Ten Influential Books

I have been tagged to list ten books that have influenced me. My knee-jerk reaction was not to do it, because my list would look nothing like others’ lists that are popping up on Facebook. I started to get a complex, reading these erudite lists.

Mine would have no Virginia Woolf or Doris Lessing or Octavia Butler or anything that makes me look or feel wise and smart. In my girlhood, I was touched by the Brontes and Mary Stewart and Daphne duMaurier and Laura Ingalls Wilder…books that had nothing to do with “literaryness” and everything to do with my yearning for a bigger world from my little rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where there were no prairies, no moors, no snow, no castles, no moody atmosphere, no seasons. Where I didn’t look like anyone else at my school. Where I was privileged but felt something was missing. I was different (what young person doesn’t feel different, I now wonder?).

I could have included Woolf’s Room of One’s Own on my list, because it gave me an early high horse upon which to stand when demanding my own sacred space in which to write, whether it was an IBM Selectric that took up a significant amount of space in the corner of our first bedroom, a closet-sized room in our first house, or this lovely room I now have. But putting Room of One’s Own on a list is kind of cheating, isn’t it?

So my list is largely made up of books that became important to me in my 30s and 40s, or books from my youth that I continue to think about as I creep up on spitting distance of 50.

Che Guevara kick-starting a bike and a new way of thinking.
Che Guevara kick-starting his bike and a new way of thinking.

The Motorcyle Diaries, Che Guevara. Because when I finished reading this library book, which I can’t begin to fathom why I picked up in the first place, I said to MIM, “Let’s buy a motorcycle.” And we did. And we rode it. Which probably saved my marriage. And because it showed me how much difference one person in the world can make. What a guy. A young, good-looking, well-to-do guy travelled to visit lepers when few would go near them, and he gained empathy for the native people of his continent as he journeyed. He could have spent his summer going to the beach, frolicking with his fiancée. Whatever your views about what he did later and who he became, it’s a stunning thing to witness a young person’s consciousness expanding on the page.

Three Cups of Tea, One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson. I don’t care how much it’s been discredited, it helped soothe me during my first year of The Little Monster, another story of one person making a difference, which made a difference to me. I have to believe that at least some of it was true. And I’m weary of the Discrediting Police when it comes to memoir.

Henry and June, Anais Nin. Because I’d never before read a truthful sentence like Anais realizing that her husband’s penis was too big for her. Holy smokes! Was it possible for someone to write something so intimate, so taboo? Was there such a thing as a too-big penis? Who would have the courage to write such a groundbreaking thought, flying in the face of cultural norms? Also, I carried it around New Orleans to read when we first moved there, and I made a good friend because of it.

Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott. Because we need more funny, wonderful mothers who aren’t afraid to say they feel like holding their kid by the ankles and swinging them around the room because they are so frustrated.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean Dominique Bauby. Because if a guy can write a beautiful book using only one blinking eye, then surely I have no excuse.

dying achilles
Um, need I say more?

The Iliad. Because classics can be sexy. Achilles is smokin’ hot. Don’t even get me started on Achilles and Patroclus together. (I’ll throw Gilgamesh in here, too, because of the seven-day erection. Classics: sexy. Really.)

Billy Collins, anything. Because he re-introduced me to poetry and showed me that I could enjoy it again and maybe, just maybe, some of the problem was the godawful poetry and not me.

Erma Bombeck, anything. That woman could write. Try doing what she did in 400 words. Her domestic comedy blew humor for women wide open. And she could make fun of her family yet make it clear that nobody need call Social Services.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. A 19-year-old girl sticking it to the biggest authors of her day. They couldn’t even finish the writing challenge, much less bring a character to life who has refused to die for 200 years, birth a new genre, and warn humanity about the disastrous results of meddling. Also, the way that her own multiple miscarriages and infant deaths birthed this book continues to move me. She took lemons and turned them into reanimated brains. (Read Why I Like Frankenstein here.)

Barrel Fever or Naked, David Sedaris. Like Bombeck, he took domestic humor to new and interesting places. Miserable and lonely at my first writers conference, I laughed myself silly on an awful yellow bedspread in my sweltering dorm room and realized there was a place in publishing for me.


Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead and Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Like Mary Shelley, she not only endured unimaginable loss, but turned it into art.  Achilles had nothing on the strength of this woman. (Too bad it turned out she was married to such a schmuck.)

Lord of the Flies, William Golding. Because our high school freshman assignment was to write a new end to this story. Mine was happy, optimistic, and romantic. Humankind was benevolent, love conquered all, eagles flew. Which, admit it, is no mean feat. In later years I’ve thought, if I could append an upbeat ending to Lord of the Flies, I could write anything. I had found my voice.

(If you are counting the items on this list, you’re too uptight.)

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