities. The prose is diamond-cut perfection and it’s unlike any novel I have read before or since.

7.     Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain

I read this last December when I was going through a series of unfortunate series of events. I remember reading this on the tube and missing my stop, it was that good. I felt instantly lighter, suddenly understood. It helped me to understand why certain things had happened as they did, why it was great to be an introvert, why people behave as they do in so many situations, how to embrace the way you are. Despite its title, it’s not a book aimed at introverts – it’s about everyone, humanity as a whole and the way we differ. Read it!

8.     The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

Charming and eloquent, managing to convey a subject as knotty and dogmatic as the Second World War in a beautiful novel for all ages. You’ll fall in love with the characters and Zusak’s quirky prose straight away.

9.     Radetsky March, Joseph Roth

When you hear Austro-Hungarian collapse and Joseph Roth, you might think of fuddy-duddy authors in coffeehouses and nothing you can relate to personally. But Radetsky March is quite the contrary – both earnest and comedic, brimming with brilliant symbols, humour and compelling characters. The English translation is excellent, almost as good as the original German which is a rare thing indeed.

10.  Netherland, Joseph O’Neill

For making me fall in love with New York, teaching me that a well-written novel can engage anyone regardless of its subject matter, enlightening me to the rules of cricket, for its beautiful prose and for being my go-to recommendation of modern literary fiction for everyone – man, woman, young, old alike.

So much for brevity, well done if you got to the end of that behemoth. Now you! Tell me which books have influenced you so I might read them too!