So I was tagged on Facebook for a meme that said to list “10 books that have stayed with me” and while I just listed the books without explanation on Facebook, I thought it would be a good idea for a blog post. For me, the “ten books that have stayed with me” isn’t exactly the same as my “favorite” books, though some could be called that. Rather, I thought of books that still come to mind years later, or books whose memories can still summon the feeling I felt when reading them, or also books that seem to form part of my identity as a reader. You could ask me in a month and I might have a different version of this list. But this is the list that I made last night (no particular order):
1. Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London
In third grade, through Scholastic book orders, I bought a bound paperback which consisted of both stories. I was all about the animal stories then, and I thrilled over Jack London’s depiction of the Klondike Gold Rush’s rough frontier. I have re-read the book over the years until it’s become this dog-eared, familiar presence in my bookshelves and in my memory.
2. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild
This book is primarily about the British abolition movement, and I certainly learned a lot about this part of world history, especially how the Caribbean was impacted by the institution of slavery and the way it ended there. But the book also lingers in my mind because of how Hochschild told this history – his warts-and-all approach to all the key players, his care to not overlook the contributions of marginalized people whose efforts were not thoroughly recorded by their contemporaries. I also remember the awesomeness of Thomas Clarkson and how I actually teared up when Hochschild described how he was honored at his funeral.
3. A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan
Okay, this one is a love-it-or-hate-it book, particularly due to its use of 2nd person point of view (“You ride your bike to town.”). And I haven’t re-read it in a while, so it may not be as good as I remember it being. This short book is about a 19th century sheriff/mortician/preacher whose Wisconsin town is threatened by disease and fire in the same summer. I first read the book in high school, and its creepy, almost apocalyptic, tone made an impression on me. I think it’s mostly the ending that helps this book land on my list – getting sucked into a story where the worst does happen to everyone else and yet “you” are left standing.
4. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
Smith is a dependably good storyteller, but this book – the first I read – is still the best of them all. Ivy Rowe’s entire life is told through letters, starting with her almost mythic childhood in the Appalachian mountains. It’s one of the best books I’ve read for capturing the journey through time in one person’s life. And it’s that and Ivy Rowe herself that have stayed with me ever since I read it.
5. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
I read this book and other novels and stories by Welty for a senior high school project. I never re-read the others, but Delta Wedding remained a part of my reading life long after graduation. I may have even bought it with graduation money. Not a lot happens in Delta Wedding, but I was incredibly taken with Welty’s description of the Fairchild family, their house, and that region in Mississippi during the 1920’s. An early scene involves the Fairchild family picking up their nine-year-old cousin Laura from the train station and as she gets into the car, she is immediately surrounded by the chaos of her cousins. Perhaps drawing from my own experiences with extended family, I can almost hear that scene when I think about it. My love for this book is one of several reasons I want to visit Mississippi next year.
6. The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
As with Delta Wedding, The Country of Pointed Firs also has a strong sense of place. The difference here is that Jewett was writing about coastal Maine, a place that I am intimately familiar with as it was my childhood home. The book was published in 1896, nearly a century before I was born, but reading it fills me with such a strong home-feeling, proving that I guess the essence of the place has stayed the same.
7. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
I read this book once in high school and liked it, but Shute’s novel On the Beach made more of an impression at the time. I re-read A Town Like Alice several years ago, and loved it. It has dated elements, but the loveliness of the narrator – an elderly solicitor – shines through. What I especially like is that it takes the shape of an epic love story (two people thrown together by war and then separated by the same), but then it goes beyond the usual denouement and shows how the character Jean basically reinvents a town so that she can share a life with the man she loves.
8. Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
The world-building is amazing in this book and I love how Mieville interrogates the tropes inherent in the quest narrative. It’s also funny and quirky in wonderful ways. The main reason Un Lun Dun made my list was the way each individual life was valued: no matter how minor the character, each life mattered to the protagonist and to the story. When so many stories have barely-remarked carnage and death, Un Lun Dun seemed completely refreshing in how it dealt with loss of life.
9. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher
I read this 1973 book last year and while I found Schumacher remarkably short-sighted about women in the workplace, his ideas and the way he laid them out have really informed my thinking about economics ever since. My dad, having read my post on this book last year, pointed my attention to this summer’s Market Basket controversy which I had somehow been missing. The Market Basket saga has recently concluded in a happy fashion, where it was reaffirmed that people do matter, but it seems all too rare.
10. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
In the Post-Birthday World, the book divides into two parallel-world narratives. In one, the main character, Irina, chooses to kiss a man who is not her long-term boyfriend. In the other, she is tempted, but refrains. The book follows Irina on these separate life-paths and the way that decision ripples through her love life, career, and her experience of world events. I loved there wasn’t a clear “bad” or “good” life, though one does seem to leave her more sad than the other. Similar to O’Nan’s book, it’s possible a re-read may diminish my memory of this book, but its take on life-changing decisions is something I still think about.