Have you ever had that experience where you pick up a book and begin to read and it’s like the author wrote it just for you? Maybe it even feels like a voice from the sky is actually speaking the words on the page to you, like it knows you?! I know it sounds creepy, but if you dig what I’m saying, then you know how comforting and inspiring it can be to have a book (or ten) that you can call your own.
I’ve been fortunate enough to come across the right book at the right time on multiple occasions throughout my life. Perhaps that’s why I love literature and writing more than almost anything else in this gorgeous, tragic universe. Books have been my soothing companions in moments when the world was stretching me, and sometimes they’ve done the stretching themselves. They’ve made me more aware of the life around me, and they’ve given me a sense that I can change the world.
Here are the top 5 books for which I am most thankful. Share your own in the comments!
1. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967) I had the most amazing class in junior high, called Recreational Reading. Literally, all the class involved was reading. The women who co-taught it shared a classroom overflowing with books. It was better than the actual library (plus they had edgy stuff like Stephen King, so that was exciting.) It was in this class that I first picked up The Outsiders. It blew my mind. Never before had a book seduced me like this, and proceeded to break my heart. It was so…effective. Then I learned that Hinton was a teenager when she wrote it, and I immediately believed that I could be a writer. I will never not be in love with this book.
2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) I know that everyone loves this book, so it’s not very hipster of me; but I can’t not mention it. I don’t remember exactly when I read it–I’m thinking maybe 8th grade? All I know is that it was another mind-blower. What is it about Lee’s writing that is so…perfect? I’ve read this book at least five times, and its evocative effect on me never fades. Certainly it made me wish Atticus was my dad (who didn’t?) but more importantly I really think it opened my mind to a way of seeing the world that prioritizes courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of justice. It sparked a fire in my conscience, and, after a few readings, I realized it wasn’t good enough to wish I knew Atticus; I needed to try to be him.
3. The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James (1906) I came across this beautiful piece of literature my sophomore or junior year of college in an American Literature class that happened to be taught by one of my favorite professors. So, maybe her presence had something to do with the James obsession that followed; but read The Portrait of A Lady and it’s not hard to see that he’s worth obsessing over. I was mesmerized by James’ impressionistic style, and his long, meandering sentences that take the scenic route. I was also captivated by the relationship between Isabel Archer (the titular “Lady”) and her cousin Ralph Touchett. Again, just like my experience with The Outsiders, I was overtaken by how invested in these lives I had become. The magic of fiction, man. I love it!
4. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria RIlke (1929) This is a book (well, really it’s a collection of letters) that I resolutely recommend to everyone. Read it at least once in your lifetime. Chances are that whenever you choose to pick it up, it will be the right moment for you. In 1903, a young writer named Franz Kappus decided to write to the poet Rilke in hopes of getting some help with his writing and some career advice. The two ended up corresponding for a number of years, and Kappus published the letters a few years after Rilke’s death. A simple enough story, but here’s the thing: never, in all my reading, have I encountered so much wisdom distilled into so few pages. I seriously think Rilke had a lifeline to the gods. I remember I first read this book when I had just returned to my hometown from 6 months in New Zealand and had no idea what to do with my life. I was sitting in a coffee shop going through it, and what it said to me–I started crying, right then and there. This is powerful stuff, people. And it’s short, so you can carry it around with you and refer to it often. Seriously, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. I consider this book my Bible.
5. Taking Leave of God by Don Cupitt (1980) Okay, we’re gonna end with a little controversy here. I graduated from seminary four years ago, and halfway between that moment and now, it dawned on me that I didn’t really believe (or need to believe, quite frankly) in the Christian story as historical fact. Sure, Jesus was a real person and all that; but I suddenly realized that I saw no truly compelling evidence that the cosmos worked the way I’d been taught my whole life–that “God” did not actually exist in the way that I had always believed “God” to exist. Cupitt’s book–found quite coincidentally (or was it?!) in the bargain pile at Vroman’s–showed me that there was a way of appreciating the Christian story and applying its ultimate significance to my life without needing to say that there was a God that actually existed who was this way or that way and that this was Truth. All of that theology had become for me, to use a phrase from an essay I just read by Peter Enns, high-maintenance. Cupitt’s book helped set me free, and I’ve never been more satisfied with where I stand (or shuffle around quite a bit, as it were) on the spiritual side of things.
So, there you have it. The five books for which I am most grateful. Like I said, please share your own list in the comments below. I love trading book ideas!
Also, one final note: the links provided here go to Amazon, which I feel conflicted about because they’ve changed the market in a way that is difficult for regular bookstores; but they provide a lot of information that can be helpful in deciding whether or not to read a book, and also a space for used books to be sold, so if you can please buy your books from there used. Even better, if a book sounds good to you from the reviews on Amazon, try to find what you’re looking for from a local, independent bookstore first. To my readers in the Pasadena area, as I know many of you are, I highly recommend Book Alley on Colorado.