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What 10 Books Have Influenced How You Look At the World?

We have winners for the two up-for-grab issues of Books & Culture, May/June 2010 issue!

Renae and Lindsey.  Congratulations, you two!  If you’ll e-mail me at comment4elissa at gmail dot com and provide me with your addresses, I shall send them straightaway.  Happiest of reading to you.

John Wilson, my editor at Books & Culture, laid down a challenge to his readers–to name the ten books that influenced their view of the world the most.

Here it is in his words [the book he’s referring to is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, just published by Oxford University Press]:

“While I was reading Hunter, the theme of ‘influence’ surfaced from another direction. On the Marginal Revolution blogsite, the polymathic economist Tyler Cowen responded to a reader’s query asking for a list of ‘the top 10 books which have influenced your view of the world.’ Tyler’s response (prefaced by the important qualifier that ‘books are by no means the only source of influence’) inspired many others to follow suit, and it provoked me to think about the question as well.”

So, John and Tyler, here are mine, in no particular order:

  1. The Bible.  Certainly, if I had not known of this book, I would be a different person today.  It has, for a long time, informed how I’ve lived my life, and only recently have I discovered how much it’s changed for me.  It really is a living, breathing thing.
  2. Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia.  I know I’m cheating a little by sneaking in a two-for-one, but my Reverend father read these to us after dinner each night, and I distinctly remember (with great fondness) those quiet moments of possibility and promise as the books came alive through his voice.
  3. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis.  Can I just how shocking this book was for me as a junior at UCLA, sitting in an American Fiction class, reading about sex and drugs in such a raw, off-the-cuff way?  I was naive and sheltered.  That’s all I’ll say about that.
  4. Anything by the poet Mary Oliver.  Who knew you could understand a poet?  Live vicariously through a poet?  Such beautiful, heartfelt imagery!  Such emotion!  For some reason, we (the literary community) have this notion that poets should be esoteric, mysterious.  I’ve never understood the disdain against Billy Collins for being a people’s poet.  Say what?  My philosophy is that if a reader can’t understand what you’re saying, then what’s the use?  You’ve just wasted your breath.
  5. A New Kind of Christian and the subsequent books in the trilogy by Brian McLaren.  McLaren raised subversive questions I’d been thinking about for a while, and they caused me to rethink my truth.
  6. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks.  An amazing book that explains how the Islam world sees women.  I had never fully understood the burqa (or numerous other rules the women live under).  This book explained it all.  Very eye-opening.
  7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  I’ve read this book several times–for its depth, for its portrayal of a fanatical father bent on bringing Jesus to the African people.  I grew up in such a family, and to read of another fictional one floored me.
  8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and The Food Revolution by John Robbins.  I’m cheating again, but these two books started me on my journey to find local food, buy organic, and know where my food comes from.  Robbins’ book, especially, was quite frightening to me.
  9. Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood by Karen Maezen Miller.  This is the one book that made me realize that I would do okay as a mother.  In fact, we began adoption proceedings shortly after.  And what surprised me most, at the time, was that it was written by a Buddhist priest and mother.
  10. Last but not least…Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) by Bart Ehrman.  When I read this, my world came crumbling down, in the sense that what I had thought to be carved in stone was not, and now I would have to do further research.  To be so jarred was terrifying, but exhilarating.

What are yours?  Remember, we’re going for the books that influenced your view of the world, not your favorites, although some books may be on both lists.

Happy contemplating!

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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