Trent just wrote a post on books that have influenced him and I've decided to do the same. When he told me he was writing it I thought, I can't do that, it would be too hard to choose. But I decided after reading his that I wanted to try. I think my initial reluctance stemmed at least in part from my sadness that I've read so much less than I would like in recent years, which I prefer not to have to think about. But reading his made me think of several books I'd include in such a list.
1. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. To be honest I don't recall exactly what it was that affected me so profoundly when I read this in college. But I do recall being shattered by it, and thinking that it should be required reading for every woman. I think--reverse engineering my impressions--it opened my eyes to how deeply my concept of self was affected by my sex and gender, and therefore how much it was derived from the male perspective, which necessarily defines me in relation to men.
2. William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. This book has so much power and rawness. I think I measured every book I read against it for years afterward. It is hard to believe that words on a page can jump up and shake you by the throat the way this book does.
3. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I think what affected me most about this book was how surprisingly plausible it seemed. Unfortunately. Her description of how it happened that slowly women became entirely subjugated--again--was frighteningly real.
4. Anne McCaffrey's Pern series. Dragons! Taking a break from capital-L literature, these books are pure escapist fantasy. And that's exactly why I include them here. I read this series during an extremely difficult period of my life, and I'm not sure I would have survived it without them.
5. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Back to highbrow. Except not really--Chaucer was a sort of lowbrow pioneer because he wrote in English at a time when English was considered the language of the peasants, and serious poetry and prose was written only in French. Plus he wrote about common people, and his humor could be very coarse. In The Miller's Tale, a woman's lover tricks his rival into kissing his naked behind, and then farts in his face. But I include the Tales here because when I read them (after I got used to the archaic language -- it doesn't take that long to get over that hump and start enjoying them, so please don't read a "translation," you will seriously miss out) I was blown away by how alive his characters were. All these years after he wrote them, the voluble color with which they speak from the page is truly inspiring.
6. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. This book made me understand why capitalism by its very nature has to take over the world and push everyone and everything to do more, make more, consume more.
7. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' The Communist Manifesto. I read this right after Smith, as part of the Great Books curriculum at the University of Chicago. (All colleges should follow this model. This is the third book on my list that I read as past of that curriculum, and there are at least a dozen more I could include. Can you even remember the titles of that many books you read in college?) I was reeling from the capitalism=cancer vision I got from Smith, and looking for an alternative. And unfortunately, this book didn't offer me one. What I learned from it is that the most popular alternative to capitalism anyone's come up with doesn't have a chance of ever being put into practice on a large scale because it would require that a small group of people seize power and then, after holding it for a while through a transition period, voluntarily give it up. Marx and Engels didn't explain how that was going to work, and history (and human nature) tells us that it doesn't.
8. Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. This book made me understand Catholicism. One scene in particular crystallized it for me: the main character is about to do something that is a sin for reasons that I would call a technicality, and the image in his mind is that he is stomping on the face of baby Jesus. Amazing.
9. Jane Austen's Complete Works. Cheating, I know. But I don't want to single out one of her plots because that would miss the point. It's the way dear Jane writes about people that constitutes her influence on me. A few deft strokes of keenly observed mockery, and voila -- a fully-formed character. Gorgeous.
10. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie. I could put the whole series here, because I reread them all repeatedly and generally obsessed upon and worshipped Laura throughout my formative years. But Little Town was my favorite, probably because it was the one in which Laura's future husband courted her. I'm sure it had a significant impact on my ideas about love and romance, for better or worse.