1. Nancy Drew Mysteries—Reading these books are the first memories I have of needing to read–as in, I need to know whether Nancy figures out what the heck is happening on Larkspur Lane. Long after my mom called “lights out,” I sat hunched under the covers reading by the red light of my digital clock radio. It was not easy, and is probably why I now wear glasses.
In short, these books made me a reader.
2. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery has a way of describing nature that makes you want to be a tree. I think appreciating nature was inborn for me, but she put it in words. Before reading her, I wrote stories that were all action: “The Easter Bunny hopped down the street” and so forth. She taught me about details, about creating a picture with words, well before any of my creative writing teachers said, “Show, don’t tell.” I tried to imitate her writing, and my 6th-grade musings about crabapple blossoms won a contest.
3. North and South – I saw the TV mini-series first, the one with a young Patrick Swayze (Orry) and James Read (George—my fave). I was SOOO serious about this series that I placed my tape recorder next to the television speaker and recorded it. Oh, yes, I did.
The storyline is soap opera-y, but it sparked my 4th grade mind like nothing else. A couple of years later, I read the three 1,000+ page books in the series by John Jakes and a lifelong interest in slavery and the Civil War ensued, and therefore a greater knowledge about race and racism, and the Civil Rights Movement.
And really, it’s not a stretch to say that knowledge led to a greater appreciation for humanity and made me a better, more aware individual. All that from a book decidedly not part of the canon of English literature. This is why I think it’s okay, even necessary, for teachers to have all types of reading material available to students, even comic books. If students are reading, that is good.
4. Grapes of Wrath—I like all of Steinbeck’s books, but this was my first. It taught me that characters could be specific, not generic. The dialogue, the realities he presented, made me interested in people, in the small stories that make up the bigger world. The book also taught me that we can’t get through life alone—we need to seek help and offer help.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird—a well-loved book for good reason. This book taught me about moral courage and human kindness. My favorite scene is the one in which Scout follows her father to the jail and faces, in all her innocence, the lynch mob. Children simplify things, and in speaking to Mr. Cunningham as the individual he is, she shames the mob into dispersing.
Also, who doesn’t want to name their son or dog or fish Atticus?
6. In Cold Blood—Truman Capote had the idea that you could write a “novel” about a true event. It didn’t have to be dry. It didn’t have to read like a newspaper article. True stories can have flair. They can have dialogue, as well as descriptions on par with L.M. Montgomery. Capote researched the murder of a Kansas family so thoroughly, you wouldn’t believe it actually happened.
In the same vein, The Killer Angels (7) brings the battle of Gettysburg to life like no textbook ever could. This is what students should be reading in history class.
These two books showed me that “true” is compelling. This might as well be called the Thank you, Truman Capote and Michael Shaara (and Steinbeck) Blog.
8. Shakespeare—Can’t pick just one influence. Shakespeare’s mastery of timeless themes and observations on the human condition reminds me, as a writer and a human being, that the simplest answer is often the best, and the hardest. 1 + 1 = 2 and it always will, but we humans have a tendency to want to throw some extra digits in there, usually fractions.
Of the ten or so plays I’ve read thus far, I’d pick Othello as my favorite—jealousy, racism, deceipt, it’s all there. But my favorite scene comes from Henry V, before the Battle of Agincourt:
…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accurst they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That is the end of a rousing speech that is just badass. (For those of you who thought Steven Spielberg came up with the title for his HBO series–or Stephen Ambrose, for that matter, whose book is the basis for the series–the answer is always: Shakespeare.)
9. Crossing to Safety—Deep in the book, Wallace Stegner describes a college scene in which the men are, appropriately, “men.” The women are “girls.”
Sexism can be a hidden, tricky little thing.
In writing so, Stegner taught me to be aware of the influences around me, especially the subtle ones.
So – what book(s) influenced you?