There’s a meme going around Facebook at the moment; you’ve probably seen it. It asks you to list the 10 books that influenced you the most as a person, be they works of great literature or vintage collections of erotic poetry you once found under your grandmother’s bed. I resisted this meme for a while because it seemed self-indulgent–who honestly cares which books have influenced me? What a stupid question.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it didn’t seem stupid at all. Try and make a list in your head real quick: there are books you love and books you hate and books you pretend to love and/or hate because that’s what’s fashionable, but which ten books have legitimately affected your life? How many of them are books you read for a class, and how many are random nonsense you stumbled across when you were bored one day? How strongly did they influence you, and in what ways? It’s actually a fairly fascinating exercise! That’s why I decided to try it.
Plus I run a website called joannalesher.com, which means the Self-Indulgence Train pulled out of the station ages ago.
Here, in chronological order based on when I first read them, are my top 10.
Title: The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker
Read it when I was: 10
My very religious uncle gave this to me in my Easter basket, probably because I liked Goosebumps at the time and he figured this would be similar. It is not. Darker, more complex, and more legitimately scary than anything R.L. Stein popped out, The Thief of Always got under my fourth-grade skin so thoroughly that I still remembered the story at age 18, when I found the book buried in my basement and read it again.
Fed up with his quotidian existence, 10-year-old Harvey is thrilled when an otherworldly man called Rictus whisks him away to Hood’s Holiday House, a paradise for children. At the Holiday House, there are no bed times, candy is always readily available, and Halloween is celebrated every night. However, Harvey later discovers that there are two catches: 1) you can never leave Hood House once you’ve arrived, and 2) the master of the House, Mr. Hood, will gradually devour your soul, turn you into a hideous fish, and leave you to spend eternity beneath the murky gray waters of a nearby lake.
Lots of children’s stories feature a protagonist being magically transported to another land. Very few present that other land as a literal Hell. The idea that a seemingly trustworthy grown-up could trick a child into surrendering his soul in return for fun and sweets warped my young mind beyond all recall.
Title: The X-Files: Book of the Unexplained, by Jane Goldman
Read it when I was: 11
Speaking of things that warped my mind beyond recall, this book presented itself as a companion to my favorite show at the time, The X-Files. And while that was technically accurate–Ms. Goldman uses episodes of the show as a springboard for discussions about ghosts, werewolves, time slips, and serial killers–it really didn’t prepare my hapless parents for just how inappropriate this book was for their fifth-grade daughter.
One line I remember: “[Serial killer Ed Gein] had in his house a box of human vaginas, including his mother’s, painted silver.”
Title: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, by Sue Townsend
Read it when I was: 12
We had this book in my house as far back as I can remember, and I’m still not entirely sure where it came from. It’s a British book and was never published in the States, as far as I can tell, so it must have come from my aunt and uncle. My aunt, however, has no clear memory of it. Maybe it was just too long ago.
Anyway, my dad came across it one day and, evidently reasoning that I was nearly 13 3/4, decided it would be perfect reading for me. In the grand tradition of every book my dad ever gave me, Adrian Mole wound up being fairly inappropriate, though less soul-scarring than Book of the Unexplained.
Adrian is a teenage boy from a rather poor, extremely dysfunctional family. He’s got a lot to worry about: his parents are both having affairs, his dog keeps running off, puberty has reared its ugly head (along with its attendant erections and nudey magazines–again, great job, Dad!), and he’s just realized he’s an “undiscovered intellectual.” Monty Python and the Holy Grail excluded, this was my first exposure to British humor. It was also my first exposure to the concept of turning a crappy home life into high comedy, a technique I’ve since used I-don’t-even-know-how-many hundreds of times. Best of all, the book got funnier as I aged, with jokes about Margaret Thatcher and “French letters” finally clicking in early adulthood.
Title: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Read it when I was: 13
At times it feels like I did nothing in my teenage years but read Lord of the Rings, so it’s weird to think that it was kind of a hard sell on my mother’s part. I had read and enjoyed The Hobbit the year before, but its “sequel” seemed over-long and ponderous, and I wasn’t sure my attention span would hold out. My mom kept pressing, though, and eventually I gave The Fellowship of the Ring a try.
The moment I finally came down off the fence was when Gandalf tried to take the Ring from Bilbo and the latter started talking like Gollum. “Damn,” I remember saying to myself. “This ain’t like The Hobbit. This is some serious sh*t!”
Serious sh*t it was–so serious, in fact, that it consumed my entire adolescence. Thirteen years later, I recited a home-made poem in Elvish at the after party for my best friend’s wedding. Fortunately, because I could never befriend anyone who wasn’t a LOTR-nerd, she was completely feeling it.
Title: IT, by Stephen King
Read it when I was: 14
I read a lot of Stephen King in middle school, so I was hard-pressed to choose just one of his books to put on this list. I finally settled on IT because it revolved around children my age, and I think I connected with that. It was also the first book I ever read that went completely bananas at the end. (IT is actually Universal Chaos personified as a giant spider? Okay! The giant spider is now fighting the Turtle Wax turtle, which is an avatar of Universal Order? Cool, man! These 12-year-old kids are unifying themselves by having group sex in a tunnel? Uh…)
To this day, I have an affinity for media that goes off the deep end in the final stretch. I’m pretty sure IT is to blame for that.
Title: Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher, Ph.D.
Read it when I was: 14
Ninth grade was a tough year for me. Whereas in middle school I’d gotten away with being a sort of loud-mouthed, gender-neutral, boy-hating weird-ass, my high school friends didn’t seem to want anything to do with that person. Nobody wanted to talk anime or feminism or the sex scenes in trashy romance novels. Worse still, the person I was in love with was really (really really) not trying to hear that. In a brave new world where everyone was obsessed with image (“Are you a punk or a prep?” “Do these shoes make me look goth?” “Boys don’t want to date girls who show too much skin.”), I had become a social liability. And I was way too naive to understand why.
Sensing that I was miserable, my dad did one of the most canny things he ever managed as a parent: he bought me a book specifically analyzing the pressures and miseries faced by teenage girls. The man has never been a champion of the women’s rights movement, so I can only assume he had no idea how overtly feminist Reviving Ophelia actually is. Which was a stroke of luck for me.
I don’t know if this book made it easier to be a teenager–mostly it just made me hyper-aware of everybody’s bullsh*t, including my own. But it did make it easier to hold on to myself, and I want to thank Mary Pipher for that.
Title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
Read it when I was: 15
This book was first foisted upon me at band camp by a very dear friend who is sadly no longer with us. I’ve got a lot to thank her for in terms of my taste in literature, and this was the big one. Before I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide, I had no idea that books could be simultaneously smart, absurd, dark, and unreasonably funny. That’s what this book is, honestly: funny beyond what ought to be reasonable in a sane and functional society.
“This reminds me of Douglas Adams!” is a comment I sometimes get in response to things I’ve written. It used to piss me off–were they calling me derivative? Was I being accused of plagiarism? Now, though, I’ve decided to interpret that particular remark as: “This thing you wrote is crazy and made me laugh.” I can live with that. There are certainly worse things.
Title: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Read it when I was: 17
I love Russian literature, Dostoevsky especially, and Crime and Punishment especially-especially. I’ve read it more than any other book on this list, with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings. Part of my love for it stems from its being the first Dostoevsky I ever read, I’m sure, but there’s more to it than that. In trying to describe to my husband last night what Crime and Punishment means to me, I explained it this way: “Crime and Punishment was my Catcher in the Rye.”
There’s a feeling you sometimes get from books that’s better than almost anything else: that sensation that someone (an author, a character), somewhere (in the U.S., in Russia, in the mind of a writer), at some point in time (the modern day, the middle ages, 1860’s Russia), felt the same feelings you’re feeling. I was a very intense adolescent, burning up with disgust over the cruelty of the world and my own powerlessness to do anything about it. Suddenly, here was this fictional person who wasn’t too far from my age (23 versus 17), my socioeconomic circumstances (poverty in both cases), and my temperament (over-read and under-socialized), and he was disgusted too! Though I would never hack someone up with an ax (I can’t believe I just had to write that sentence), I could understand the impulse to save humanity by excising the bad parts. There is no place more violent than the heart of a frustrated humanist.
Okay, yes, I related to Holden Caufield as well. Most adolescents can, if they’re honest with themselves. I read his screes against phonies and the loss of childhood innocence, and I totally felt him. Ultimately, though, he never did anything about it. Step it up, Holden! Rodya might not have been the most well-adjusted guy, but at least he took action!
(Again, I am not an ax murderer.)
Title: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Read it when I was: 21
There are only a handful of books that have ever caused me to laugh out loud. Adrian Mole and The Hitchhiker’s Guide are two of them. Catch-22 is another. What’s strange is, though I always suspected I’d like this book, I didn’t get around to reading it until my final year of college. Chalk that up to busy schedule and an ex-boyfriend who got mad if I read anything that wasn’t a licensed Warcraft novelization.
Like some of the other novels on this list, Catch-22 blends comedy and tragedy, though nothing else I’ve ever read has managed such a potent, gut-punching co-mingling of the two. It’s the perfect novel for those of us who are both irredeemably silly and secretly morose. The funny/depressing style on display in Joseph Heller’s opus has bled not only into my writing, but into my worldview as well.
Title: The Shadow over Innsmouth, by H.P. Lovecraft
Read it when I was: 23
Regular readers probably know that I’m a Lovecraft enthusiast, but I came to it fairly late in life. My first experience with Lovecraft came via a Kindle compendium of all his short fiction and novellas that I read in Japan. This was crap timing on my part, since I was then forced to spend a year in a country where very few people knew who Lovecraft was. The number of times I fought back the urge to rush random passersby and scream “ASK ME ABOUT THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE” is astronomical. Since returning to the States, my appetite for weird fiction (with a side of purple prose, but please hold the racism) has only grown.
I’m putting The Shadow over Innsmouth down as my favorite for two reasons: 1) it’s a genuinely eerie, genuinely captivating piece of horror fiction that contains one of those rarest of all beasts: a Lovecraft action scene, and 2) allegedly, Lovecraft worried about Innsmouth because he thought it might come across too xenophobic(!) This was late in his life, during an era in which he loosened up a bit and became a New Deal Democrat.
Jeepers, H.P., it’s a good thing you died early. You were in very real danger of becoming a decent human being!