5 Books That Shaped Your Life

Ellen DeGeneres recently linked to a great site called You Are What You Read, where everyone can share the five books that shaped their lives.  Some celebrities, like Daniel Radcliffe, have accounts – of course he lists “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” but his explanation is very sweet: “I think it would be pretty churlish of me not to say Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for giving me everything that I have and everything that I will have.”

(Dan, can we be friends?  I think you’re an awesome guy.  This interview convinced me.)

Anyway, in lieu of making an account, I thought we could all have a nice chat about the books that have most influenced us.  Fun, right? I thought so.

Here are mine!

1. “Illustrated Man” by Ray Bradbury.  I’ve gone on tangents about Ray Bradbury before, so I’ll just say that this fanastic, indescribable, mind-bending collection of stories blew me away and inspired me more than anything else to become a writer. 

2. “Arrows of the Queen” by Mercedes Lackey.  I sometimes wonder what would have happened to me in high school if I hadn’t gotten my first fantasy novel for my 14th birthday.  What kind of books would I have been interested in?  Would I have seen “Lord of the Rings?”  Would I have read for fun at all?  Mercedes Lackey is still the only fantasy author I’ve read to great extent, and her books are now a deliciously guilty pleasure, but “Arrows of the Queen” introduced me to an entire genre, one that captured my poor angsty melodramatic teenage brain and never really let go.

3. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It’s an excellent book, plain and simple, and every time I read it, I uncover new details.  This one makes the list, though, simply because I keep going back to read it.  Most school required-reading books are hated by default.  Some of them deserve it (ahem, “Heart of Darkness,” “Mumbo Jumbo”); others don’t.  This one definitely doesn’t, and I’m glad I gave it a second (and third and fourth) chance.

4. “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.  Books can have secret messages?  What?  What is this allegory of which you speak?  It means a book can make a point about something without ever talking about your real subject?  And a gazillion other books like “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Lord of the Rings” use it as well?  And I’ll try to write my own thinly-veiled allegorical stories in high school and beyond about World War II and religion?   Inconceivable!

5. The “American Girl” books.  I read a lot of series growing up – Animorphs, Goosebumps, and Star Wars books stand out in my memory. I don’t think any impacted my worldview as much as the American Girl stories.  They didn’t shy away from the scary, terrible things in life, and the characters suffered.  In the very first story about nine-year-old Kirsten (the first AG book I ever read), she survives a long, hard journey to the USA, only to see her best friend die from cholera.  In the first story about Addy, a slave girl, she’s beaten, forced to eat worms, and runs away with her mother, leaving her baby sister and grandparents behind.  Other characters’ grandparents die.  They lose their homes.  They witness cruelty and grief, but they deal with it – and best of all, they provide a mirror for all the other little girls out there who felt sad or alone and didn’t know what to do about it.  These books taught history in a deeply personal way, and laid out the foundations of an important concept for young minds: all the big wars and political events you learned about affected people who were just like you. 

So what books impacted your life the most?

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12 thoughts on “5 Books That Shaped Your Life

  1. Have you seen Daniel Radcliffe sing the Periodic Table? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBcj1QWTdP4

    The American Girl series was incredibly special to me, too. I got the first three books of Felicity, Samantha and Kirsten for Christmas one year, and no one saw me for two days! I’m so impressed with the model that American Girl built – trying to create a face for every girl who wants to see herself reflected back. Their magazine used to be fantastic, too – girls could send in the stories of women in their family and have paper dolls made about them. Now it’s a little more mini-Seventeen, but I still love it.

    • Let’s see…I don’t know if I can come up with five, but I know at least one:

      Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov, to this day one of my favorite books. Yes yes yes I KNOW it is about a horrible creepy pedophile and his pedophilia, but that book showed me the immense beauty of the English language, which I had used in a roughly utilitarian way before then.

      I also have to give a lot of credit to the Great Illustrated Classics books that my parents bought for me at a young age. Even though they were abridged, they included topics that most other books for my age group excluded because they were too adult: death, manipulation, murder, the good stuff. I was gratified to know that there was something more to books than Miss Mousie’s Picnic.

      • I still haven’t read Lolita. I probably oughta. Did Nabakov write in English or was it translated?

        Ooh, yeah, I had a couple of the Great Illustrated Classics. I remember being scarred for life by “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” though – the gypsy girl dies, AAH WHAT?

      • I haven’t read Lolita, but I’m a fan of Nabakov for the butterfly work he did. Harvard has the cupboard where he kept all his dissected butterfly genitalia, and I used to love it (in a non-creepy way, I swear).

    • Yes yes yes!! I think I’ve posted a couple times about how awesome American Girl is (or at least they were before Mattel bought them). I absolutely loved the paper dolls – I thought they were a great way to get girls to investigate their own heritage. It’s too bad they aren’t printing them anymore.

      The company still addresses a lot of important issues, though: bullying, racism, divorce, etc. It’s just hidden under a pile of doll sports uniforms and furniture. 🙂

  2. What a great topic! Totally agreed on Mercedes Lackey, what a huge part of my teen years. Magic’s Pawn will forever be my first and favourite, and I am so grateful for the early lessons in tolerance from being introduced to such a strong, lovable gay character.

    Born Free, by Joy Adamson. This (the true story of a woman who raises an orphaned lion cub and then rehabilitates it back into the wild) was my favourite movie from the time I was 4 and my favourite book as soon as I could read it (4th grade?). Looking back, my career choice comes as no huge surprise (with Adamson and Jane Goodall’s writing as major inspirations), despite the fact that I didn’t cop on until 3rd year of college.

    The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne (plus the Chronicles of Narnia, The Owl-Stone Crone… the list goes on). This one is less about content (though I have incredibly fond memories of the Hundred Acre Woods), and more about how my older sister, who read all of these books aloud to me from an early age, inspired my life-long love of reading. To this day we trade excellent reads.

    • Oh wow, I had forgotten about it, but you’re right – Mercedes Lackey books were my first introduction to homosexuality. That is kind of a big deal. I didn’t read the Vanyel books until later, but there were still one or two gay relationships in “Arrows.”

  3. Oh jeez. I don’t know if I can answer this question appropriately without putting a lot of thought into it, and unpacking my book collection. I think the Arrow of the Queen was my first Mercedes Lackey book too, although I find myself even more fond of her fairy tale retellings these days. And while I had never thought of it until just now, her books were probably a good early lesson in tolerance, because in a lot of her books, for the most part same sex couples are viewed as pretty normal.
    One of the most influential books I read as a kid were probably The Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle. In the first she brings mitochondria, admittedly in the most unrealistic way ever, but it was the most exciting thing ever when I found out that mitochondria were real, and now I’m a scientist. The Merlin Effect by T.A. Barron started a lifelong fascination with Arthurian legend (and I even did an independent study senior year of college on Merlin) and the concept of retelling from a familiar cannon. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is still thought provoking and an incredible read as an adult, but as a kid I could read myself in the book as someone who felt isolated by being treated as a gifted student. And what nerd didn’t growing up? The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams was a good enough read to begin with, but there’s a part in their that discusses religion and I feel pretty solid on pinpointing it as a big influence on my decision to change from identifying as an agnostic to an atheist. Sunshine by Robin McKinley is the most recent addition to this list- it’s a tale of vampires (and sort of a love story), but not in any way like Twilight. The main character is a baker, and I can’t help but want to make cinnamon rolls every time I read this book. Okay, and reading it made me want to run away from grad school to open up a bakery. And and and… I really like books- probably should have just copied you and made my own post instead of hogging up your comment space!

    • Have you ever been to goodreads.com? I love it – you can start an account and rate/review every book you’ve ever read. So much fun. I tend to rely on that rather than tell my blog readers every time I finish a book. 🙂

      However, I’ve never read any of those books! Not even Ender’s Game, and I feel like I lose some nerd cred on that one. *adds to list*

  4. Loovveee Ray Bradbury.
    I’m just such a sci-fi/fantasy/experimental geek that no one would believe that I actually have literary tastes 😛

    Thanks for dropping by my blog, and btw, I’m totally making teriyaki chicken tonight.

    • Awesome! Can you recommend some sci-fi/experimental stuff for me? I have “Perdido Street Station” by China Meiville (sp?) waiting on my shelf but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

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