These are the 6 books that shaped me

I’ve blogged a lot about my reading lists. But I’ve yet to blog about the books I’ve read that have defined and shaped my perspectives, life philosophy and even provided comfort during my loneliest moments.

I consumed (I say consumed because I returned to them over and over again for some affirmation or nugget of wisdom…or a college essay back in the day…) these books in childhood or during my teenage years, which are generally considered the most formative. During those times, which were often turbulent and lonely, these books fed a desire for adventure and moral lessons. They also provided me with (imaginary) companions to whom I related and identified with the most. My mother often said I marched to my own beat (eccentric was a nice way of putting it) and so finding these people, even crafted in fiction, was a kind of promise that one day I could find “my people.”

Even now, 10 years later, I still return to these books over and over when I’ve hit a depressive or anxious cycle to reaffirm a life decision or remind myself of who I am at my core. For the most part, I have found “my people” who are as zany, eccentric and offbeat as I am. All of us admit to reading books that spoke to our loneliness and defined our vision for our life, insofar as we reject a “conventional” lifestyle and search for purpose and adventure.

Everyone has their top five, six or 17 books they read over and over again. Here are mine.

  1. The Secret Garden
    This one is not the most politically correct. Passages demeaning Indians frequently pepper scenes and dialogue, while class issues and colonialism are definitely prevalent. But, after acknowledging how it reflects its time period, you can find some gold mines in its pages. First, the protagonist, Mary Lennox, is a deeply flawed, ugly character. Right from the start, we are given to understand that we cannot like her. She’s not pretty; she’s a brat and she demeans and abuses those whom she considers beneath her. She’s a hateful person, frankly. But after she’s shipped off to England after her parents die from a cholera outbreak in India, we begin to see her transformation take place on the wild moors. She is forced to acknowledge the servants as her equal. Along the way, she finds a “secret garden” that she can call her own. And as she transforms this “little bit of earth,” she finds herself evolving to a kinder, more sensitive person under the tutelage of the original animal whisperer Dickon (my first literary crush) and her cousin, Colin (who is equally as hateful and spoiled as she is at the beginning). I saw many of my flaws reflected in Mary, but also my own redemption. Given the right circumstances — and a will to change — we can shift our attitudes and perspectives to become a better person. Also, having a “little bit of earth” to tend and care for does make a difference.

2. A Wrinkle In Time
This book gave women a voice in the STEM fields. Meg Murry, the protagonist, is, again, not pretty and deeply flawed. She’s insecure, stubborn and a spitfire while very good at mathematics and science (although she refuses to conform to “traditional” methods of learning). Out of all the books I’ve read, I personally identify with her the most. She’s prickly from the outset and not given to making friends easily or willingly. But she’s also very loyal and loving to those who are in her inner circle. So much so, she’s willing to sacrifice her own well-being for theirs. This is another instance of an archetypical protagonist who defies the “sugar and spice” female character types. Meg is also acutely aware of her own shortcomings, and is always striving to overcome them despite frequent missteps. At the end of the book, however, she sees how her very weaknesses are also her best weapons when she confronts the insidious evil presence, IT, at the conformist planet of Camazotz. In the other books of the series, Meg eventually grows into her own person, but this first book gave me permission to accept my own flaws (similar to Meg’s) while trying to wield them for good at the right time. The book also identifies love as the primary source for redemption, which is something I believe in as well. My love for my family and my friends are the bonds that hold me together even as I struggle against my own shortcomings and fears. Their love is the buoy I swim to when tossed into personal stormy seas.

3. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
The first book I read about race and the brutal existence of African Americans in the South was this one. Based on the personal experience of the author, Mildred Taylor, the book paints a grim picture of one African-American family’s survival in Mississippi during the Great Depression. It’s replete with pictures of survival, sharecropping, and lynching as the family strives to maintain their dignity amid a racist culture that sought to strip their humanity. Also, the protagonist, Cassie Logan , is another strong-willed female I identified with. Frequently described as “high-strung” (if I could count the times I heard that description linked to my name…), Cassie refuses to accept the second-hand existence the South would impose on her. This is especially exemplified by her parents’ insistence on her education, and her refusal to accept a second-hand book, battered beyond almost all use, recognizing she deserves the newest, most complete version of a book. She also beats the living shit out of a white, racist girl who pushed her off a sidewalk in a attempt to showcase her (the white girl’s) worth. I read this before I became aware of “white privilege” and the knowledge that, while we’ve made progress in addressing racism, there’s still a long, long path to tread. But after I became aware of how I move differently in the world compared to my other friends — African-American, Native-American, Muslim-American, Indian-American, all of these lovely people — I’ve return to this book with a better understanding of how complex and dangerous this situation was. And still is.

4. Little Women
Which girl doesn’t identify with Jo March, the proverbial bull-in-a-china-shop, an incorrigible tomboy who marches to her own drum while dreaming of a “career” in writing? I definitely did and do. But there were three more girls to round out the “Little Women” group, and at times, I found myself identifying with all of them. Sometimes I could be as vain and selfish and ambitious as Amy; other times, I identified with Meg’s motherliness and protectiveness over her younger siblings, and many times I tried to emulate Beth’s goodness, patience and generosity. Of course, at my core, I am Jo, with all her prickliness and outspokenness. Also I relate to her ability to find herself in a ridiculous situation, usually due to her obliviousness to her surroundings. Most of all, I appreciated the little doses of wisdom from Marmee and their father, as they strived to demonstrate how to live for others, to find meaning in mundane tasks and above all, think independently and constantly learn. All of these are attributes I aspire to have, but usually fall dismally short. Still, even now, I open up Little Women just find some sort of encouragement to keep going and improving.

5. East of Eden
John Steinbeck’s self-proclaimed Magnus opus. I first read this book at 16, an ambitious attempt to understand a complex book. The first time, I didn’t understand any of it, and it was quite a slog to get through. But its essence of a family caught in the mundane task of living and overcoming their flaws propelled me to return again and again, until now, I’ve nearly memorized the entire book. If you notice a theme of redemption and flawed characters in my reading choices as a young teen/child, you’re spot on. These themes have fascinated me the most as I consider reading a form of engaging and learning about the world. To do so means I must relate somewhat to the main character. Fiction, for me, is also a great source of personal development. Of course, I identify with Cal, who is unlikable, unpopular but desperate for parental approval and love. But other characters equally compelling characters are Lee, the Chinese housekeeper who learned to move among worlds and dispenses wisdom grounded in his observations, and Abba. Lee’s study of Hebrew, especially the word “timshel,” drilled down the power of acknowledgeing that we can choose our actions for good or for evil. Specifically, it shows how, despite committing mistakes, we can choose forgiveness and a choice to rule over “bad life decisions” in the future. And Abba, the strong-willed woman whose love for Aron and Cal, underscores how redemption is, again, paired with love. There are many insightful quotes woven into the book, but for now, I leave you with my favorite.

6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The protagonist is, of course, a young female. Unlike other books, which focuses on a short timespan of a protagonist’s life, we follow Francie Nolan throughout her childhood and her young adulthood while weaving in her parents’ history, specifically the influence of the women in her family. The men are often depicted as weak-willed, leaving the women to scrounge for survival. There are a few good men in the book, mostly toward the end. But, as a young woman raised mostly by ferociously independent, self-reliant women, I identify with how much our mothers, grandmothers and aunts influence the way we young women walk through this world, for better or worse. If I have a daughter (which isn’t high on my choices of life experiences to be honest, but could be a possibility. Maybe. Give me ten years.), I would make sure she reads this one and pray that she, like the women in my family, grows strong and self-reliant and generous, while always maintaining her personal weird sense of self.

Of course there are many more books that have shaped how I view life. But they are almost too many to list. What I want to know right now are the books that shaped your life. What are they and how did they alter or move you?

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Krysti Shallenberger’s story.