I read a lot. For as long as I can remember, I’ve preferred having my nose perpetually stuck in a book to almost every other activity. Some of my earliest school-related memories involve being busted reading fiction when I should have been reading about United States’ presidential history or practicing math equations.
I started high school in a brand new Honors English class, and took AP English (and History and Biology) until I graduated, which took care of ensuring I was perpetually assigned a hefty reading list, both throughout the school year and during the summer, too.
I liked it that way; I loved those lists. “Required reading” lists helped me find some of the best fiction stories I’ve ever read in my life. Some of the best books I’m sure I will ever read.
Awhile back some friends on Twitter were listing books that changed their lives, and I made a mental note to revisit the topic in more detail than 140 characters would allow.
So which (fiction) books changed my life? So many of them. But first and foremost were these:
1. & 2. The Secret Garden and The Velveteen Rabbit. Let’s start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.) These were the first two books I ever remember reading with my grandmother, and two books that shaped the way I looked at the world.
The Secret Garden had me convinced I was going to find an old door to which I would find an old key and I’d open it and walk straight into…Narnia, or someplace equally more fantastic than a secret garden I would probably have to weed. While I did routinely daydream about finding Narnia (Under my bed? Nope. Maybe under the stairs? No. Hmm…In a hole I could dig from the backyard?), I did verily love reading about that secret garden, and how non-cranky it made Colin.
The Velveteen Rabbit, which started as a story I loved, later became the first book to give me nightmares and make me look wearily at the impressively massive collection of stuffed animals occupying my room after I read the book when I was older (and more prone to imagining my toys coming to life at night). Toys coming to life when I’m asleep did not make me believe in magic or whimsy, but rather, made me believe I should lock all of my toys in a wooden chest and place my heaviest books on it, thereby stifling my toys’ abilities to wander about unsupervised in the middle of the night. The Indian in the Cupboard? More bad sleep juju for Kerri.
3. Phantoms, by Dean Koonz. I was twelve and a half, OK? Cut a girl some slack. I promise my choice in reading materials vastly improved as I kept reading. My dad died when I was in the 7th grade and among his things I found a Dean Koonz book. I’m not sure if Phantoms was the actual book, or if I just went and picked the first one I could find, but knowing my dad had at least entertained the thought of reading one of his books made me curious enough to want to read one, too. So I read Phantoms, and it’s a story I can still vividly recall to this day. It would have made a really compelling film, I remember thinking. Apparently someone else thought so, too. (Ben Affleck and Liev Schreiber? Annnd, added to my Netflix queue.)
Book Nerdery Rabbit Hole: Phantoms led to Sphere (below), which ultimately lead to Pet Sematary** (WHY, Kerri, WHY?), and a super brief Stephen King phase, wherein I realized he was a talented and prolific powerhouse while simultaneously realizing I didn’t want to read books that provided me ample nightmares about dead pets and children coming back to life, or rabid dogs who hold you hostage in your car, or cars with homicidal tendencies themselves, or a girl sharing my name (different spelling, thank you Mom and Dad) who is relentlessly teased until she goes all terrifyingly telekinetic on her entire high school. (Given my thoughts on The Velveteen Rabbit, you can probably also guess how I felt about The Tommyknockers (WHY Stephen King, WHY?).)
4. Sphere. The first and only Michael Crichton book I’ve read, but an amazing one. This book was The Abyss and Phantoms all in one psychologically thrilling underwater package. This was also the book that expanded my vocabulary by leaps and bounds because I read it in the 8th grade and refused to read past a word I couldn’t readily define. And because Crichton likes to use big words. At least when he’s telling stories about scary scientific sea exploration he does. (Having never read any other of Crichton’s novels I suppose I can’t adequately vouch for his range in diction.)
5. Go Go Gadget Grisham! OK, so that isn’t an actual title of a book I read. Though I would most likely read a book with that title, even if it was about mid-nineteenth-century accounting policies or the history of dental floss. From 7th grade until starting my freshman year of high school, I read nearly every single book John Grisham had written at that point in his writing career (which ultimately ended up being his first eight novels). A Time to Kill (based on a true story Grisham witnessed while working as an attorney in Mississippi) was my favorite of them all. Though surely harrowing in places, it was such a dynamic and emotional story, and so well-told. At the time I had no idea it was Grisham’s first-ever novel, as rather than chronologically, I read his books in the order of whichever-I-could-get-my-hands-on-first. Realizing (years later) that A Time to Kill was his debut, I remember being shocked, and quite impressed.
6. Interview with the Vampire. One of the first books I read in my aforementioned Honors English class, this book appeared on our summer reading list and I chose it to read and report on the first week of my freshman year of high school. At the time I remember thinking what a strange selection this was for me, as it was my very first vampire-centric novel (and perhaps then unsurprisingly my first bout with Anne Rice), but noting my Koonz/King/Grisham phase, I think maybe my choice was a bit less surprising than I originally thought. I remember this book being interesting and bizarre, and while I haven’t read another Anne Rice novel since (and don’t know that I ever will), this story paved the way for diving into a diverse and intimidating reading list, and is one that’s stuck with me over the years. A fact, I’m sure, aided by the presence of a pasty Brad Pitt and an even pastier Tom Cruise (and hi, Kirsten Dunst in her first big movie role!) in the film version.
7. Sense and Sensibility. My most favorite of all of Austen’s works, this book is one I’ve read multiple times, and one I would tell anyone leery of or intimidated by Austen to read. It’s such an engaging story, with perfectly lovable (and deplorable) characters you’ll swear you know even while the entire story is happening in a world that doesn’t exist anymore.
8. & 9. Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies. More high school/AP English reads, and the two I really did love from start to finish, and back again. I’ve read Heart of Darkness three times, and Lord of the Flies at least as many, and I find something new to appreciate about the story and the storytelling each and every time I read them.
10. The Virgin Suicides. One of the first books I ever read that wasn’t on a required reading list. And the first book I ever read after arbitrarily choosing it from a local bookstore based almost entirely on its cover. I would be highly rewarded for stumbling onto Eugenides. (I proselytized this book to everyone I knew in college, that’s how much I loved (and still love) it.) But this method of choosing books would come back to give me literary indigestion later, and has since been altogether abandoned. If you haven’t read this book, I highly highly, oh so highly recommend it. It’s definitely dark, but perpetually visually stunning, and Eugenides employs one of the most interesting frame narrative techniques I’ve ever read.
11. As I Lay Dying. My first and favorite Faulkner, I didn’t read this until junior year of college. I know a lot of people who have read and verily hate this book, and I can’t pretend to understand why. I still think about this story, recounting particularly interesting and/or grief-stricken scenes, and/or laughing at the name “Darl.” As I Lay Dying showed me how much I enjoy characters who get their own chapters to tell me their stories. It’s unreliable narrating at its finest, and I love it.
12. Moby-Dick. I don’t even know where to start singing the praises of this book, except to say it’s one of the most interesting and allegorical stories in the history of ever. Is Melville crazy long-winded? You bet he is. Is he going to tell you all about whales and whaling and seafaring and Queequeg? Until you want to stab him with a harpoon, probably. But I can’t help myself; I just dig Melville and his nautical themed pashmina afghan storytelling. He’s a sailor after my own heart, and I will forever be grateful one of my most beloved professors in undergrad was herself a Melvillean scholar, and petitioned the university to teach a class solely devoted to him. (His short stories are also some of my favorites.)
13. Harry Potter: Books 1-7. (That would be all of them, for those who haven’t yet been baptized in the goblet of fire.) I honestly can’t remember exactly when I read the very first book of the (literally and metaphorically) magical Harry Potter series, but I know it was all due to my lovely cousin Frances, as she had stumbled on them before I did and was tearing through them as literature lovers are wont to do. I was hooked from moment one, and stopped sleeping to read these stories about three little kids who stumble into a world of magic and friendship and mail-delivering owls, and remained happily hooked through books two and three, and into four, which quickly became the (longest, and) my favorite of the entire series. Book five made me want to throw it across the room on multiple occasions, so despicable and perfectly evil was Dolores Umbridge, and I don’t know that another book will ever make me cry as hard as I did when (SPOILER ALERT) Dumbledore dies, and the last book? The last book is why people comparing the Twilight series to anything Harry Potter are (on drugs, yes, and) will find their comparisons perpetually full of the brown stuff if they’ve actually read both series (which, yes, I have, somewhat regrettably when it comes to Twilight). J.K. Rowling, aside from being a much more creative and dynamic storyteller (and better writer) than Stephanie Meyer, also understands characterization, and how sometimes, to get at the real heart of the protagonist, and thus the heart of the story (and to get at the heart of the reader), some characters have to DIE. There is just no way around it, but Meyer (ANTI-SPOILER ALERT) can’t even come close to pulling the proverbial literary trigger in any of her books. See also: It’s hard to care about a BIG FINAL SUPER IMPORTANT BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL when three and half books of anxiety and “character building” leads to…ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. But, I digress. Vampirically. Suffice it to say Harry Potter et al. will forever be beloved literary characters, and for good reason. And that’s all I’ll say before this delves into five-paragraph-essay territory.
Book Nerdery Bonus Round: Recent Favorites
Neverwhere. This was my second book of Gaiman’s (the first was Coraline), and I somewhat stumbled on it after reading and loving Sunshine (another interesting pseudo-vampire novel) based on a trusted literary friend’s recommendation. Gaiman had written a blurb on the back of Sunshine, and I was curious about who he was, and what he wrote. I absolutely loved Neverwhere, and devoured the story in less than two days. It was the first for-adults novel I’d found in ages that featured just the right amount of magic, whimsy, and impressively creepy bad guys, and I found myself smitten with both the story and the storytelling, with both the villains and the imperfect heroes attempting to outrun them.
Percy Jackson & the Olympians. There are five books total in this series, and I’m pretty sure I have Kali to thank for ever finding them in the first place. These are like Harry Potter meets Greek myths, and they’re SO MUCH FUN to read. Some of the fastest books I’ve ever torn through, and some of the most memorable re-tellings of traditional Greek mythology, thanks to author Rick Riordan. If by chance your only experience with these stories is the somewhat recent film adaptation (I don’t know what that screenwriter was smoking), I beg you: Ignore the movie and run to your nearest library and check out Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief. The movie is horrible, gets most everything wrong, and attempts to squash the first three books into one movie. Fail, fail, and more fail. But the books really are equal parts entertaining and educational, especially if you’re in need of a Greek mythology refresher course. And I mean, who isn’t really?
So tell me, which fiction books changed your (reading or otherwise) life?
What are you reading now?
*Post title is a quote from Arrested Development. One of my favorites, as it were.
**Actual title’s spelling. Everyone calls it “Pet Cemetery” but for whatever reason that’s not what King called it. Probably just to give me nightmares about misspelled words on top of nightmares about…everything else.