Friday, March 26, 2010

How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List

The blogosphere has been playing another one of those memes that hit every so often, and this time it’s My Most Influential books. These things are hard to quantify, of course, and I may very well change my thinking in the future. Like Ezra, I feel that many of the things I’ve read that’s influenced me the most have been non-books, especially in the past several years. My friends and their writing has influenced me greatly; I see vocabulary words and think of them, because those are words they use; I hear arguments, I think of them; I have adopted their thinking patterns because of them. But publications I have read for years, continuously, have also shaped my worldview: RollingStone (though I’ve gotten away from their political coverage the last several years), The New York Times (I think of high school and cringe), the blogosphere, the many, many, many magazine articles I’ve read.

And yet, if I’m going with my gut, I’m not sure if I can reach ten books.

  • The first is obviously The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. I read it at the end of high school, and its contrarian outlook (especially on violence) and complete focus on media effects steered me into what I wanted to study. It blew my mind.

  • The Corrections: I want to write like this, a story so stuffed full of everything, with so much to say! These are the kinds of stories I deeply admire, the “social novels” that make me love Jonathan Franzen, for they take the personal and the political, and reflect how a person really is affected by every little thing.

  • The works of E.L. Konigsburg. Also a writer I very much want(ed?) to emulate. Her books were nothing like the rest of novels I consumed as a kid. There were no romantic hijinks, and the characters were not interested nor happened to fall in love and get significant others. Boys and girls were actually friends! The characters all had interesting lives, all had passions and hobbies they wanted to explore, and had problems that were neither commonplace nor depressing. Konigsburg got her ideas from newspaper features, and created stories from that jumping off point. I thought it was ingenious. She’s so good she’s won the Newbery medal twice, for From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The View from Saturday.

  • Bobos in Paradise. I remember seeing the book in the featured section in my library back in 2000, and was very intrigued. I probably took it out a few times, but I didn’t get around to reading it until four years later. My god! So dense yet so wonderful, every chapter just needed to be absorbed.

  • The works of Malcolm Gladwell (minus Outliers, as I haven’t read it yet): The kind of pop-social commentary I love, one that draws from multiple disciplines. Academically, I am very much an interdisciplinary thinker, and I love how he poses interesting questions and the ways he goes about to find the answers. His technique has been widely copied.

I think back on my childhood and adolescence, where I went through periods of reading authors—Ann Rinaldi, Katharine Patterson, Judy Blume. I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid, a genre I sadly barely touch now. But I know that I like my setting and place to be very specific in my stories, and most of the fiction I’ve attempted to write has always had this quality. I also am a stickler for this, and I find that many people don’t bother to research the “recent past” as much as they should, as in a movie. In watching Julie & Julia, for example, I wanted to see if the computer Julie uses in 2002 was actually available at the time, and disliked how cavalier they were regarding Julia’s timeline.

I had another epiphany fall of my senior year. I was making paper dolls as a project on "As You Like It" for my Shakespeare class, and wandered downstairs to look at my bookshelf, mainly filled with my childhood favorites, for inspiration. The vast majority were about young, smart women who wanted to become writers. Of course! How had I missed this? No wonder I became who I am!

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