I've been compiling a list of the books and novels that have had the greatest influence on my life. Not just in terms of when I read them or how I came into contact with them, but the novels which have left the most marked impression on my psyche.
These are the books that changed how I view the world. Each one of these books left an indelible mark on me, and in some way changed the way in which I experience one or more of the deep themes in life: growing up, relationships, war, poverty, adversity, triumph, defeat, anger, joy, love, and many, many, many more.
It's sort of like a bibliography of the research paper that is my life. The subject of my thesis? Life itself! The professor? Existence. The deadline? To be announced.
Lacking any better system of organization, I've tried to organize my sources not by title or author's name, but by the order in which they first entered my life.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
An excellent introduction to weighty themes: travel, adventure, growing up, stepping outside your comfort zone, and epic fantasy adventure.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The first time I tackled this monumental series (in the fifth grade, no less!), I set myself firmly on a path of lifelong bibliophilia. To this day, I still have a great weakness for any fantasy novels with appendices in the back.
D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
It's hard for me to imagine not knowing Greek mythology. This book is probably the biggest reason for that. I got my copy from my Grandma when I was twelve or so, read it cover-to-cover in a day or two, and probably haven't forgotten a single detail since then. I can still tell you any story in that book with only the illustrations as a prompt.
Animorphs, by K.A. Applegate
Teenagers who use alien technology to shape-shift into animals. Slowly, over the course of many books, the strain of losing loved ones, living double-lives, and always running scared actually begins to warp and damage their personalities. Practically an instruction manual for running a real-life underground resistance against an equally-underground invasion force.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
This blew my mind when I first read about it in Muse Magazine when I was twelve. The author's deep-seated awe at the simultaneous diversity and unity of the human condition is about as close to religious as I get.
Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
I'm getting married in about two months, and the ceremony is going to be Harry Potter-themed, so you can probably tell that this one's had a larger impact on my life than almost any other book on this list. Harry taught me so many important lessons: that bullies are even more scared than their victims; that bad people can redeem themselves; that love is truly stronger than hate; and that it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman
Ever since I was a child, I've never understood why so many authors like to portray children as innocent, or essentially good. This trilogy does a pretty good job of ending that old lie.
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
I'm still grateful to my father for making me read this when I was in middle school, well before I had a chance to start nurturing any adolescent fantasies about fighting wars.
Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This is hands-down the funniest book I've ever read. It has caused me to literally ROFLOL. And it's also one of the wittiest and most insightful commentaries on religion, belief, and faith that you will ever encounter.
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Even though this is definitely fantasy, I don't think I've ever encountered a more unsentimentally realistic portrait of the true driving forces behind the march of history: sex, blood, and personal grudges between members of the ruling class (whomever they might be). If you're going to try to rule something, anything, then read these books first.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
I don't think that I have ever read a more frightening book in all my life. Not because a zombie apocalypse is a plausible scenario for how the world will end (it isn't), but because of the horrors that human beings would be willing to inflict on one another in their struggle to escape such an end.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen does the impossible: she's an independent, resourceful, eminently badass young woman who's willing to do whatever it takes to survive the Hunger Games, yet despite her incredible feats of endurance and fortitude, the acts of violence she commits to stay alive are never, ever glamorized. Which is the only way a story like this could possibly be told, if the author has a shred of integrity.
Next Week: Dave's Compendium of the Greatest Graphic Novels