Ten personal books: a bibliophilic glance

I’ve received multiple versions of the following request on Facebook this month:

“In your status, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and do not think too hard. They do not have to be the “right” books, or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way. Tag 10 reader (friends) including me …so I can see your list.”

In response I came up with ten books, started to post… then held back.  The titles seemed to beg explanation, and the result was too long to fit a Facebook update.  So I present the list here.

Caveats: please recall that this is an affective, not analytical list.  I didn’t select them to impress, nor to outline major books in my current professional life.  I infer that the list should include books from childhood, so the result really is autobiographical, almost confessional.

War of the Worlds, illustrated by Edward Gorey1. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, illustrated by Edward Gorey.   This was one of the first novels I ever read, circa fourth grade, and it terrified me.  Partly that’s due to the subject matter, and partly due to the gorgeous, creepy Gorey artwork.  In fact, the book scared me so much I hid it in a closet and tried to forget the whole thing.  Since it was a library book, it then became my first seriously overdue book.

I read some other science fiction in elementary school, including Jules Verne.  They all opened my mind to science fictional possibilities.  But WotW did all of that, and also haunted me.  I had bad dreams about the tripods off and on over the years.  And when I ran into the very same edition two decades later, across the counter of a used book store, it still spooked me.

It went on to become a family favorite.  My wife and children listen to the Jeff Wayne musical version.  My son rereads the book, and we created a game of the Martian invasion of Britain.

The Defenders, "Savage Time"2. The Defenders vol 1, issue 26.  About a year after Wells/Gorey I read this comic book and felt my mind leap into time.  This issue concerns the adventures of a group of superheroes trying to save the Earth, but that’s not what grabbed me by the prefrontal.  No, half of “Savage Time” stops the action to let one hero lecture a small boy about the next thousand years of Earth history.  He covers ecological catastrophe, world peace, alien invasions, civil wars, space exploration, collapses and triumphs.

This was my first exposure to the sf idea of future history.  It was also my first real sense of history, period.  I’d read Wells’ Time Machine, but hadn’t really felt history (either forwards or backwards) as a sequence of events.  Elementary school hadn’t transmitted that.  No other book had.  But this single issue of The Defenders hurled me into the stream of time.

Which is an odd reaction to a superhero comic.  Otherwise I loved those comics for the usual reasons: identifying with heroes, enjoying the action, etc.  But this issue isn’t one where the Hulk’s smashing or Doctor Strange’s spells mattered.

Naturally my mother, like so many mothers,  hurled that comic, along with the rest of my collection, into the stream of garbage collection.  For years I remembered bits of the issue, and approached history with built-in appreciation.  Three decades later I hunted down the lost comic, and eventually identified the issue with the help of scholars and social media.  Now I have a reprint collection, and my son likes reading it.

Dune3. Frank Herbert, Dune.  In junior high I kept on reading, pushing the limits of libraries, my allowance, and my adolescent brain.  The book that blew the top off the latter was Dune.  I’d never experienced anything so broad and deep, so much imagination concentrated in a dense package.  The idea of world-building struck me powerfully. The hero (naturally about my age) as messiah was also a potent theme. The novel was open enough that I could make out the basic plot, but insisted on so many opaque mysteries that I returned to it again and again, trying to suss out meaning.   I’ve reread it every few years since.

I think people who read The Lord of the Rings at an early age had a similar experience.  But I, weirdly, didn’t read Tolkien until late in college.

4. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.  I read this because I was told I couldn’t.  A substitute teacher in eighth grade insisted I wasn’t capable of understanding the novel.  I don’t think she was trying a mind game to encourage me; I think she really didn’t think I could handle Voina i mir.  So I set out to read the longest book I’d ever attempted or seen.

I made out maybe 1/4th of the plot, that first time.  I’d never experienced anything like it before: the huge spread of characters and still greater number of names, the immersion into a specific historical period (probably the first historical novel I’d read), that swooping across social strata and nations, and the intertwining of material detail with philosophical brooding.  War and Peace reformatted my fiction-reading hard drive, utterly changing what I thought fiction could do.

It’s another novel I’ve reread over the years.  I’ve seen both movies, the Anglo-American (awful) and the Soviet (pretty good). In college I reenacted a drinking game from it.  In middle age I read some scenes (Austerlitz) to my children.

Battle of Borodino, from _War and Peace_

War and Peace was the first book which connected me to my Russian heritage.  Maybe it was what kicked off lifelong obsession with Russia, from my bad Dostoevsky habit to being a Soviet studies major at university.

Poe5. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe.  Around age fifteen I somehow got it into my head that I needed to read Poe.  So I did, carrying around this Viking paperback for months, while Poe carried off my mind.  This was how I found the Gothic, and also the mystery story.  As a frequently depressed teenager I was no stranger to melancholy, and Poe fitted smoothly into my life.  He didn’t terrify me, but some of the stories thrilled; greater still was the thrill of successfully working through his more arcane paragraphs.  This may have been the first poetry that made sense to me, that moved me.

A couple of years later I stumbled onto H. P. Lovecraft through cassette tape recording of David McCallum reading “The Haunter of the Dark”, and that scared me, setting me on a lifelong course for HPL fandom.  But it was Poe who first opened up the subcellar of my mind.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.   High school was the perfect time to read Nietzsche.  We read the opening to Zarathustra in a philosophy class (!), and two things happened at once.  First, I felt exhilarated as one should, my mind racing ahead into possibilities.  Second, I was pleasantly surprised to quickly make sense of the text, as my classmates staggered around within it.  Philosophical argument just made sense to me, somehow.  Maybe it was the Poe or Tolstoy that did it, or just having a science fiction habit.

I kept returning to Nietzsche as high school ground on, relishing its sense of going beyond a fouled-up world.  A close friend had “NIETZSCHE REBORN” inscribed upon her jacket, and I loved her for it.  In college I read more Nietzche, eventually reading his complete works in chronological order after finishing my M.A.  Nietzsche was a fine tonic in grad school, and a delight to teach afterwards.  After years of study, he still gives me that buzz of excitement and insurgency.  Zarathustra long since ceased to be my preferred N., but the hermit’s tale did kick-start me in high school.

If you’ve made it this far, here’s Richard Strauss as a reward:

7. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.  Apparently this is widely read in high schools now, but I only knew it through various movies until college.  Then it cut right through my expectations of what literature was supposed to be.  Shelley’s ability to compress invention, plot, and pathos into a slender book shook me out of expectations of sprawl.  This was also the first time I took myth seriously, as something modern.

I never really left Frankenstein.  It appeared in my PhD qualifying exams, in the first class I designed and taught as a grad student, in my dissertation, in nearly every other syllabus I wrote as an assistant professor, and in public talks.

Chuang Tzu8. Chuang Tzu.  During my first year as an undergraduate I took a Great Books of the Far East class, and this was the reading which really hit home.  Chuang Tzu was a delight, a book which made me laugh out loud, which took up space in my dreams, which made me reread passages over and over again.  It connected easily with my anarchic, antiauthoritarian thinking.  It also made me think about slack, relaxing, and simple pleasures.  In my brain Chuang Tzu became my anti-Nietzsche.

9. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.  I came across this book while working at a used bookshop.  It somehow caught my eye in the philosophy section.  Looking into it, I found philosophy of a kind I’d never heard of or read.  It was playful, obsessive, oblique, and nearly mad.  I kept on at the book, annotating it as I fumbled through references, trying to pin down staggering paragraphs.  It yanked open my thinking into all kinds of strange directions.  I’ve reread swaths of it every year ever since.

10. Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  Graduate school in the humanities in the 1990s was a stressful place.  The job market was horrendous, and universities had produced far too many PhDs.  I was a new father and fairly terrified of the future.  So this Frankfurt School book hit my mood perfectly.  But it also led me take my politics (very suspicious) and my reading (Gothic) and mix them into a grand philosophical attack on western thought and civilization.  Like Nietzche, Adorno and Horkheimer let me rethink a bad present.

I dove into this tradition for years, working through Benjamin, Bloch, and especially Adorno.  I took a copy of Minima Moralia with me to the Yugoslavian wars, possibly the very worst book anyone could have carried.  This dark vision shaped so much of how I saw the world.  It gave me a weirdly retro flair in an era obsessed with far more current theories.


Looking back over this, it’s an odd list.  It’s pretty geeky.  There’s more philosophy than I would have thought, and more war.

The books are generally American and overwhelmingly western, with one exception.  All but one of the authors are male, with one exception.

So many of the books appear in the content of schooling, and so few in the context of personal relationships.

The purpose of this list is to show books that had the greatest impact on oneself.  These obviously did so, especially by meeting ferocious needs at certain times of my life.  Isn’t this what reading does?

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