So, people have been talkin’ on the internet about the 10 books that have influenced them. That was, like, 2 weeks ago which is basically a hundred years on the internet. Well, I’m going to do mine anyway. Here it is:
1. JRR Tolkien – Lord of the Rings
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The first time I read LotR was when I was a high school senior. The first movie had just come out and I was done with school. I don’t mean school was over, I mean I was just no longer interested in anything going on there. So I went to class and read Lord of the Rings. I finished the trilogy in about 6 weeks and was in love. Tolkien invigorated me in a way no author had done before. He instilled in me a love of fantasy and adventure. Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other writing also shaped my understanding of evil and planted seeds of Catholic thought in my mind. I didn’t recognize Tolkien’s sacramental vision until much later but I can’t help but think that these ideas, cloaked in Elven garb, drew me to the Church. Since my high school LotR marathon, I’ve read through the books at least once every few years and I’ve read my favorite chapters countless times.
2. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation)
After LotR, I read most everything written by Tolkien including his translations of Old English poetry. Back then, his translation of Beowulf hadn’t been released yet. So I settled instead for Seamus Heaney’s. And it blew me away. The language was so strong and perfectly descriptive. The cadence of the poetry moved my heart. And some of the themes resonated with me in ways most contemporary literature never had. These days, I love Heaney’s original poetry just as much as I love this translation. One passage I think about often is this one:
It was like the misery endured by an old man
Who has lived to see his son’s body
Swing on the gallows. He begins to keen
And weep for his boy, watching the raven
Gloat where he hangs; he can be of no help.
The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall…
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.
3. William Faulkner – Go down, Moses
Quite simply, Faulkner is the most powerful force in American literature. I’m not arguing he’s the “best writer” (although I think that argument could be made). I’m just saying his power with words is unparalleled. The first work of his I read was “The Bear,” one of the stories that make up Go Down, Moses. Sacramental and southern, what else could you ask for? Faulkner wrestles beautifully with the shame of the South and the myths of both our past and our attempts at progress in the present. I think about this particular story A LOT. This was also one of the first things I read that made me think, “I didn’t know you could do that with words!”
Two passages I bring up often in conversation:
“Thus it seemed to him on the December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whiskey.”
And the rather longer humorous description of the South’s attempt to fight the North:
“‘Who else could have declared war against a power with ten times the area and a hundred times the men and a thousand times the resources, except men who could believe that all necessary to conduct a successful war was not acumen nor shrewdness nor politics nor diplomacy nor money nor integrity and simple arithmetic but just love of land and courage-”
‘And an unblemished and gallant ancestry and the ability to ride a horse,’ McCaslin said. ‘Don’t leave that out.’”
4. Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Let’s keep it in the South for a little bit longer. Y’all know I love Flannery (Here is proof. And here). Now, I won’t say I wouldn’t be Catholic if I weren’t for her. But I will say I can’t imagine what kind of Catholic I’d be without her. Anyway, it’s like the Misfit said, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
5. Donald Hall, Barbara Cooney – The Ox-Cart Man
Now let’s bring it way back. The Ox-Cart Man is a picture book I read as a kid. The story is the simple account of a year in the life of a farmer and his family. I remember reading this when I was a boy and deciding I wanted to be a farmer. Obviously, something in the book stuck with me. I forgot about it for years until college when I read the collected works of Donald Hall and found out my favorite book from childhood was actually a poem by a US poet laureate. One of my fondest memories is when I won a prize at the Beall Poetry Festival at Baylor and got to have lunch with Donald Hall. I was able to tell him how much he’d influenced me and thank him for his work.
6. T.H. White – The Once and Future King
White is simply delightful to read. The way this epic moves from children’s tale to high fantasy to dark romance and finally to tragedy is just stunning. T.H. White stitched together ancient epics and modern storytelling for me. I’m eternally grateful. One of my favorite passages of any book is this:
“Bors, left alone with the wind, picked up the letter with curiosity. He tilted it in the failing light, admiring the zed-like g, the curly b, and the curved t, like the blade of a plough. Each tiny line was the furrow it threw up, sweet as the new earth. But the furrow wandered towards the end. He turned it about, observing the brown signature. He spelled out the conclusion – making speaking movements with his mouth, while the rushes tapped and the smoke puffed and the wind howled.
“And at this date my letter was written, but two hours and a half afore my death, written with mine own hand, and so subscribed with part of my heart’s blood.
Gawaine of Orkney.”
He spelled the name out twice, and tapped his teeth. Gawaine. “I suppose,” he said out loud doubtfully, “They would have pronounced it Cuchullain in the North? You can’t tell with ancient languages.”
Then he put down the letter, went over to the dreary window, and began humming a tun called Brume, brume on hil, whose words have been lost to us in the wave of time. Perhaps they were like the modern ones, which say that
Still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland,
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”
7. Sigrid Undset – Kristin Lavransdatter
Of all the books on this list, this is the one I read latest. I only finished the books last year. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start again. Undset can communicate the medieval worldview in a way few other authors can. This is especially refreshing today when most fiction portrays medieval people as stupid, superstitious, and dirty. But, more than this, Undset paints beautiful, believable, interesting, and memorable characters. Her understanding of human character and motivation is astounding. And universal. It’s strange to be reading a book about 14th century Norway and to see one’s self in descriptions and struggles of such a foreign people. One passage that cut me to the core describes the growing resolve of a new father:
“Then it was clear that he must be for Andres what his own father had been for him: a man of integrity, both in his secret thoughts and in his actions.”
8. Wendell Berry – The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
I’ve read thousands of pages of Wendell Berry’s poems, novels, and essays. He’s had a huge influence on my interests and worldview. Uncle Wendell has been with me for years. And I still remember the first words of his I read:
“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”
Back when my views of Catholicism were still based mostly on silly stereotypes and falsehoods, I read this little blue book. I’d always assumed that things like Church hierarchy and transubstantiation were late, papist inventions. St. Ignatius and St. Clement convinced me otherwise. It was still many years before I joined the Church, but I definitely credit these two with a a major push in that direction.
“You must all follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment.” -St. Ignatius of Antioch
10. JK Rowling – Harry Potter
I felt a little weird about including these on a list that also includes saints. And, really, Harry Potter hasn’t been influential in the way most of these others have. But the books HAVE influenced me in other ways. Our conversations are always sprinkled with wizarding words and phrases from the books and movies. I didn’t read this series until I was in college. I kinda thought I was too cool for it. I actually made fun of Haley in high school for how much she loved it. But, once I started, I couldn’t stop. I have such great memories of going to midnight showings for the movies and staying up all night to read the books when the new ones came out. We’ve listened to the audio books dozens of times. I really hope my kids get to have similar experiences. JK Rowling didn’t form my moral compass or anything (although, I do think her portrayal of good and evil is very Augustinian and worthwhile) but it’s hard to imagine another book that’s stuck with me in such a way (see, right there I immediately thought of the permanent sticking charm).
I thought about including a few honorable mentions but this list is already pretty long. What’s on your list?