It was a coincidence that on the same day, two friends who do not know each other both invited me into the ten-book challenge, in which participants list the ten books that have held the most influence over their lives.
Probably like most readers who participate in the ten-book challenge, I was first intrigued, then frustrated. Naming ten favorite books sounded like a delightful exercise at first, but then it became clear how many I’d have to leave out. And as I drew up my list, I felt compelled to qualify each choice. “This one because…..and this one because…..and not that one because…..”
But in a way, I think that’s the point. It wouldn’t be interesting to pose this challenge to someone who had read only ten books. Or twelve, or even twenty. The whittling-down is the challenge of the exercise.
I also had to face the fact that I don’t have particularly highbrow tastes in literature. Many of my friends who have already posted their lists named classics of British or American literature, books I read in high school or college but haven’t thought about a great deal since. Yes, I know those books should influence me…. But my taste runs pretty heavily toward contemporary literary fiction.
There was additionally the problem that almost every book I read feels profoundly important to me the day I finish it, and often for several days after, but then months or years later, I find I can hardly remember that same book that I was recommending to everyone I know on the day I finished it. So I’ve come up with “staying power” as a critical criterion for the value of a book: not how important did it seem while you were reading it or when you finished it, but a year or five years or ten years later.
And then there’s the question of just what it means to be on the top ten. Most influential, yes, but what exactly does that mean? A book that changed the way I see the world, or a character that motivated me to be a better person? What about a self-help book that may not be particularly well-written from a literary standpoint but has lots of good suggestions for everyday living?
Gradually, my list took shape, but I’m not sure how useful or insightful it is. “American Wife,” like all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels, just make me feel grateful that humankind exists because people are so remarkably interesting. “State of Wonder” dissuaded me from ever wanting to travel by boat down the Amazon while simultaneously making me very glad for the chance to read about it. “Life of Pi” has a plot twist that gave me the kind of physical jolt I hadn’t found in a reading experience since childhood. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” though hair-raising in its plot, had some of the most interesting insights into human nature I’ve ever come across. “Freedom” resonates with me four years after I read it because of the simple truth about morality reflected in a long and complicated story. “The Happiness Project” reminds me to evaluate my choices every day and be diligent in the pursuit of happiness. “The Indian in the Cupboard” is the only children’s book on my list because it just reminds me of how enchanting a book written for kids can be, and how differently this one comes across to a child versus to an adult – but charmingly for either one. “Bright Shiny Morning” gave me a new perspective on how fiction could be constructed. “Columbine,” one of three nonfiction books on my list, was important to me professionally, since on the surface it’s about the Columbine High School slaughter but really it’s about what happens when journalists make far-reaching mistakes. “The Right to Write” instilled in me the habit of writing one thousand words every morning.
In the end, the only common thread I could articulate was “Books I find myself thinking back to at least once a week.” Here’s my list. I hope many more of my friends will soon post their own lists, with or without a long explanation like I’ve given.
American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
Bright Shiny Morning – James Frey
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
The Indian in the Cupboard – Lynne Reid Banks
The Right to Write – Julia Cameron
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver