There’s a meme going around Facebook on the 10 books that have influenced a person. Influence is a mushy word. There are books I liked immensely, the Narnia stories, Watership Down, War and Peace. But have they influenced me?
I chose books that caused me to take specific actions.
The Bible (especially Genesis and Exodus, Proverbs and Matthew), which challenges me to strive to be better than I am, especially towards others.
Johnny Got his Gun (Dalton Trumbo), which caused me to decide I did not want to go into the military.
The Republic (Plato), for the story of the cave, where I too often trap myself.
The Sound and the Fury (wm. Faulkner), because it convinced me to pursue non-fiction writing instead of fiction.
On Writing Well (Wm. Zinsser), which continues to help me deal with the day-in, day-out process of being a non-fiction writer.
House (Tracy Kidder). I figured if he could make this mundane story compelling reading, I could tell great stories about anything. Maybe some day….
The Last Lion (William Manchester), because it’s powerful to read about people who do great things despite their frailties.
North of Boston (Robert Frost), which helped me find the joy and truth in poetry.
Oranges (John McPhee), for inspiring me to rethink how I approached journalism.
Why Things Bite Back (Edward Tenner), which caused me to stop smugly accepting that technological progress is always a good thing.
Since I posted my list, I’ve seen other people’s lists and said “oh yeah, that book!” Or, ‘that makes me think of this book…’ Those have included Guns, Germs and Steel, Tom Sawyer, Democracy in America, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Peloponnesian Wars, Jim Fixx’s Book of Running, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Lippmann’s Public Opinion, The Jungle, Babbitt, The Wealth of Nations, King Lear, Great Expectations, Don Quixote, Sons and Lovers. Complexity, Major Barbara, Darwin’s Century.
Ah, the making of lists has no end.
I hadn’t realized the dearth of female authors on this list until a friend commented on it. So my ten favorite books by female authors, all of which I loved. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a book I talk about frequently and could have made my most influential list:
Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Age of Innocence (Wharton), My Antonia (Cather), A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), The Harry Potter series, To Kill a Mockingbird (lee), Song of Solomon (Morrison), The History of the Standard Oil Company (Tarbell), Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Didion), American Salvage (Bonnie Jo Campbell).
I also made a list of the 10 books I haven’t read that have influenced me, through reviews or zeitgeist…books like Tipping Point, To the Finland Station, Being and Nothingness, the preface to Man and Superman, Calvin’s Institutes, Nichomachean Ethics, Thus Spake Zarathrustra, Godel Escher Bach, Ulysses, Brave New World.
Here’s a post about the 20 most cited books on Facebook so far.
Timing on these books is interesting: college is the dominant influence, followed by my Nieman year at Harvard, almost 30 years later. A few were left over from adolescence, more from the year I had a Templeton-Cambridge fellowship. My early career, especially the week I spent at the Poynter Institute, also saw me reading things that had a big influence.