Ten Books that Formed Me

Claude Monet’s “The Reader”

The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate… The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty.”
Mark Edmundson

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what books have had a lasting impact on me. I’m at the time of year where I’m looking at the lessons I’ve taught over the last term and redesigning courses, and I was struck by the weight of deciding what the students would read. Books can change us. There’s that moment, that Edmundson describes so well, when we read what we wished we could think or what we had wished was written without even knowing it. Those moments when you think, “This is poetry!” or “This is the story I’ve always wanted to read!” Those moments form us. They shape the way we approach future works.

These books are my moments of “alienated majesty.” They have had some part in shaping who I am as a writer and a reader.

1.  Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Poetry Edited by Catherine Phillips
I know Father Gerard’s poems must be here. I know they may be the most important things I have ever read. I know this particular material book, given to me by my adviser in undergrad must be listed here. But it is so hard to say why. When I look out the window on lazy Saturday afternoons, my “heart in hiding” is “stirred for a bird.” Every fall, I am moved by “worlds of wanwood leafmeal.” And for me, the heart of English literature is that “Truth Himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.”

2. The Divine Comedy

Dante convinced me that all literature is moved  “by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.” The same love that linked Virgil to Dante, Dante to Tennyson, Tennyson to Cavafy. The same Love that moved Hopkins’ lips to quiet our hearts with “Spare!” and “Hush there,” and sent manly, minimalistic Gilbert on his knees in tears as he searched for the last strands of Michiko’s hair. Don’t stop at the Inferno. It is great, but it is the least of the three! Better yet, read backwards from the Paradiso as Dorothy Sayers suggests.

3. A Canticle for Leibowitz

I still can’t believe that there’s a Hugo Award winner that’s all about monks. As I read Walter Miller’s classic post-apocalyptic tale, I knew that this was what I had hoped The Name of the Rose to be. Here is Umberto Eco’s abbey in J. F. Powers’ world. Here is the rich palette of man’s foibles amidst grace.

4. The Wheel of Time

Robert Jordan’s series may seem out of place in this list, but I couldn’t have a top ten list without some fantasy. More than the way the points of view were crafted. More than the way many readers find themselves drawn to the personality of one of the three main characters (I understood Perrin best). Even more than the expansive world-building, Robert Jordan influenced how I write. When I was first finding my voice, his sentence structure, vocabulary, and rhythm resounded with me.

5. Mystery and Manners

In this collection of essays, Flannery O’Connor proposes that

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell them to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced reading, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

And I can’t add anything more to what she just said.

6. Illustrissimi

This book is full of delightful little letters to “illustrious persons.” Dickens is assured that workers are treated better. Empress Maria Theresa is praised for her wisdom. And Pinocchio is given some fatherly advice about girls. Here, Albino Luciani, modeled a way that literature could be understood as relational, as though we are all just sending letters to one another.

7. The Thrawn Trilogy

A few summers ago, my wife mentioned that some Star Wars author would be at the local Book Bin. Knowing my mixed feelings about the franchise, she didn’t think I was interested in this guy, Timothy Zahn. She was wrong. I was too nervous to tell him that he is a big part of the reason why I study literature now. I was young when I read them, just barely able to really understand what was going on, but what I remember most is the characterization of Admiral Ackbar: his gravitas conveyed through the text from his gravely voice to his dignified response to being framed.

8. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction

Wayne Booth’s ethical criticism opened up a world for me beyond the text and the death of the author. Rather than killing the author for our own sake as readers, we can sit and listen. And then respond. We can look at the author as a person with various identities expressed through stories. This book taught me that I didn’t have to change who I was to study literature.

9. The Periodic Table

Primo Levi reminded me of the wonder that anything exists. He tells how carbon says everything to everyone. The same “eternal silence” of hydrogen speaks to the carbon-containing leaf, prompting photosynthesis. Then, that same carbon is present in the brain of the author and his writing instrument, so the solar message is contained in the ink of the book that we have all read: “this dot, here, this one.” No matter how much smoke blots the sky, hydrogen is still forming the universe in that primordial and eternal silence.

10. One Writer’s Beginnings

I was reading Eudora Welty’s autobiography while flying out to a conference. I don’t usually dog-ear pages, but with this one I had to mark it. I couldn’t just take notes but had to physically frame the pages that struck me since it was the experience of the particular page and not a thought that I could take away so easily. Like with Booth’s criticism, I found here an author who articulated what I already instinctively knew: that nothing could frame the human person, not even the plot.

What are the books that formed you? What are your moments of “alienated majesty.”

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