Recently, Elisabeth Grace Foley over at her blog, The Second Sentence, posted a list of books that changed her life—which got me thinking. Over the (many by now) years, a lot of books have become touchstones of one sort or another. Some have become so much part of the fabric of me that it’s hard to even recall them. But these are some that came to mind.
Lord Jim. This may seem a little laughable, but I was brought up in a strictly conservative religion that wasn’t funny at all. Eight years of parochial school had me separating right from wrong by a standard far too dogmatic. The mistake Jim makes in this Conrad novel is unforgivable, yet he wins and holds a reader’s sympathy. Hard to imagine that it produced a crisis of faith, but it was an early step for me in becoming more of a humanist.
Peyton Place. It’s not easy to talk about this today in a way that’s not embarrassing. When Grace Metalious’ racy bestseller came out in paperback, I was in high school. It had caused a storm, and I had to find out what all the talk was about. The novel’s relaxed attitude toward sex turned out to be pretty healthy for a kid who needed to lighten up about the subject.
Letters and Papers From Prison. This collection of writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer had me riveted for a long time. Here was a theologian who stood up to Nazism on moral grounds and was imprisoned by the Gestapo, which executed him in the final hours of the War. The book is a record of doubt and belief that stands as a persuasive counter-argument to my own unbelief. You have to respect a book that does that.
The Snow Leopard. This book by Peter Matthiessen is an account of a journey into the Himalayas that is part spiritual quest and part exquisite nature writing. Each heightens the other. Merton had begun incorporating Eastern thought into his own Catholicism before his death, and Matthiessen completes the transition. Ironically, he discovers that what he hopes to find is hidden in plain sight in the everyday world, not on the frozen heights of a mountain.
Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Elaine Pagels’ studies of early Christianity gave me a perspective on the origins of that religion that helps a reader see it as a product of history and culture. It’s the kind of book that makes a person grind their teeth whenever they’re wading through the religious platitudes people post on Facebook.
When Things Fall Apart. I’ve reread this collection of writings by Pema Chödrön several times, and slowly, chapter by chapter. In her phrase, it’s always “news you can use.” The book is packed with wisdom and practices gleaned from her study of Tibetan Buddhism. It has been a leavening influence at a time of high anxiety, when if you go on vacation, people say “be safe” instead of “have a good time.”
The Adventures of Augie March. This long novel by Saul Bellow is a wonderful entertainment by a favorite writer. In it are words of wisdom I am reminded of almost daily. Sartre is supposed to have said that hell is other people. Bellow softens the harshness of that attitude. The problem with them, according to the novel, is that they want you to share their fate. I remember that whenever I feel myself getting sucked into other people’s dramas.
Reading Lolita in Tehran. This book got me started on 2-3 years of reading fiction and nonfiction about the Islamic world, across the Middle East and North Africa. It made me aware of how little of that world Westerners comprehend or can even imagine. It was also a way into understanding the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Bat Wing Boles. Ending on a totally different note, I’m picking this 1913 cowboy western by Dane Coolidge, which helped get me interested in early frontier fiction. Since then I’ve read over a hundred of these early novels, discovering long forgotten authors that I have blogged about and am currently incorporating into a book.
Touchstone books have a way of surfacing in a person’s thoughts long after you’ve last thought of them. Like old songs on the radio. And they can bring whole continents of memories along with them. Another day I might pick a different bunch of books. Today these are mine.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: John Rose Putnam, Into the Face of the Devil