Danielle at Books, Vertigo and Tea published the first version of this post that I’ve seen, and it was such a bright little spot of sunshine amidst all the dark clouds that have been hanging over me lately that I decided I would write one like it, with the five books I’m grateful for.
And in no particular order:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I know, it’s normally published (and read) as a trilogy, but Tolkien intended it to be one book, and thanks to paper shortages after WWII, the publisher decided to break it into three parts. So I’m counting it as one book.
Anyway. This was the first book I completely lost myself in. I read the first one, then had to wait for a whole weekend until I could go back to the school library and check out the next one. It was terrible! But Monday finally arrived, and I checked out the other two books and contentedly finished the trilogy in record time. I’ve read it pretty much once a year every year since, so that’s more than twenty times.
It’s one of those books that seems to change every time I read it, as I discover new details that I somehow missed the first twenty times. When I was younger, it taught me that even small people could be courageous and change the world for the better, and that a girl could take up a sword to defend her people. As I aged, it gave me an appreciation for beautiful language, history, and the epic literature I’ve read since then. There are so many things that are terribly sad in The Lord of the Rings, but so many things that are bright and beautiful, too.
Dune by Frank Herbert
We were visiting Minnesota in December one year, and I wandered into a used bookshop while waiting for my mother. I don’t know what it was about Dune that attracted my twelve-year-old imagination, but I plunked down the seventy-five cents for the worn out paperback and quickly lost myself in the epic story of Paul Atreides and his quest to retake his rightful place and fulfill his destiny.
It’s another book that seems to change every time I read it, though there is so much depth to it that the details and themes that you see and understand change along with you. When I bought it at twelve, it was an amazing adventure story. When I read it now, I see it as a cautionary tale about mixing politics with religion, and how one man’s hopeful vision of the future can be twisted all out of recognition.
But the thing I’ve taken away from it that has been most helpful over the past twenty years is the Bene Gesserit’s ‘Litany Against Fear’:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
I memorized this early on, and would repeat it to myself whenever I encountered something that frightened me, and it helped me to face that fear and conquer it.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
This is the book that inspired me to go out and see the world, without waiting for others to be ready to go with me. Strayed’s decision to go out and hike the Pacific Crest Trail with no experience at long distance hiking was baffling, but her determination and fearlessness prompted me to buy my first set of intercontinental plane tickets and head out to England by myself. I figured that if Strayed could hike so far by herself, then I could manage to find my way around London.
I was right, and I spent a week wandering that amazing city by my lonesome. It was fantastic. Four years and four countries later, buying those first plane tickets were the best thing I have ever done for myself.
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey is not Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. It’s not even my favorite of Austen’s novel. But it was my gateway into the world of Jane Austen, and I wouldn’t have seen Pride and Prejudice as anything except a dry, academic book I read for school without it.
I’d been on a sort of ‘self-improvement’ streak where I read a bunch of classical novels like 1984 and Animal Farm. I’d heard that Northanger Abbey was a lighter novel- a spoof of the Gothic tales I’d read in my third year literature class at the university, so I gave it a try. I loved it! Because I was reading at my own pace and not simultaneously trying to analyze theme or symbolism, I was able to enjoy Catherine’s adventures and see the humor in the situations she got herself into. After that, I re-read Pride and Prejudice and the rest is history!
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I found my first copy of this book in the tiny little book section of my little town’s tiny little general store. I have no idea who had the bright idea to order this and put it among the romances and bestselling thrillers, but I found it, bought it, and was floored by Gaiman’s imagination and the world of London Below. I could perfectly imagine London itself, as well as the crazed world of the forgotten people who fell between the cracks of reality and landed in London Below. It is still my favorite of Gaiman’s novels, and it actually helped me learn the Underground stations when I went to London the first time.
Growing up in a little Nebraska town before the internet was as everywhere as it is, I didn’t have access to many books that were as wonderfully weird as Neverwhere. It made me look at the world a little bit differently, and helped me to imagine how ordinary things could become extraordinary.
I’m sure I could come up with a dozen or more other books that have influenced me over the years, but five is a nice, round number, so I’ll stop there. Which five books are you most grateful for?