10 Books That Changed My Life and Impacted My Writing

In no particular order. (If I had to rank them from 1-10 I would need about a month to analyze them first!)

  1. The Lord of The Rings

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Shocking, I know. But I decided to take a risk and boldly stand by this literary leper. ;P I want to know what author was not inspired/influenced/impacted/impressed by Tolkien’s fantastic trilogy. I recently re-read the series after ten years and I now have a different perspective and a few more years of experience under the belt. (To read my full review of the series click here: http://ebdawsonwriting.com/reviews/books/the-lord-of-the-rings/) Although the movies were, of course, wildly popular, Tolkien’s writing style isn’t exactly pop-fiction. He builds events very slowly, paying intricate attention to detail. I confess I first read the books as a teenager, after the movies came out and I remember growing impatient with Tolkien’s writing at times. As an adult, I adored every bit of it.

2. Ender’s Game

Author: Orson Scott Card

I believe somewhere in the intro Card admitted he hadn’t aimed at writing a literary masterpiece, but a work that was accessible and easy to digest. I first read this work as I was transitioning out of childhood and into adulthood (although for me that line was very blurry for a long time). I loved Card’s style–how it was short and to the point. I have realized since that people either loved it or hated it. One of my sisters, for example, didn’t like it at all. There really are only two kinds of “Ender’s Game” readers: those who “get it” and are completely enraptured by the characters and ideas, and those who don’t. Personally, I completely resonated with Ender–his intelligence, compassion, and desire to “immerse himself in someone else’s will” (as Graff puts it). And to me this is still one of the greatest books on leadership.

3. The Chronicles of Narnia

Author: C.S. Lewis

Hands down favorite books as a kid. Before I could read I used to stare at the covers in wonder and fear, trying to understand the mysteries they portrayed. I love Lewis’ narration style and subtle commentary on “proper society.” I loved all of the children. When the books were adapted into films someone was defending a lot of the changes by saying, “Lewis didn’t really understand children, so we had to add in some more realistic elements.” It made me very angry. The films made them more annoying. They made them try to act like adults (Susan telling Peter at the river, “This isn’t our fight, let’s go home.” And Peter trying to send the other three home just before the battle. Ugh. Most of the changes to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I could stomach. I still like the film. But when I went and saw “Prince Caspian,” in theaters I went home and I cried. A little dramatic, I know, but proof of how they are so deeply embedded in my heart)

My brother and sisters and I are TCK’s (Third Culture Kids), which means we also had a “secret world” that no one around us could understand. So I instantly understood the Pevensie children (and Eustace and Jill). They were our friends. And they were noble and brave. They didn’t try to be responsible adults. They just did their best. Anyway, these books will always be a favorite because of their rich imagination and compelling themes.

4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Author: Douglas Adams

Bizarre. Quixotic. Hilarious. I’ve always tended more toward drama and adventure in my reading. This was probably the first comedic book that I read. And I loved it. Hugely creative, it takes you from one side of the universe to the next (or to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe in the sequel) and often makes no sense whatsoever, but remains remarkably insightful. It makes fun of society and makes fun of itself. It taught me how to laugh at myself and for that I owe Douglas Adams a debt.

You might not think so at first glance, but it is also very much a philosophical work. Some critics have said that since Adams tears apart every philosophy and worldview that his work is nihilistic. I strongly disagree. I think if it were nihilistic it would leave the reader thinking that life was pointless. But in me it always creates a new vigor for life. It’s true he makes fun of a lot of philosophies, but he also gives you a new appreciation for the simple things in life.

5. Moby Dick

Author: Herman Melville

For a long time I had no desire to read this book. It sounded boring and/or brutal. And I always heard bits and pieces about how crazy Captain Ahab was. A number of years ago, however, I discovered that classics are free on Kindle (oh happy day!). I made a resolution to read more classics. I think I started Moby Dick about two years ago. But let’s be honest…although I appreciate and respect Kindle, I hate reading more than a few pages on any digital device. My attention wanes quickly and my commitment to the book wanes even faster. So, even though I was intrigued by the opening (I had no idea Moby Dick started out so funny), I hit a roadblock not long after they set sail. I decided to borrow Moby Dick from the library, but at that point I was so busy that I wasn’t making it very far. Finally, I found a copy at a used bookstore and I jumped in whole-heartedly. Even so, it took me a while to plough through.

Needless to say, Moby Dick and I were on-and-off companions for at least two years. It became very comforting, actually. After a few weeks, I’d find myself with some free time and I’d pick it up again and submerge myself into the world of ships, salt-water, and an oil-lamp industry powered by the killing of whales. Granted, there were some scenes that I shuddered at. But it helped that Ishmael (the narrator) often hinted that he understood the barbarism of what they were doing.

In any case, the majority of the book (although based around the premise of hunting whales) is really about the life at sea: the ship and the men who manned it. Melville is a master of prose. His descriptions of the the ship and the ocean (at sunrise, through storms, through glorious weather) is absolutely captivating. His character portrayals are hilarious and haunting. Frankly, I fell in love. Years ago my English professor drove me crazy for a whole semester by marking down my papers to B’s (yes, I was that type of student). In high school I had mastered the art of long, complicated sentences and was quite proud of it. This particular professor was not impressed. He didn’t give me an A until I learned to communicate directly and to the point. Today, I am very grateful for that. However, when it comes to story telling, I have different thoughts. There is part of me that appreciates clear-cut writing (like Card’s “Ender’s Game”). But there is nothing quite like a story that builds a rapport with you over many pages, wrapping its arms of descriptive narrative around you like a warm blanket. Right now I would describe myself as a clear-cut author. But someday I would love to be a Herman Melville.

6. The Giver

Author: Lois Lowry

Besides “The Chronicles of Narnia,” it was one of the first dystopian/fantasy/SciFi/futuristic novel I had ever read. I love how Lois Lowry instantly submerges you into this world. It is easy to picture and to swallow. There’s a mix of simplicity and complex technology in this world. And I immediately identified and fell in love with the themes.

The ultimate message–that pain is important because it teaches you and adds contrast to joy–resonated deeply with me. I don’t remember if it actually made me cry, but it makes me want to cry every time I read it. It spoke so very deeply into my life without even knowing me and showed me how to live my life better.

******

7. The Man Who Was Thursday

Author: G.K. Chesteron

This may be the first real surprise on the list. I can guess that most of you have never heard of it. I hadn’t either until a few years ago. G.K. Chesterton became one of my favorite authors in 2012. He has a unique ability to dive into philosophical/political/moral issues with a sense of humor and well-grounded reason. Human minds are so very different. When you’re a kid you tend to think everybody’s about the same (or maybe that was just me). I used to get so surprised when people behaved in a way that I couldn’t understand. As an adult I have realized that there are as many different ways of thinking as there are jelly belly flavors (bad example?). It becomes even more obvious when you run across that person who thinks exactly like you do. G. K. Chesterton is one of those for me. I was pretty familiar with his nonfiction works when I finally decided to read, “The Man Who was Thursday.” I won’t spoil it for you.

All I will say is this: it surprised me in a way no book has in a long time. It takes some very unexpected twists and at one point I considered maybe Chesterton had gone mad. There were several times when I thought, “He can’t do that! What is he doing?” What I love about it is that he incorporates his philosophical thought into every scene and every character. But not being a Chesterton expert, I only understood about half of what he was trying to communicate until after I had read an analysis of the book. Just like it’s one of my goals to be a Herman Melville author, it is one of my goals to be able to write fiction with rich, layered philosophical undertones.

8. The Odyssey

Author: Homer

This one’s been a favorite since high school. I have a soft spot for mythology. There really is only one word to describe it: epic. Heroes, villains, great deeds, the extravagance of the wealthy, the jealousy of the gods, the hospitality of the stranger, the burning desire of one man to get home. I once wrote a 12 page paper on the theme of hospitality in this book. Why has it influenced me as a writer? While doing the research for that paper I came to realize something. You can learn a lot about Homer’s audience if you apply a critical eye. This isn’t a historical narrative of Greek life. It is a story to entertain, but also one that encompasses their dreams, hopes, and values. The wealthy heroes often do nothing but lay around all day having extravagant feasts. That isn’t exactly my recipe for happiness (I would get bored pretty quickly). But maybe it was for them.

My point is this: five hundred years from now, when people read the heap of novels that we have amassed, what are they going to deduce about us, the readers? In my paper I made a case that Homer’s audience were average, hard-working people who needed the ideal of hospitality in order to survive in a perilous time (I’ll add that many historians share my opinion). What will future historians deduce about us when they read, “The Hunger Games,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Life of Pi,” or the Harry Potter series. (I’m not necessarily condemning them or praising them. I just want you to think about the messages of each.) Honestly, I think there is a lot of junk out there. I think that most popular fiction has turned into a game of “let’s play the what-if game and live out our fantasies/nightmares through our characters.” There is a place for examining the “what-ifs” and there is a place for pure entertainment. But I want to be the kind of story teller who improves the lives of her readers. And I want to affirm that there are many authors out there (even mainstream ones) who write extremely entertaining fiction with moving and inspiring messages.

9. 1984

Author: George Orwell

This was a controversial pick for me. But I realized this list isn’t necessarily about books that I love, but books that impacted me for better or for worse. The truth is that I hated this book. I read it the summer of my sixteenth year. I remember the day I finished reading it and the feelings that swept over me. Thank goodness a huge rainstorm came in that day or I would have been extremely depressed. I grant that the book raises a lot of interesting themes and questions. I grant that a lot of critics hail it as visionary.

I was personally horrified by the ending. Orwell takes the reader into some very deep, dark, psychological waters and then promptly ends the book. Now, maybe I’m just sensitive (I am, actually. But not in the weepy kind of way. It’s just that ideas take deep root in my mind) but it wasn’t worth it. From this book I learned that there is a line. I grant that there is a time to explore the dark, morbid side of humanity, but only if you can come out the other side with a ray of hope. This book showed me the line that I don’t want to cross. I’m sure Orwell had his reasons for how he wrote this book. I have made a commitment that I will always write hope into my books. (I don’t think that means all of my stories must have happy endings)

10. Lord of the Flies

Author: William Golding

This was another controversial pick for me. I think it is appropriate because it shows the other side of my argument from the last book. This isn’t a happy book. I think I know more people who hate this book more than they hated “1984”. I respect that. It goes to show that everyone takes away something different from a book and people are entitled to their opinions. I didn’t love this book, but I did like it. Even so, I only read it once and I’m not sure I’ll ever read it again. It was intriguing and emotionally charged. Parts of it were horrifying. But over all it was thought provoking. It was one of those books that snagged a corner of my mind and has tenaciously hung on for the past eleven years in the midst of many novels that have passed in and out of memory. For me it wasn’t a pleasant read, but it was a worthwhile read.

Whew! I made it! When I decided on making this list I thought it would be a piece of cake, but it actually took a great deal of thought. I have read a lot of books. Some of my favorites didn’t make it on this list, because even though I love them, I can’t say they impacted me as an author. Some of them are guilty pleasures that just make me feel warm and fuzzy (Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North and South”). I may have to look back at this list and edit it in five years.

What are some of the books that have impacted you the most? Any thoughts on the ones I chose?

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