Monday, June 6, 2011

What Are Your Five (or Six) Most Influential Books?

Today I stumbled upon a wonderful website sponsored by Scholastic books. Entitled You Are What You Read, it asks the best question I’ve been asked in quite a while--What Five Books Influenced You the Most? You enter that information into your profile, and it connects you with other readers with similar tastes. It also has the lists of all sorts of celebrities, authors, educators, and other famous people, along with other reading resources.

But what a question! My whole family and I are such readers that it is really hard to pick the top five books that have changed my life. I also found it much easier to focus on the ones that have really altered the course of my life more recently than the ones that most influenced me as a child.

So I gave myself a little leeway (not being a rules-driven person in general, as those who know me already know). I decided to make two lists: my favorites as a child (up through high school), and the most influential from college to today.

But even so, I cut and cut from my many contenders, and I debated and considered, and I couldn’t get below six categories (some had more than one book...another fudge factor). Then I realized that today was 6/6. So obviously it was meant to be that I had two lists with six items apiece!

So here are my two lists of my six most influential books. They are more in sequential order than order of impact, because, again, I just couldn’t decide on that.


Winnie the Pooh/The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
Is there a better book for conveying that comforting world of friendships and relationships we had with our earliest toys?

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Before there was Harry Potter and the Lightening Thief, there was Narnia, covering many of the same fantasy world/good versus evil/family versus...whatever, not family themes. I think both of these were also influenced by the fact that I was born and raised through elementary school in London.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle/Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
So to most people these books probably seem really different (and, of course, on one hand they are), but they are bound in my mind as both having protagonists that were plucky young girls who do whatever it takes to take care of their families. Family was--and still is--a predominant value in my life.

Animal Farm by George Orwell/Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Maybe it was because I went to high school in the DC suburbs, but my teenage rebellion books dealt more with political and social power rather than personal liberation (which I would classify books like Catcher in the Rye, which is a popular book on the list). I have always been wary of following the masses and of the potential for the abuse of government, or increasingly in modern times, corporate power (which is why I still refuse to get on Facebook, despite the many pleas by my friends).

The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Paradoxically, perhaps, I also embraced the idea of the social contract--the fact that we will willingly give up some of our independence so that we can live together. But I see that as a mutual agreement between individuals, not something imposed upon me by the government or other structure.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White/Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
These two are combined in mind, not only as books, but as their corresponding musicals (Camelot and Man of La Mancha). I remember writing my college application essays on these books. The main message they left me was to do the right thing, even if no one appreciates it, no one understands it, and no one accepts it at the time. You do the right thing, and it makes a difference, even if you aren’t around to see it. You do the right thing, and you can live and die with peace, even if others might judge you as a fool or a failure. If I had to pick one, this is probably the idea that has influenced my entire life more than any other I have ever gotten from books.


The Republic by Plato
So I went off to college to an outstanding liberal arts college, The College of William and Mary, and took a philosophy course largely because my roommate’s boyfriend’s roommate was a philosophy major. I took my first class, and then my first test, and left thinking this was the easiest class I had taken for my entire college experience and wondered why it wasn’t on the list of “gut” classes that had circulated among my freshman dorm. Then I found out that other people actually thought the test was hard! These things that I had been thinking about my entire life were brand new to most of my classmates. So, anyway, I think it was reading this book that made me decide to major in philosophy and concentrate in political philosophy, with a minor in government.

Being and Nothingness/Nausea/No Exit by Paul Sartre
A little later in my philosophical career, I became an existentialist, mainly through reading Sartre. One of the things I loved about him was that he explored these ideas through more than just confounding philosophical treatises (Being and Nothingness), but also novels (Nausea) and plays (No Exit). Discovering existentialism provided the philosophical, and eventually the spiritual, foundation for my entire life.

Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe
I read this in college, and realized how my eating choices could contribute to world hunger--or not. I have so many allergies to alternative protein sources (allergic to eggs, nuts, and dairy at that time) that I couldn’t see being a vegetarian, but I did give up eating red meat for over 20 years after that book.

Guns, Germs, and Steel/Collapse by Jared Diamond
Both these books changed the way I viewed history. I had been raised in what I call the “Great Man” theory--that these extraordinary individuals created the course of history. Diamond makes a great argument that civilizations rise and fall based on environmental factors, not outstanding people. This only added fuel to my lifelong environmental activism. But perhaps more importantly, I am trying to incorporate this perspective into how I teach my son and my other students history and geography and world religion and such. I believe they need to see how decisions about natural resources have contributed to the success or failure of societies in the past, which I hope will help them make more intelligent decisions about our future.

Loving What Is by Byron Katie
This is probably the best book that describes my spiritual approach to life. As Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose 100% of the time.” It’s not an easy read, but it can be a life-altering book.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
This is such a fantastic book. This one, again, changed the way that my family and I eat (and influenced me to start eating red meat again). Pollan poses the question: Given that we humans can biologically eat anything, how do we know what to eat? He then looks at the economic, environmental, societal, and ethical costs of four types of meal: fast food; food from Whole Foods; food from local farms; growing, hunting, and gathering all your own food. He is a wonderful writer, and I, who thought she was relatively conscious about her food choices, was alternately horrified and inspired by the facts and stories about food production in this book. This is an incredibly important book that I recommend to everyone I know.

So there you have it. I’ve probably told you more than you wanted to know. But with so many wonderful, wonderful books left off my list, I felt I had to justify the ones that made it.

I would love to hear about some of your most influential books, even if you don’t want to do the whole “top five/six” or extraverted/here is my life thing. Please add your favorites to the comments below.


  1. With the understanding that the list changes with time...

    "Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars" - a touching tale about building settlements around the Solar System. It contains good lists to consider while building new societies.

    "Monday begins on Saturday" - similar to "Harry Potter" except about a post-doc and Russian rather than Western mythology, and written 40 years earlier. The idea that people would send their clones to a New Year party and go to work instead, because it's more fun, resonates.

    Collected works of Janusz Korczak (yeah it's in a single book I have... I know I cheat!), including "King Matt" and "How to love a child" and notes about his "freeschool." This taught me a lot about education, including the more realistic "Lord of the Flies" effect descriptions (kids' parliament in King Matt, stories from the orphanage). But mostly it's about the tremendous potential of childhood, and education understood broadly as building of societies.

    "Lord of the rings" - which is here as a placeholder for the more recent and more influential "World of Warcraft," which happens to be an entity other than a book. Fantasy worlds provide a very important service for me, namely, the sense of distance and perspective from traveling along everyday roads.

    "Flow" which is again a placeholder for other "how-to" books about processes, such as TRIZ, brainstorming, tribes, gamification, "here comes everybody" and so forth. Basically, a researcher investigates some area of human endeavor and describes an expert system based on the categories and processes he discovers.

  2. I've read the last two, but the first three sound fascinating....and so much like you, Maria. I'll have to check them out.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. "You are what you read" :-)

    This was a fun question to answer. Thank you for sharing it.