There are many lists of “gotta read” books on the Internet. At least some of them start from the idea of the “formative” books of one’s life, the ones that changed the way you saw the world, that changed the way you thought or felt about things, that got under your skin and played their part in the kind of person you grew up to be. Some of the “formative” lists limit themselves to a defined chronological subset – books encountered before high school, for instance, when the reader is still young and malleable enough to be changed by such things. But since I firmly believe that we never really stop learning, I decided, instead, to come up with the first 20 books that came into my head that I would consider to be “formative” for me in the sense that they matter to me deeply or that they were milestones of sorts in my life or reading career. Although much of this list – nearly half of it – does meet the “before high school” criteria, some of the others were encountered when I was older, some merely by virtue of having been encountered later than they should have been because my level of English, the language in which I read them in, governed the chronology rather more forcefully than the actual age that I was at the time – and one or two I read as more or less an adult, but they have left a lasting impression on me and I consider them, at this point in my life, as formative as anything else I can remember.
So – here’s my list:
1. Heidi by Johanna Spyri – the book on which I learned to read (I was four. And I taught myself to read, on this book, because my mother wouldn’t read it to me AGAIN. I am not sure how precocious my understanding of all of it was but it was a book I wanted another go at and when Mom declined to start over at the beginning I just took matters into my own hands. Talk about formative!)
2.The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (part of a set of her books, translated into my cradle tongue, that my parents had in the glass-fronted display cabinet in our living room The books were beautiful, red-covered with gilt edged pages; but that was just the surface of things. I was seven or eight when I first reached for these volumes and lost myself in them. What was inside was so much more marvelous than the outer covering, lovely and enticing as it was…)
3. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (I STILL cannot read the final page of that book… for the simple reason that I am crying too hard to SEE it…)
4. Vreme Smrti (The Time Of Death) by Dobrica Cosic (yes, there IS a translated version – but I read it in the original Serbo Croat; and while it is a gripping book in any language it will probably not resonate half as much for someone who ISN’T part of that culture and that land as it did for me)
5. Winnetou by Karl May (It was the first book that made me cry while I read it – and yes, I COMPLETELY realize it’s corny, and problematic, and utterly devoid of any realistic ideas, written by a German whose ideas of the Wild West and the Noble Savage were less than, uh, accurate and whose evangelistic tendencies drove me nuts even at the very young age at which I read this thing – but I think you basically have to be twelve to read this, and it’s something of a rite of passage in Eastern Europe. It’s only as you grow up and grow more aware of the world around you that the thing becomes… increasingly iffy. I include it on this list with trepidation, even, because it means admitting that (a) I read the thing and (b) it was meaningful to me. But at the time I read it, it WAS, and in retrospect, it was a launchpad for wanting to know and learn more, even if that meant eventually coming to the regretful realization that the thing which arguably pushed me in the direction of becoming educated was in itself something which that very education then repudiated… )
6. My son, my son by Howard Spring – hell, ANYTHING by Howard Spring, the man is a genius at giving you the story of a life in a way that makes YOU, the reader, share it. You would think that making you live a character’s life WITH THAT CHARACTER has the potential of being ponderous and pretentious and slow – but it isn’t, in the hands of this writer it isn’t. It gives you insight and empathy and compassion and understanding – and once you learn to do that for a fictional character it’s SO much easier to apply the lessons to real people around you. And you become a better person for it.
7. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay – that spoke to my MARRROW… I don’t know how this man understands loss so profoundly but he does, oh, he does, and all the things I have lost cry out in recognition when I read this novel.
8. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres – the man really knows what makes people change. My husband is fond of telling people that when we were courting I suggested he read this book – and that it was clear that it was a test he could not fail…
9. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – and once again, most things by Vonnegut. It’s just that I do believe that this was the first work of his that I had read, and as such it holds the pride of place here. I love the way he sees the world.
10. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien – seriously, do I have to explain this…?
11. The fairy tales of Oscar Wilde – they have always made me cry, and not just because of the story. His use of language is exquisite.
12. The poetry of Desanka Maksimovic (Hey, I can’t help it if I can read in several languages!)
13. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott – this may have been the first time I saw history as STORY rather than dry dusty fact. I owe Scott a debt of gratitude for that.
14. Through Desert and Jungle by Henryk Sienkiewicz (also read originally in my own language, in translation, as a child, and a beloved book to this day – it’s a generational thing, it was given to my mother by her uncle when she was a child, and then given by her to me when I was young. Another of those books which were very much of their time and with its problems, given that fact, but it’s a comfort read for me. When I’m sick or unhappy or simply need something I love to hold close I’ll go re-read this one. It makes me think of being held in my grandmother’s arms and being told that everything will be okay.)
16. Almost anything by Ursula le Guin
17 Le Morte d’Arthur by Mallory (and, as corollary, The Once and Future King, by T H White) – I have a peculiar THING for Arthuriana, and it’s this book, or this unlikely pair of books, that may be at the root of that. I know that the Arthur of the legends is not real, not in THAT way, nor did the fabled Camelot ever really exist – but the characters who people these tales hold a deep fascination to me. I even wrote a novel about Guenevere when I was 18, and THAT identified me as her in the eyes of the young man whom I was seeing at that time to the point that I wore her skin, I BECAME her. How much more formative can you get…?
18. the ORIGINAL Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales (not the sanitized stuff, thanks very much, I loved the visceral quality of the originals)
19. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (I learned English at ten; at thirteen I was reading the full-blown, unabridged, fulsome and stylistically tough set of Forsyte novels. That was a milestone for me. I know this is true because that volume was a gift from my father, and inscribed to me from him. I still have it. And it’s all the more treasured since he died.)
20. Narnia books by C S Lewis – but I have to caveat that with the simple statement that I loved those things far more before I began to see the stuff between the lines. I am not GREATLY fond of allegory meant to teach me lessons in order for me to become, I don’t know, saved for a greater good. I will always love Aslan, though. Because he is Not A Tame Lion.)
What a mad jumble that is… It’s often been said that mixing one’s drinks leads to faster and harder intoxication – here I’m mixing genres, languages, reading levels and subject matter with such wild abandon that it’s no wonder I wound up as drunk on language as I am…
So. What books are rattling around in YOUR head…?