There’s a Facebook meme that’s going around now about books. Normally I’d just respond to it there, since I like those memes and they’re usually pretty mindless, but this one seemed worth thinking about a bit more. This is somewhat ironic because the meme specifically says not to think about it too hard. But there you have it. Irony: it's what's for dinner.
Find ten books that have stuck with you in some way, the meme commands. They don’t have to be Great Works or prize specimens of Literature – just books that influenced you, that you find yourself thinking about long after you read them, that have become part of who you are in some way.
For someone like me, who reads reflexively, obsessively, and continually, the hard part was trying to narrow it down to ten. I did not succeed. But then I figured what would they do to me if I did go up to eleven? Or more? And who are “they” anyway? It’s not like at the grocery store where some manager will storm out to the Express Lane and throw my extra groceries to the floor and then force me to put them away properly if I showed up with a dozen items in the “10 Items or Less” lane, right?
Come to think of it, neither is the Express Lane. But that’s a whole other problem.
So – ten books, or maybe fifteen, in no particular order other than the one in which they occurred to me.
1. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien)
This was my introduction to both SF/F as a genre – the sorts of books I read most these days – and to Deep History. Nobody but nobody does backstory like Tolkien, and it was fascinating to read a story where everything that happened had been set in motion by events centuries or even millennia earlier. This book is in many ways responsible for me being a professional historian today.
2. Capitalism and a New Social Order (Joyce Appleby)
This is a slim book, not even 200 pages, but it explored the intellectual history of early republican American politics in such a fascinating way that I was hooked. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Appleby’s arguments, but her presentation of what it was possible to think about in connection with that period stays with me still.
3. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)
Arguably the best and certainly the darkest of the Discworld books, this not only combines sharp humor with a solid humanistic moral framework the way the rest of the series does, but also presents a quandary that, as a historian, sticks with me. If you could go back to a time of crisis and do it over, would you? Historical contingency is a complex thing.
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
A lightweight, laugh-out-loud-funny book that provided not only a lifetime’s worth of quotes and references but also a shibboleth for much of my circle of friends at many points in my life. If you didn’t love this book, we didn’t know what to make of you.
5. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
One of my favorites as a kid, and still in many ways a useful exploration of how the world is and ought to be run. The fact that my own children loved it too made me absurdly happy.
6. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
This book takes as its starting point the idea that Jesus was exactly who he said he was, but that he had friends who were not similarly divine. What would his life look like to those friends? This is the single funniest book I have ever read and one that I have recommended to friends and family who span the gamut from atheist to evangelical. It raises interesting questions about the nuts and bolts of divinity against a human backdrop.
7. A Canticle for Liebowitz (Walter Miller Jr.)
The first post-apocalyptic book I ever read and the source of a persistent fascination with that genre ever since, this exercise in Deep History spans 1500 years as human civilization struggles to recover from nuclear war. “Listen, are we doomed to do it again and again,” it asks.
8. Slapstick (Kurt Vonnegut)
This book was recommended to me by a friend who thought I would like it, and she was right. Vonnegut’s pessimistic humanism struck a chord with me and eventually I went on to read everything he ever wrote.
9. Letters From the Earth (Mark Twain)
I picked this up at Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut, oddly enough, and it opened my eyes to just how dark his humor could be and how much he spoke to the sorts of things I thought about anyway. If all you know about Twain is the Disney version of Huck Finn, this will surprise you.
10. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn)
How do paradigms shift? How do we move from one way of thinking to another? There are a great many answers to these questions – almost as many as there are people asking – but I find Kuhn’s answers to be most useful in everyday life.
11. The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)
Nobody has more fun with the English language than Harkaway, and he stands as a model for the exuberance that storytelling can be. Tom Robbins is very much in the same vein that way (particularly Skinny Legs and All), but Harkaway is better.
12. What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Thomas Frank)
Thomas Frank does more to explain the shift in modern American politics from money issues to values issues and what that shift means than almost any other author. This is one of a small set of books (along with Nixonland by Rick Perlstein and White Protestant Nation by Allan J. Lichtmann) that really set my thinking on how late 20th century American politics worked and why early 21st-century American politics doesn’t.
13. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Richard Hofstadter)
The first book-length examination of the American distrust and disdain for trained intellect. I wrote my dissertation to challenge one of Hofstadter’s arguments.
14. The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)
Witty, allusive, and a great way to approach literature, this book and its many sequels have kept me entertained through many rereadings.
15. Neither Here Nor There (Bill Bryson)
I’ve never been much of a traveler, but this book taught me to see the humor in it and for that I am grateful.