The last four on my list of ten most influential books are ones I first read in college or as an adult. Limiting the choices to only four took a lot of work. Forty would have been tough, and even one hundred would have required some thought. When I was done, my choices looked odd to me, at first, until I took a minute to consider why each one made the list.
I started my sophomore year at The Citadel with a professor I’d never had, and I understood two things from his first few words. First, he was a hard ass. Second, I was going to learn a lot. Being young and dumb, I didn’t understand that the second thing would be a direct result of the first. The professor was Colonel Tony Redd (at that time, all faculty members were either veterans or members of the SC Unorganized Militia so they could wear a military uniform and hold a military rank commensurate with their academic standing), and even today, I rarely complete any piece of writing without measuring it against what I think he would say.
One of the areas I studied under Colonel Redd was Southern literature, and it amazed me to see the world I grew up in described between the covers of so many incredible books. We spent a lot of time on Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and I’ve always considered that book my introduction to Southern literature. My first writing efforts were all in that genre, and I’ll probably never be able to know how much that course and that book have influenced the words I put on paper.
Soon after I posted this list on Facebook, I got a comment from one of my closest college friends lamenting the fact that I had been ayn randed. No, not really, but Atlas Shrugged seemed like common sense to me, and I’d never understood how rare it is in our world. I’d surely never considered that common sense could be the topic for a work of fiction. Atlas Shrugged also gave me some insight into why literature is so important. Ayn Rand’s views can be extreme, just like the beliefs of many who oppose her, and too often, we focus on ideas and actions instead of people. Literature helps us see the humanity and, equally important, the motivations of those whose ideas we oppose, and that’s the only way we find common ground and learn to live and work together.
John Steinbeck. Wow. If aliens invaded and said they would destroy the books of every writer but one, I’d have to fight for Steinbeck. He understood the human condition better than most, and he could communicate it better than anyone. I would happily give a body part to have penned East of Eden. A better book may have been written, but I haven’t read it. I start every writing project with the obscene hope that this might be the one to compare with that great book.
Finally, I can’t imagine a list of most influential books that doesn’t include Papa Hemingway. The first of his books I read was The Old Man and the Sea, and I was amazed that such a powerful work could be so short. Nothing extra, just terse, raw prose. As I finished the last page that first time, I felt every bit of Santiago’s exhaustion. I had always believed literature was supposed to be boring. Hemingway and Santiago showed me I was wrong.
So, that’s my list. Use the comment button under the title of this post to list some of the books that most influenced your life, or to tell me why one of mine shouldn’t have made it.