Fifteen Notable Books

An amusing game is currently circulating around the literary blogs. It was initiated by David Meyers at A Commonplace Blog who laid out its rules: “Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.”

Putting the matter this way is different than asking for your favorite book or one that has transformed your life. Instead you are asked to name a book, fifteen to be exact, that have influenced the way you write, talk and think. In my view, that’s a very powerful effect that, while it may not have turned your life around, has clearly left its mark.

To date there have been only three readers who have contributed a fifteen book list. Obviously you need to have read a great many fine books to put forward such a list, to say nothing of remembering the title and author of each one. The dilemma has been well expressed by Zbigniew Herbert in this excerpt from his poem A Life:

Someone recommended a classic work—as he said
it changed his life and the lives of million of others
I read it—I didn’t change—I’m ashamed to admit
for the life of me I don’t remember the classic’s name.

I will only mention the first five selections of each of the contributors. The rules of the game are to identify those that first came to mind and not spend too much time thinking about it. Meyers, who first proposed the game, named Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The remaining 10 are listed on his blog.

Patrick Kurp had no trouble coming up with his list, claiming it took him less than 7 minutes to write and then edit the collection. The first five are Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, A. J. Liebling’s, Normandy Revisited, and Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor. The remaining ten on Kurp’s list can be found on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence.

A blog by the name Underbelly was the last participate so far. The first 5 volumes on this list were Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Betram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution, James Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The next ten are shown on Underbelley.

Of the forty-five books mentioned there isn’t a single one common to each of the three lists, although Boswell’s Life of Johnson appeared on two. And with the exception Boswell, no author appeared more than once in the three lists—not Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, or Joyce. Once again this attests to the remarkable subjectivity of the reading experience and the way in which we bring our own perception and emotional history to the books we read.

In the Guardian last week, Molly Flatt offered a current testimonial to the power of literature. She points out that “religious texts are prime examples of how stories have transformed people and societies in a very real way…” She notes that Shakespeare and Petrarch dramatically shaped the evolution of our language.

This reminded me of a remark Ian McEwan wrote in a tribute to Saul Bellow: “Writers we admire and re-read are absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness, into the white noise of our thoughts and in this sense, they can never die.”

And Flatt concludes her article with a personal account: “I'm convinced that novels change me all the time. After reading Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things I made an effort – which admittedly lapsed after a few days – to live in the present and notice the little stuff. After reading Blood Diamond I joined Amnesty International. After reading Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles at the age of 15, I doomed my love life for years by measuring every potential date against a borderline genius, angelic-voiced, blond-haired 16th-century aristocrat. And don't tell me there isn't a whole generation out there campaigning to save the forests because they adored The Faraway Tree.”

She ends with a question that I too would like to pose: “So – be it in a serious or frivolous way, for good or for bad – what was the last story that really changed you?”