So the current meme going around is to list the ten books that have “stayed with you” through the years. It’s always cool to see what books have been meaningful to my friends. I got tagged by my friend Jim Colbert on Facebook, but I thought instead of just listing them, I’d put them here with brief descriptions of why these particular books mean so much me.
(These are not in any particular order)
1. The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi
This is the first book I ever fell in love with. I read it in 6th grade for a class assignment. I loved it because the protagonist was this insanely strong 13-year-old girl. She is the only passenger among captain and crew on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The story is told in first person as she struggles to find her place among the ruthless captain (who has promised to take care of her and return her to her family) and the mutinous crew (whom she has grown fondly attached to over the time spent sailing.) My favorite part of the book is when, in an act of unbelievable courage and bravery, she whips the captain across the face for his ridiculous treatment (he ends up killing two men) of the crew. She later joins the crew to rebel against him. Charlotte Doyle was my role model at 11-years-old. I wanted to stand up to the lions of injustice just like Charlotte! She would be my entry point into my desire to live outside societal norms and expectations and also to reject authority. From there on I looked for strong female characters in books and movies and art that were just a bit “different” from the rest.
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
My first (and only, admittedly) exposure to Salinger would be a required reading in my 11th grade Honors English class with Jeremy Lenzi, a fantastic teacher and overall cool guy. (He was the only teacher during my tumultuous years of high school to pull me aside and ask if I was ok.) Holden Caulfield just seemed like the quintessential fuck up, and I was drawn to him. He had no clue what he was doing. And he wrote – a lot. I could identify with him. I felt like we were a bit of kindred spirits.
3. A Short History of the World, by John M. Roberts
This has been my “Bible” for teaching my ancient world history course these past eight years. It has a ton of great information, written very concisely and understandably. I’ve lifted some short text from it to use for quotation analysis assignments and discussions. I don’t know how I would teach ancient world history without this book.
4. On Writing, by Stephen King
Every year I would write in this sort of baby book/journal what I wanted to be when I grew up. Every year from the time I was six until I was not writing in it anymore (early teens, I suppose) there was always one profession that never changed: writer. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember: short stories, memoir pieces, young adult fiction, non-fiction, journaling, poetry… I’ve dabbled in most of the various forms. When I got “serious” about writing, my junior and senior year of college, I bought this book at the recommendation of a writer friend. I had never read any of Stephen King’s work, but I knew plenty about him, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this. But it’s fantastic. part memoir, part guidebook – he lays it all out there on what one needs to do to become a good (and hopefully, successful) writer. I love how un-romantic he is in telling his backstory of becoming a writer, including his stint as a teacher. I’ve read it at least twice, and started reading it again recently, though I have so many books on my “to read” list that I decided to go with one I haven’t read before. But I use it as a practical resource for tips and strategies when I’m writing or when I’m stuck with my writing.
5. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon
I haven’t read this in ages, so I can’t recall specifics about this story, just that I remember loving it. Maybe I was drawn to it because it was set in Pittsburgh, and the descriptions of the city just came alive in my head. I’m so in love with Pittsburgh and sometimes I don’t understand why I don’t live there. I also just loved the realness of this story. There’s the main character that can’t get his shit together, falls in and out of love, gets into trouble, tries to find his way in this thing called life. A friend recently bought me a copy, so I’d like to read it again soon.
6. Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
If Charlie were a real person at my high school, I would have fallen madly in love with him. Everything about this character just attracted me when I read this book as a 12th grade English class. And I’m still attracted to him now, as an adult. He’s shy and has a hard time making friends. He makes a “soundtrack” of his life through mix tapes. He makes friends with all the “outcast” kids. He gets involved in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. He experiments with drugs and alcohol. He befriends his English teacher. He has a mental breakdown. How can you not relate to that character? How can you not fall in love with Charlie in all his idiosyncrasies.
7. Harry Potter (British series), by J.K. Rowling
I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until I was on a Blue Star ferry from Italy to Greece in the spring of 2004, seven years after it had first been published in the UK. I was reluctant at first because I thought it was a “kid’s story” but, as I’m sure many of you are aware, I was so very, very wrong. I’m partial to the UK editions, since it just so happened that every time I went to buy my next book, I was out of the country, and therefore the only editions available to me where the UK editions. But the UK editions have all of the British dialogue and slang, which got hacked or adapted for the American versions. Harry Potter is the only book (I think I was on number five, but I can’t remember) that I’ve just sat up all night reading. Admittedly part of that was because I was too terrified to go to bed. What an absolutely incredible story. J.K. Rowling is an absolute genius.
8. London (DK Eyewitness Travel Guide), 2003 edition & Europe (DK Eyewitness Travel Guide), 2003 edition
Ok, this is technically two books, but they go together like oil and water. (Wait.. that can’t be right.) These two [heavy] books were carried by me and my travel companion and dearest friend, Nicola, on a six month journey across the pond (aka, the Atlantic Ocean) from January 2004 to July 2004. These guidebooks served as our Bible. They were precious and coveted and we hunched over them imagining all the amazing places we would visit on our travels. I still have them on my bookshelf, now worn and outdated, but to me they are relics. When I open the pages I’m instantly transported to the places we visited and the memories we made while on our adventure.
9. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzo (translation by Brian Browne Walker)
I picked this up when I realized I needed a good resource for teaching Taoism to my 9th grade students. But the unexpected surprise is just that I fell in love with the poetry. There are some beautiful passages in the Tao Te Ching and I encourage anyone who is even the slightest bit interested in Eastern philosophy check it out. My students really dig it as well.
10. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t finished reading this book yet, but I already know it’s going on this list. I’m so in love with this woman and her journey. Much of what she has to say about her own identity, her struggles, and her marriage resonate deeply with me. I often find myself crying while reading her words or saying over and over in my head: Yes! Me too! That’s how I feel!
Plus, she’s such a fucking badass for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. But more to the point, she realizes this is what she needs to do in order to obtain clarity on her life. And that sounds romantic, of course, which Strayed mocks early on in her journey. She comments that she hasn’t had any time to reflect on the questions that brought her on this journey because she’s been too busy dealing with her immediate and physical suffering from her hike. Here is what she says in regards to her questions she wanted to answer while on her journey:
“I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d week tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feed did and my bad did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips.”
And then to top it off, she chooses to carry Adrienne Rich’s book of poems, The Dream of a Common Language. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but for those of you who have gone multi-day backpacking you know that every ounce of weight is weight you have to carry on your back. Packing for a backpacking trip is a refined art. So I just thought it was cool that she couldn’t leave Adrienne Rich behind, even though it meant extra weight to carry.