Here is a brief list of some of the books that made me who I am today.
Image by Griszka Niewiadomski
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980)
I was in 6th grade when I first read Cosmos. I loved space and read about it constantly when I was a kid. How much did I love space? I was memorizing the orbital inclination of all the planets (holyshitnerd) in 6th grade. I REALLY loved space and so- it was a book on space that I thought I checked out when I got Cosmos from the library to read. And it was. And it wasn’t. It was history and humanity and anthropology and archeology and physics and tied all the world(s) together. It changed my life. Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot was also really good. Brocca’s Brain… emmmgh, less so.
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny (1970)
I skipped over this book many times on the library shelves due to the absolutely cheeseball covers (hello, Fabio-esque figure with a cape, no shirt, and a sword fighting a tiger sized Siamese cat. I’m gonna go see what’s new on the Piers Anthony’s shelf… mmmkayy?) But at some point I did read it and it was AWESOME. Barack Obama and John McCain both idolize Robert Jordan, the main character from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (we’ll get to that one)- but he can’t hold a CANDLE to the strength, stoicism, cynical morality, and self deprecating humor while still maintaining a constant level of pride as Corwin. And the other thing I love is Roger Zelazny’s writing. This was one of the very first books I ever bought- at a used bookstore I used to bike to. And I loved the writing style, first person with a hint of conversationality. I actually loved Zelazny’s writing so much that in high school I had a notebook where I would write out particular sentences and passages from The Chronicles and analyze them to determine what is was that made me love them so much. Last I recall I had filled 10 pages. This is my favorite. If I’m ever asked what my favorite book is… this is it.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
I read this in science class. Not for a grade, mind you- but in middle school I often found myself surrounded by whole classes of kids who didn’t like school and gave the teachers a really hard time. I, by contrast, loved school and did not hassle teachers. In 7th grade science class I would often finish way earlier on the classwork than the rest of the class, and since I had no friends (…in that class. Yeah, that’s it.) I would grab a book from the shelf on the wall right behind my desk and read until the bell rang. I never asked the teacher if I could do it. She never told me I could. But she did have that shelf stocked… must have been for that exact purpose. I read the entirety of a 1960s printing of the The Three Musketeers in 10-15 minute increments over the course of that year. And the author, Alexandre Dumas, is the man- did you know his dad rose from being a slave in the Caribbean to being a general for Napoleon? What. Didn’t ya know the author of The Three Musketeers was black?
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Okay- I’m not a big Hemingway fan, honestly. The way he writes about love… it makes me think the closest he ever got was possessive lust and so that’s how he wrote it. But this one has a really quality ending. “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” Exactly, Rob. Exactly. I hope you got that fascist commander before you died of your wounds. I like to think you did.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
My grandfather sent me a set of tiny leather bound books from 1898 when I was 14. Mostly they were speeches from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson… but one was the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It really got under my skin- I can still SEE the writhing sea snakes to this day. And I was surprised 20 years later when I reread it that it was a poem. I had forgotten.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
I read this twice a year for almost 10 years straight- over Christmas break and summer break. Those old paperbacks with the almost monochromatic covers are the best. Did you know Tolkien drew those covers himself? Multi-talented guy.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1987) and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (1959)
I’ve bought both of these for my daughters, and so have recently reread them. And the writing… wow. It’s not that great in either. But these books absolutely captured me when I was a kid.
The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. Obrien (1971)
I still remember reading this by Christmas lights while going to sleep under the Christmas tree- in high school. Goes without saying for ALL of the books on this list- but the book is much better than the cartoon/movie. This is the only one on this list with a female protagonist and she’s a damn mouse.
For a Breath I Tarry by Roger Zelazny (1966)
This is in a short story collection called The Last Defender of Camelot, and the short story that has the same title as the collection is pretty no bueno. BUT- another novella in the collection, For a Breath I Tarry, is vitally important to me. Sentient machines after man’s self destruction play out Faust on the post apocalyptical landscape of the North Pole. Dude. READ. IT.
“For a breath I tarry, nor yet disperse apart,
take my hand quick, and tell me
what have you in your heart.”
That’s a line from A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman, but I was able to write that just now by memory thanks to this book.
Mars is Heaven! by Ray Bradbury (1948)
I read this in a Ray Bradbury short story collection from the library when I was in high school. Freaking. Brrrr! It’s so scary, yet with all the scary bits hidden from view. Wowza. I still remember it, and wouldn’t reread it for almost 15 years due to how much it scared me the first round through. And I kinda wish I hadn’t read it again, because it haunted me anew when I did.
The Stand by Stephen King (1978)
I read this while taking a road trip through New England states and was in Vermont and New Hampshire right as the characters in the book are leaving the east coast. It was so cool. My husband couldn’t get through the first half due to all the written out coughing during the pandemic. I see his point, there. This one didn’t shape me as a person- it was a really enjoyable read though.
A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny (1993)
Third of Robert Zelazny’s work on this list. This one is just fun, and my husband and I read it every October. The chapters coincide to the days of the month, and it’s fun to restrain yourself to the early days with just a paragraph each on some and stretch yourself on the longer later ones. So fun.
And many of these are out of print- a lot of Zelazny’s are, for sure. But I now buy many books on Ebay. For cheap. I’ve gotten 1896 editions. 1912… all for about $5. I have a Kindle, but it’s nice to have hard copies of books I really love. I read once that seeing someone reading a book you like is that book recommending the person, and I like that.