10 Books That Have Defined My Life (So Far)

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I’ve been taking a break from my own book club this year because I’ve been working on a book — about other people’s favorite books (more on that soon, but it will be out next spring from Regan Arts). So although almost any of you reading this piece would probably be able to put together your own life-in-books article, I feel I’m peculiarly suited to the task as an avid reader who eventually found a way to construct an entire professional life around books, authors and literacy.

Here, I’m offering 10 books that not only touched me during the life stages in which I read them but also perfectly illustrate those stages — not just for me, but also for you, I hope. After all, we’re in this together. A very big book club indeed.

The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

Ferdinand is a great big strong bull who would really prefer to pass his days in a sunny meadow among the flowers. Woven into the words and pictures is a powerful, timeless message about remaining true to yourself no matter what other people believe you to be.

My mother grew up very poor; the kind of poor that people sometimes mistakenly believe is picturesque when it happens in Appalachia but that has no redeeming quaintness factor when it happens an hour north of New York City. Able to raise me in much less dire circumstances, she reminded me through stories and honesty that it is your own personal dignity that matters, not your social class.

Ferdinand reminded me of the same thing. He doesn’t want to fight like the other bulls. He wants to lie down in the grass and relax. I was a child, according to my mother, who lived in my own imagination. I wasn’t interested in the things other kids liked — and she helped me feel that was all right.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

If you remain true to yourself, very few people may truly understand you. But as Meg Murry discovers in L’Engle’s gorgeous fantasy, all you need is a loving family — even if your distracted scientist mother relies on a Bunsen burner to make stew and your little brother turns out to be an old soul with special powers.

I grew up comfortably middle class but a bit too bookish and daydream-y for my 1970s childhood peers. Even if I didn’t fit in very well through the Calvin Klein Jeans era, at home my studious, introverted nature was celebrated as strong and worthwhile. My parents made it okay for me to be a nerd. At least for a while.

Meg Murry chooses to follow her little brother into a scary dream world to find their father rather than stay at home and fit in the way her other siblings do. Like me, she was more interested in her inner convictions than her outer appearance.

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Most of us learn at some point that family only takes you so far, and then you’ve got to contend with your peers. Isabel Archer is an American ingénue whose inheritance allows her to reject some suitable offers of marriage and travel to Europe (where she has to reject a few more). Perfect ambiguity for the insecure years.

My parents also made it possible for me to travel abroad, although I sometimes made their lives hell in return. Case in point: The summer I hitchhiked with two German girlfriends and called frantically from a French city one day, lost, and then didn’t call again for three weeks. Fortunately, my mother has graciously accepted the apologies I gave — last year.

Every American college-bound teenager has a plethora of choices to make, and it’s pretty great that some of us do. But choices can be confusing. As I pondered college catalogs, following Isabel’s Victorian-era engagement schemes reminded me that every generation has problems of its own.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, are reading a book. Then you, the reader, find a new book. Then you, the reader, are reading the book that you found. Describing Calvino’s stylistic feat is much harder than, well, reading it, and it’s a weirdly soothing novel to pick up when you’re mired in undergraduate coursework.

Confession: I wasn’t prepared for college, not one bit. No amount of Advanced Placement classes I could have taken at my big public high school would have given me the foundation I needed for my top-notch New England liberal-arts education. We need to talk more about this, smart women, and at length and soon.

The thing about Calvino’s stylistic fireworks is that they’re not based on critical theory. They come straight from his creative subconscious. Somehow, I understood that there was a future in which I might write things that weren’t about things other people had written.

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

Few women marry at 22 any more, and they certainly weren’t rushing to do so when I did. But the good news is, reader, I stayed married to him. Beattie’s supremely solipsistic short stories helped me understand what might happen when people look so far inward that they forget to connect to the people close by.

While I still don’t precisely understand how I thought becoming an Army wife straight out of college made any sense, sometimes I think my youthful tunnel vision — “I love him! We’ll have dishes and pots and a sofa!” — was the best thing that ever happened to me. Your leap might have been moving to Manhattan. Same-same.

When Beattie’s characters have opaque, desultory conversations, I get it. When you’re trapped — by finances, by a graduate program, by a relationship — you don’t always talk about the thing in front of you. You talk around its edges. I got it.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Two years pursuing graduate work in English literature might sound like a bookworm’s dream, but they call it graduate work for a reason: What you love about reading can get lost pretty quickly among the volumes of theory. Byatt’s lush, almost overwrought novel about English professors was the hair of the dog.

Pro tip: Forget about your PhD now and spend your 20s, hell, your 30s and 40s finding out what it is you truly love and would be miserable if you couldn’t keep doing it. If that happens to be working on a PhD, great, but I mistakenly believed academics was the only route to thinking and talking about books. So very wrong.

Possession was overwhelmingly sexy. As two academics race to beat each other to finding a lost manuscript that might make either’s career, the ivory tower seemed meaningful again, like something that could be scintillating instead of something that involved endless in-fighting, footnote-checking and back-biting.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

The biggest shock about coming home from the hospital with a new baby was the lack of time to read. Am I right, fellow moms? My bestie kept me sane with occasional care packages of fiction sent to my town without a bookstore, and Proulx’s quirky story of even quirkier Newfoundlanders helped me through a sleepless night.

And here I’d thought getting married, moving to a different continent and negotiating military life was enough culture shock! Having a baby takes you into a new universe. The anchors I thought I’d dropped had their ropes cut clean through by the unrelenting daily routine of caring for another person completely. Proulx’s protagonist Quoyle has moved to Newfoundland to give his daughters a safe haven. Understanding how fierce parental love could be helped me slowly but surely make do with less reading time as I bonded with my daughter and realized that watching her stages of growth was more fascinating than the best written story.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

My resume might as well be a patchwork quilt, but I’ll always have the position that required weekly flights to Manhattan on a corporate jet. During that stint, Messud’s terrific book was released and I touted it. What stays? The view of the cover I got one morning while jogging through Central Park. Jobs come and go. Books remain.

It’s the new economy, stupid. That’s what someone should have said to me when I took that job with the corporate jet. But no one did. I thought I’d be there forever. I got a scant three years. A decade on, I have lived to tell that nothing is wasted if you don’t want it to be. Some of the lessons and friends from that gig, I‘ll have forever.

Messud’s novel shows how easy it is to have lofty ideas, and how much easier it is to lose those lofty ideas when tragedy strikes. The Emperor’s Children ultimately has to do with 9/11, but it spoke to me about how easily life can change just when we think we’ve gotten a firm grasp on its principles.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The new economy requires us to consider reinvention even if we don’t go through with it. In the middle of my life’s path, I found myself in a dark place, wandering (sorry, Dante, for mangling those words), and Egan’s stellar, award-winning, style-bending story about how time makes fools of us all helped get me back on track.

Back when I was listening to The Story of Ferdinand, I loved to play dress-up in my mother’s closet. Her generation, unfortunately, didn’t get to try on too many different professional roles. I hope that my daughters, if they get only one thing from my crazy, patchy history, get the ability to try on lots of roles, at all levels.

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

You might believe, when you reach a certain place in life, that there are no more surprises. You might also believe that there are no more ways to write meaningfully, surprisingly and beautifully about The Holocaust. You would be wrong on both accounts, and Jim Shepard’s masterpiece, The Book of Aron, will show you why.

Three years ago, I broke my ankle and gave up on business as usual, meaning any business at all. What I really want to do is write, and that’s what I’ve been up to ever since. Fits and starts, yes, but more starts. I’m fortunate to have had great books like Shepard’s along the way. Last line? “The child is allowed to make mistakes.”

We are all that child. We are all allowed to make mistakes. Over a life filled with books and reading, I’ve learned that lesson again and again from great characters and authors. But you know what? It took every single book on this list and hundreds more to convince me that the mistakes I’ve made are as much a part of my rich, full life as the successes I’ve experienced. That’s a great lesson to learn.

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One Response

  1. Rachael Gaffney

    Ferdinand and A Wrinkle in Time are 2 of my favorite books from childhood. So much so that I made sure I had them for my own kids. A lot of my books helped me learn to be who I wanted to be and not who I was pressured to be. As a Marine BRAT, I got to change my circle of friends a lot and could have reinvented myself if I so chose. But, despite pressure from a younger sister who didn’t understand her nerdy, geeky older sister and a dad who loved me but just didn’t get me, I chose to stay who I am. It made it a lot easier to embrace myself as I got older and eventually find and choose my husband.


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