Formative books

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…?


About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (, her Facebook page (, on Twitter ( or at her Patreon page (


Formative books — 7 Comments

  1. Karl May – admittedly without the evangelism, which I could SO do without – has shaped my idea of what a book should be like:

    – epic in scope. None of this 80K stuff with less than twenty named characters and four or five settings, as if you’re in a theatre where scenery is expensive and must be reused
    – trusting the reader to cope with foreign customs and language: here’s stuff you won’t understand. Deal with it.
    – not Euro/UScentric, holding up ‘our’ values as the one and only [*]

    [*] Yeah. Most of the time, the overwhelming effect is that Karl May falls down hard on this. But when you read more closely, Karl May comes across as a lot less judgemental than I remembered; there’s a scene near the beginning of ‘Durch die Wüste’ for instance where the hero and his sidekick find a dead body and Halef immediately goes to pick his pockets – and there’s none of the Christian handwringing you might expect, only an approving ‘as a true son of the desert, Halef made use of every resource.’

    And I was struck how much respect the narrator has for other people, even those who were set up to be comical figures – it’s never just ‘here’s a ridiculous human being, laugh at him’ but ‘here’s my friend, he’s capable and possesses all these good qualities, who is also a ridiculous human being’.

  2. Someone who read Winnetou as formative, yay! Our church library had all 71 editions of Karl May books and when they later thinned them out or replaced them with new editions, I bought some of my favourite ones.
    He may have faked it, but he represented the unusual/oriental as equally valid, Winnetou is years beyond Charlie in unterstanding of that world, as is shown in Winnetou’s Erben and he shows a similar respect to his idea of East-Asian thoughts (I think it was Und Friede auf Erden?), and I ate up his thought of a brotherhood of all men helping each other which also informs those last two books of his, where he completely loses any real geography and goes into the Arabia of his dreams (with and even cooler version of the stallion Rih ^^).
    I probably wasn’t reflective enough to see too much of the faked bits, at least he had women who were important, too (especially when he later brought his own wife into the stories).
    It was a real let down to find out more about his real life, his time in prison and only being able to go to the US when he’d already become a successful author – I think in Germany the cult must have been similar to J.K. Rowling ^^.
    Still I credit him for developing ideas of thinking beyond myself.

  3. When I was studying in Austria, a good many of my friends read Karl May–a couple had well worn copies at home, shared with all brothers and sisters. He had a tremendous influence on at least a couple generations, if not more!

    Heidi was formative for me, too, though it was translated. I think I was in kindergarten or first grade when I read it. I do remember my mother had no idea what a Fräulein was, and numerous other terms, but I’d already bumped up against parental ignorance when I asked for a definition of “humbug” (encountered in Black Beauty) and they had no idea.

    Other formative reading: the Bible, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, J.M. Barrie, comic books that had continuing stories. Hans Christian Andersen had a profoundly negative effect, as I realized by the time I was seven that no girl in his stories was going to survive much less be happy.

    When I turned twelve and got parental permission to go to the adult side of the library, I hit the classics running and never looked back. My first two were Lord of the Flies and a translation of the complete Count of Monte Christo. I remember reading and loving Les Miserables but it wasn’t until I reread it later that I began picking up all the layers of history that he doesn’t explain, like I knew the origin of the rotting elephant that the orphan boy stays in, whereas in my youthful reading it was just there. It was like a trapdoor opened, and I could see a substratum that I’d thought was mere dirt.

  4. I think this post makes evident how much what influences us depends on our native language(s) and on those we later master. I abandoned “The left hand of darkness” 20 pages in because the (Italian translator’s) prose was so appallingly bad. [Don’t worry I’ve caught up since. In English.]

    On the other hand, some of the foundation books of my youth aren’t available in English, or not easily.

    “Storie della storia del mondo” by Laura Orvieto, a presentation of the Iliad in terms suitable for children with gorgeous art nouveau illustrations – because back then children were meant to enjoy beauty even in black and white.

    “Gianburrasca” by Vamba, a realistic, funny tale of a rambunctious tween – couched in a rich Tuscan-flavored language.

    The Italian Karl May, Emilio Salgari – yes, he’s problematic too, but I spent years dreaming I was Sandokan’s best friend Yanez. Go check the old tv series with Kabir Bedi if you can.

    And most important of all: Topolino and Paperino! They are the Italian names of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but in Italy we have our own stories, and they’re absolutely lovely. They introduce children to current issues (from pollution to global warming to the Olympics) and to classic of literature. There is a very old version of the Divine Comedy with actual verse in it, but also Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Cervantes, and so on. The Italian stories are available in Germany (in translation) but I don’t know in which other countries.