Books That Shaped Me


Recently my blog-crush Dominika shared her list of life-changing books and inspired me to do the same. It was hard to differentiate favorites from the ones that really rearranged my mental furniture, but here’s my attempt:

  1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I remember trying to read this a couple of times before I could get through it, totally in love with the movie (was Dickon my first crush?), but totally stymied by the Yorkshire accents. I think it was the first book to touch (or inspire?) my love of deep history, of stories in which layer upon layer of human generation has touched a place, leaving it shadowy with memory and mystery. It is also probably most directly responsible for the Anglophile tendencies that led me to Oxford for study abroad in 2007.
  2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Later this book was other things to me — the foundation for a dream-come-true trip to Prince Edward Island when I was 9 or 10, the subject of my undergrad honors thesis — but first Anne Shirley was an inspiration to me for how one should live. She balances a dreamy romantic spirit with a sense of duty to the people around her. (Also, every bouquet I’ve ever picked has been inspired at least a little by Anne.)
  3. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank: I’m not really sure why I’ve always loved post apocalyptic stories, but I am sure that this was the first I read, plucked from a shelf of my parents’ books sometime in grade school. I think stories of worldwide calamity satisfy some conviction in my anxious heart of the brokenness of our world, and the best ones, like this one, show us a way to rebuild it.
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: I was born in 1985, at just the perfect time for Harry P. — right at the generational hinge of people young enough to read the books just as they were coming out, so that the first debuted when I was about Harry’s age, and I awaited the last one as an old engaged lady. The books in themselves are a world to inhabit, but what was probably most important to me about them was how they made reading a communal thing. Harry Potter was and remains a secret language for discovering kindred spirits.
  5. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: I want to list Orthodoxy or Lost In the Cosmos: A Last Self-Help Book — something to give me hipster Catholic cred — but Mere Christianity was the first book to really suggest to me that smart people could be Christians, and that Christianity could be understood (to an extent) rationally.
  6. What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing by Naomi Stadlen: Ok, I’m going to tell you a librarian secret now: we scam from the holds shelf. I saw this one come through when Pippin was a baby and I was working circ, and I immediately added it to my holds, because I was a mother who felt like she was doing nothing. It was unbelievably affirming and fascinating and you should really read it, too, if you’ve ever felt like motherhood was killing you.

I am not sure about this list. It’s like nothing notable happened to me in college, despite being an English major and Great Books student. Hmm. But it’s hard to select just one formative thing (King LearPascal’s Pensees! Digging deep into Austen! You know, finally reading the Bible!), so I will offer a jumble of other stuff, college and not, below.

Honorable mentions: anything Jane Austen, because her prose is just the absolute best; Paradise Lost because it is so big and hard and beautiful; The Four Quartets which I wrestled over in a book club one summer in college; Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year because Anne Lamott can make me tear up and cackle in the same paragraph, and believe everything will be ok…

Building a Family Reading Culture, 1: On a Home Library

As we’ve been paring down our belongings in preparation for another move, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a book a keeper, and what I’m trying to do with our collection.

J and I come at this, as so many things, from opposite directions (ENTP and ISFJ over here!). Once J has bought or been given a book, it will live with us for all of time. I’m pickier. After several years of circ desk work and a bit of interlibrary loan duty, I know that I can get most books again from the library, should I really need them, so I try mostly to keep books that I can’t easily request (particularly Christian stuff) or expect to re-read or foist on friends.

New York Times column my mom sent recently came at just the right time. It cites a 2014 study that found the quantity of books — not quality of books, or access to a library — was the strongest predictor of reading performance. Sheer numbers matter — the sweet spot landing between 100 and 500, and giving the kids of bookish families up to 2.2 years’ head start on their classmates. The study doesn’t venture to determine whether it’s simply the presence of books at home or parents demonstrating bookworm behavior that accounts for the advantage, but the author, Teddy Wayne, argues, “To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.”

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Historically, we have a book storage problem. Also, I am a bad librarian and sort by color. Sue me.

These findings reassure me because even in the face of moving I keep bringing home books for Scout and Pippin from thrift stores and book sales and anywhere I stumble across them — though I’m more selective for myself, given that I am mostly reading e-books in this nursing stage, and that I read a lot of bad books serendipitously in 2015.

Now, as I sift through our books in an attempt to downsize, I try to ask myself if this is a book I’d like my children to be able to find on the shelves in a decade or so. My parents, inheritors of my grandfather’s professorial library and collectors in their own right for my mom’s English Ed MA, always let me browse freely, and in this way, I picked up Animal Farm, and at the encouragement of my mom, both Pride and Prejudice and Alas, Babylon — two books I’ve read literally dozens of times since. Even now, there’s something special about reading the old, worn copy of Vanity Fair or Bleak House with my grandfather’s typewritten quiz as a bookmark or my mom’s tiny marginalia packed all around the story.

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Not my books, as I don’t read Japanese. Just beautiful, though.

I see now that the Like Mother, Like Daughter post I meant to link to is also a response to the NYT column, and in it, Leila Lawler argues, “If you have all sorts of books,  you are outsourcing your task of teaching the children everything — which is a pretty good idea. What a relief! And that leaves you free to pursue your own interests. In turn, pursuing your own interests leads to a richer environment in the home, which furthers the education of the children.” As we feel our way toward homeschooling, it’s a reassuring thought: accumulate the books, model reading, and leave the rest to them.