Various bloggers are posting their lists of the ten books that have influenced them in their lives. I ran across this on Balkinization, where constitutional law professor Jack Balkin posted his list. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy made his list, which was a bit unexpected (the only other fiction in his top ten is The Brothers Karamazov). His list is otherwise heavy on deep thinkers.
Balkin got the idea from economist Tyler Cowen, whose list includes one book in common with Balkin’s (Plato’s Dialogues) and is even shorter on fiction — Proust’s Rembrance of Things Past is as close as he gets.
My first reaction to both lists was a surprise at the lack of fiction, because it is fiction that profoundly affects my life. Art tells the truth that mere facts often overlook. Or, as Georgia O’Keeffe put it — in a poster I just hung on my wall — “Nothing is less real than realism.”
So here is a list of ten books — in no particular order — that have affected me in powerful ways. Most, but not all, are fiction.
1. Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City. For a number of years after I first read this book, I found myself saying “Doris Lessing deals with that in The Four-Gated City” in response to almost every deep subject that came up in conversation.
2. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. I know, I know. I’m supposed to say The Left Hand of Darkness. But it was the anarchist world contrasted with the material world that moved me, especially given the number of years I spent organizing co-ops.
3. Joseph Heller, Catch-22. I wrote a serious paper on this book in college, and re-read it on my first airplane trip after September 11. In that time of rampant hysteria, I found it still soothed me, even though, like Yossarian, I was pretty sure that people were trying to kill me (and not just terrorists). It’s a pretty good catch, that catch-22.
4. J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey. I’ve read this book — it’s really two novellas, but they should be read together — more times than I can count, and I still cry at the end every time. And I don’t even believe in God.
5. Joanna Russ, “When It Changed.” OK, this is a cheat, I suppose, because that’s a short story, not a book. Again, I’m supposed to list The Female Man, which I do consider a great book and certainly the absolute best work of fiction in any genre rooted in the feminism of the 60s and 70s. But while I respect The Female Man, it didn’t affect me emotionally the way the story did. It says worlds about the misogyny that all women experience that I, despite being sexually attracted to men, found an all-woman world so appealing.
6. Michael Ventura, Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A. I like virtually every essay in this book, but my favorite remains “White Boys Dancing,” which I first read in the long-defunct Austin Sun. The idea that upper middle class white men can’t dance because — unlike men from less privileged classes and women in general — they don’t have to be aware of their bodies to protect themselves still resonates with me. And underlies a lot of my ideas about self defense. If you noodle around a bit on Ventura’s website, you’ll find it and some of his other provocative essays. His fiction’s good, too.
7. Anna Fels, Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. This discussion of the importance of recognition in achieving one’s dreams, along with its discussion of the lack of recognition usually accorded to women, made clear to me on an intellectual level what I knew in my gut but didn’t have the words to express: We may have seen an explosion in opportunities for women, but we are still adjusting to the change. Check out my review of this book for a more detailed discussion.
8. Toni Morrison, Beloved. I read this recently, and up until I read it, I would have said that I understood the horrors of slavery. But this is a book that shows why art, and particularly art with a fantastic element, tells the truth so much better than a list of facts. By the time I finished the book, I not only understood the horror of being owned as property, I understood how that experience could make people hate themselves and also make them do something unspeakable rather than subject their children to such evil.
9. Elizabeth Coatsworth, The Cat Who Went to Heaven. This is a children’s book, but I discovered it as an adult. It’s another one of those books that always makes me cry, no matter how many times I read it. You want to understand love and compassion? This is your book.
10. William Shakespeare. Henry V, when I want a story with fight scenes and moral dilemmas. Of course, you can’t really read it without knowing the wastrel Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays, too. Or maybe As You Like It, which is the first Shakespeare play I ever read and the one I still love the best, maybe because the women get all the best lines. Perhaps Shakespeare shouldn’t really count, because I’d rather see the plays performed (if done well) than read them. But I read most of them first, and I bet I quote Shakespeare once a day, without even thinking about it.
So there’s a list. If you ask me again next week, you might get a different list. Nothing is so changeable as influence. But all those works have mattered to me, and continue to matter.
You may have noticed that there are no martial arts books on my list. That’s not because I don’t read them; it’s because my ideas about martial arts and warriorship are more formed by training than by reading. I may be a reader, but reading isn’t the only place I go looking for truth.
Nancy Jane has stories in all three of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy, “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and “Dusty Wings” in Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.
Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty (plus one new one) of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.