A recurring Facebook meme has people listing books that have made the greatest and most lasting impression on them throughout their lives. Because I tend to hang out mostly with avid readers (many of them also writers), I’ve seen a lot of these personal lists and found them all interesting.
But one vital element is missing: the explanation, the answer to why particular books had such a profound impact.
Considering the amount of reading I’ve done in my lifetime, my own list is surprisingly short. I’ve finished a lot of books with the feeling that they would stay with me, only to realize a year or two later that I barely remember them. But here are the books that have proven to be unforgettable – those I’ve read more than once and will probably read again in the future.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It’s at the top of my list for all the reasons that have made it the greatest American novel of all time for many readers: characters who touch us to the core, a nostalgic and quintessentially American setting, and a story of human relationships and social injustice that is as relevant today as the year it was published. Lee’s only published novel, Mockingbird is still in print, still selling steadily all over the world, and has become a staple in U.S. classrooms. The movie is wonderful, but if you’ve never read the book, I urge you to find a copy and experience the full power of the writing.
Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen
These stories of Karen Blixen’s life in British East Africa (Kenya), written under a pseudonym after her return to Denmark in 1931, have an unbreakable hold on my imagination. Most younger people today know Out of Africa only as romantic movie, but the book is a loving and profoundly elegiac memoir of a time and a place that none of us will ever experience. The very thought of colonialism and the subjugation of native tribes is abhorrent, and Dinesen’s tales are certainly colored by the European views of the time and a sad longing for a perfect life that couldn’t be sustained under the pressure of change. But each word she wrote displays her deep love of the land and its wildlife, and her respect for the native people who were in every sense her friends. Dinesen introduced to me an idealized East Africa, and every time I reread the opening lines of Out of Africa I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been:
I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.
Everything ever published by Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers
These two Georgians were the writers who most influenced me when I was young because, unlike the classic authors I was reading for English class, O’Connor and McCullers wrote about people I recognized from my own life. O’Connor’s style was sharper, utterly lacking in sentimentality, but both wrote about the essential solitude of the human soul that separates us from each other. Although McCullers traveled and had an international set of friends while O’Connor lived on a small Georgia farm with her mother, their lives had much in common. Both showed their genius early; McCullers published her stunning first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at 23, and O’Connor published the classic morality tale Wise Blood at 27. O’Connor died of lupus at 39, leaving behind two published novels and 32 short stories, some published in her lifetime and the rest collected after her death. McCullers suffered a series of strokes in her twenties that paralyzed her left side by the time she was 31, but she produced eight novels before a final brain hemorrhage killed her at age 50.
A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine
This is the book that made me understand how much it’s possible to do with a mystery. Although I never miss a Rendell novel, I still consider this densely layered story of lies, love, and cruelty within a seemingly ordinary family to be her masterpiece. I still have my1987 paperback copy, but it’s so fragile from handling that when my book group discussed it a few years ago I bought a later edition that I could mark up and dog-ear without regret. A British TV adaptation totally failed to capture the novel’s complexity and the insight gained through time shifts and memories. You have to read the novel to full appreciate Rendell’s achievement.
Mortal Memory by Thomas H. Cook
Cook’s haunting story, narrated by the sole survivor of a family massacre, has drawn me back many times to reread passages, chapters, the whole book. Cook’s prose is beautiful, a pleasure to read, and he uses it to create an atmosphere of quiet terror that is far more powerful than a graphic picture painted with hard-edged language and ugly words. Like A Dark-Adapted Eye, this is a many-layered story of family life gone desperately wrong.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Lehane’s great novel about a neighborhood torn apart – and brought together – by crimes both distant and recent encompasses such a broad range of emotions and relationships that it’s difficult to describe in a few words. With equal skill and insight, he zooms out to portray a community in turmoil and zooms in to explore a single man or woman’s inner torment or a couple’s marriage. Murder and detection are part of the story, but this is far more than a simple crime novel. Mystic River is great fiction on every level – and again, if you’ve only seen the film, you need to read the book.