I started working on a list of books a while back that I was going to place on a page on this blog for all of my readers to see. It was to be a list of the greatest books I have ever read and it was taking a very long time to compile it because these books all impacted me on a very personal and very deep level. The biggest problem is that a lot of the works that really influenced the way I think aren’t full length novels at all. They’re short stories. These are harder to come by in terms of purchase but I still think it is worth it for you to read them, and for me to talk about them, especially because I really cannot make a list of works that changed the way I think and merely limit that list to novels. And in order to do the list justice, I needed to give the ideas that I had about each individual work time to percolate.
That was a year ago and today on twitter, Barb Chamberlain posted a tweet from another person she follows on twitter asking us to post a tweet with some great books and I was reminded that I had this article waiting in the wings, just begging to be written.
2008 was a really eventful year in my life. The events of last year changed my life in ways that I cannot and will not ever be able to explain to you. All I can tell you is that I am now a different person than I was in January of 2008 and I will never be the same again. That’s okay. I can accept that, because this isn’t the first time that earth shattering realizations have hit me. I think the first time it happened, was when I was 12 and was reading a book. Literature prepared me for all of the epiphanies that were to come. I am grateful for literature now because if I hadn’t had those earth shattering realizations, I’d all be living behind rose-colored glasses and thinking that the world was perfect and great. Reality is harsh, but being oblivious to reality is another kind of cruelty all together.
In the spirit of that and my recent attempts to change the way that local web developers think about their web sites, my list of really great stories consists of works that changed the way I think. These are not tales that just changed my mind on a certain specific issue. These are books and stories that opened my mind to new possibilities. Often, those realizations were painful, but learning and growing are never easy things to do and I came out on the other side being a little bit wiser and a little bit stronger, and a little bit better for all that I had been through in reading these books.
1. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792-ish)
Mary Wollstonecraft’s piece on the rights of woman is probably one of the most eye-opening pieces of literature that I have ever read. What it made me realize is that equality is something that has been debated for so long that there really isn’t any particular place or time where you can stick a stamp on it and say, “This is where women started demanding equal treatment.” This doesn’t just apply to women either, but to any group that is demanding equality. Further, some of the ideas that Mary Wollstonecraft advocates are things that did not see fruition until the 20th century and some… never became reality at all.
2. Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
Young Goodman Brown is a story that changed my life, not once, but twice. When I read it in high school, the story was strange and made me question what I believed about God and the Devil and made me re-examine what forms the Devil could take in order to tempt me. When I was in college, many years later, it reminded me that I am from a different generation and a different place. None of the other students in the class understood the story. They had no concept that the Devil played tricks on people to claim their souls, nor a concept of the lengths to which he would go in order to steal a soul away from the light. Not that I’m all that religious, but I certainly understand faith. I was amazed that the kids in my Lit class didn’t get it. So when my instructor asked the question, “Who won?” and I blurted out that it was the devil, the kids in my class stared at me indignantly. Clearly that could not be true because he did not fall into temptation. “Read it again.” I said. “And then ask yourself who the old man with the stick is.” It was amazing to see the realization spread across 25 other faces at once. I learned then that I will always love learning, and I will always love teaching others.
3. Contact by Carl Sagan (1985)
I was 12 the first time I read “Contact”. I fell in love with space, the sky and the stars after reading this book. From then on, I always looked up at the sky and wondered what was out there. I’m not sure I ever asked myself that question before. I don’t think I ever thought about it, it was just the sky. After reading “Contact”, it became something more and I understood a little piece of my place in, not just the world, but the universe. That is a very big realization to have hit you when you’re 12. That the universe is so big that you can’t even conceive of its size, that you are a tiny speck of dust in the cosmos and that there is so much out there that it does not make any logical sense for us to be the only sentient life in the universe. So yes, I believe in Aliens. I believe that they exist, because to believe otherwise just doesn’t make sense and I learned this from Carl Sagan in the fall of 1986 when my Dad handed me this book. Every time I read this book now, that feeling of childhood magic comes back to me because I relive the experience of learning just how big the universe is all over again. You may argue me on this point, but I will not waiver in my belief that while Carl Sagan was an amazing man and did a lot of great things, this book is his single greatest gift to the human race.
4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. (1985)
Most of my friends read this book while they were growing up. I am sure that your perspective on this book is completely different as a child, but I came to “Ender’s Game” not having had a lot of exposure to science fiction other than Star Trek and Star Wars, and I was the mother of a little boy who was six years old at the time that I read this book. I immediately imprinted my son upon Ender from the moment I read about him. As I read Ender’s story, I found myself wanting to pick him up and hug him, I found myself wanting to protect him from all the hard things he was living through. I wanted to steal him away and take him to live a normal life and then, when I had just become accustomed to the idea that Ender lived in a world where children don’t play with toys, Ender awoke to a realization at almost the exact same time that I did. I had to put the book down and I cried for several hours when the reality of Ender’s life became clear to me. I felt like I had been hit by a train. I loved Ender in a way that I have never loved a character in fiction before. I never knew that I could love a character like that and while I knew intellectually that children are impressionable, I never really understood just how impressionable they were until the moment that I had to put the book aside so I could cry. “Ender’s Game” changed the way I looked at my children as a parent, and it had a profound impact on the way that I raise them. So profound, that I handed the book to both of my children as soon as they were at a reading level where they could understand the story.
5. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Usula K. LeGuin (1974)
I’m not sure I can talk about this story without spoilers, but I will start by asking you to pick up a pencil and a piece of paper and then spell out Omelas, backwards and see what you get. Then go and read the story, and realize that Omelas is not just some fictional town, it’s your town. It’s where you live and where I live. It’s our home and it is built upon the shoulders of innocents. I don’t think I need to say anymore. Once you’ve read the story, you’ll get it and you will either thank me for recommending it, or hate me, but I guarantee that you will not feel neutral toward it when you are done.
I would make this list longer, because there are other works, such as William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, and Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt”, but in truth, of works that have had the most profound impact on the way I think and the way I live, it’s really just these five. I’ll add others as they come along, but perhaps now you will understand a little bit more about me and in reading these works on your own, find a little piece of yourself.