I've taken my sweet time listing my favorite, life-changing books, in response to a recent interview I heard on NPR (see Books - Part 1 and Part 2 for the books I've listed so far). Today's final few will round out the biggies for me. Thanks to those who have added their own life-changing books, or chimed in with comments. I welcome it all. Building on my list of ten books from the first entry, and five cooking/food/sustainable living books from the second entry... and in no particular chronological or preferential order (I can make my lists the way I want them, right?!):
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps this just feels too predictable ("wait, don't tell me, Catcher in the Rye is coming next...") but I can't help it, it's true. I had to read this book in AP English in high school, and I liked it. I thought I sort of "got it," too. THEN I read it in college for one of my Modern American Fiction classes... and then... ah... the Great American Novel! The beauty of literature (and heck, all art and creativity) is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this one hit me between the eyes as the The Perfect Novel. It was the first novel I really loved. Tight imagery, well-crafted dialogue, pitch-perfect portrayal of the Roaring Twenties with those crazy flappers and shallow men living out the vagaries of the Jazz Age. Perhaps it all seems a bit obvious and heavy-handed now for our oh-so-sophisticated postmodern tastes, but I thought the giant eyeglasses of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg were a spectacular metaphor. I was impressed.
- Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. I really loved this book. Honestly, I'm not at all a fan of Steinbeck's fiction. It is painfully dark, to the point where I am just flat out miserable when I'm reading. No thanks. But his narrative non-fiction is a banquet for me. Great stories, lots of adventures, interesting characters, telling confessions. The Log from the Sea of Cortez could be on this list as well. Steinbeck is a person from history with whom I wish I could have a cup of coffee. I have many questions for him. He insisted throughout all of his writing that life has no meaning -- it just happens. Yet so much of his imagery and dialogue takes on a deeply philosophical and even biblical tone. I was so intrigued I even wrote an article about him. I also learned a lot about writing from him, and try to take those lessons to heart. Steinbeck was a good writer, but it wasn't just a natural gift. He worked hard at it nearly every day, and it gave his life meaning. As he was once quoted, "a man’s a writer because there’s a craving inside him that makes him write. A man writes to get at the bottom of some basic fact of life."
- The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride. This book has stayed with me because it is the first memoir I really remember. Certainly, I had read plenty of biographies, and perhaps several autobiographies, by the time I read this book. Maybe I'm just being hoity-toity in separating the two... but a memoir isn't just a fancy word to me. A memoir is deeper and richer, more reflective. A chronology of events is told, but I oscillate between feeling like I'm reading about someone's life, and eating up a fantastic novel. McBride's book was like that for me. His description of his mother's life was spellbinding. I remember nearly eating this book whole. I read it when I ate, I read it at stoplights, I read it when I got up and when I went to bed. As one blogger writes, "let me tell you that reading McBride’s writing will be like listening to cool jazz – and there might very well be a connection there. In addition to writing, McBride has made his living as a journalist and a jazz musician. It is obvious that this combination has made him a writer of very lyrical lines." I probably also liked it because his mother is Jewish, and so is my dad; plus his mother's name is Ruth, and I have two important Ruth's in my own life. Anyway, this book caused me to now always browse in the memoir section of whatever bookstore I wander through.
- Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. This book is a jewel. I plan on reading it once a year, and I have given it as a gift several times. I even flew to Seattle just to hear Lauren Winner speak after reading this book. This book fed my soul. It took me to deeper places in my relationship with God. It explores the spiritual practices of Judaism, and pushes Christians to learn from them. It certainly taught me. Its chapter on mourning held the hands of all of us when we lost our dear friend Matt in 2006 -- I made a slew of copies of that chapter and we all held ourselves a little bit more together by sharing its vocabulary with one another. The chapter on candle-lighting is a wonderful little spiritual hors d'oeuvre too. Great, great book.
- Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer. I better be careful. I don't want to go into superlative overdrive on this one. This is one of those books where I would be reading and all of sudden I thought I heard a gong. Other than the Bible, I am not sure any other book felt more like God speaking directly to me. I have no idea who else this book was written for, because in my heart and mind it was only written for me! It inspired the title of this blog, and the quote below the title came from this book. Let Your Life Speak walked me into my sabbatical last year and gave me some footsteps to follow as I was stumbling along. I am utterly, deeply grateful for this book.
- Serve God, Save the Planet by Matthew Sleeth. Several of the green/sustainable living books that I listed in Books - Part 2 were all part of my decisions related to the way I eat now. But this book pulled it all together. It solidified my sense that my faith and my habits of environmental stewardship were inextricably entwined. I learn more about God as I care for his creation, stepping into the job he created me for; but God also teaches me more and more all the time about ways to live more simply, selflessly, carefully. This book got me to buy energy-saving bulbs, hang my clothes on a clothesline, wash my clothes in cold water, and take the bus occasionally. All fun stuff. But perhaps most significant to me personally, Sleeth connected the dots for me between poverty reduction through environmental stewardship, which really caused me to dive in with Eden Reforestation Projects. I am not just a chic little recycling/reusable bag using/scooter-driving/organic eating American; I am a believer who knows that billions in this world teeter on the edge of total catastrophe in large part because of what we as the human race are doing to our planet. It is of dire importance that we recognize how much each of us needs to get involved in serving God by saving the planet. 'Nuff said.