Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fifteen Novels That Stick With Me

Recently on Facebook there’s been a game to Name fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you.  List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. 

It’s morbid of me, but I don’t believe any book will stick with me forever. I phone my grandfather every night. With his age, he suffers from dementia and can’t name two books he’s ever read. The other night he tried to ask how my kids are – and folks, I don’t have any.

However, there are books that stick around for the long haul. There are books with long-term influence on behavior or how we write. Just like when the Fifteen Authors game was in vogue last year, though, I think it’s shameful to not write some of why these books stick with you. So while I made the list in fifteen minutes, I spent a few more writing just why they’re listed. Going to use this noodle while I’ve got it.

Here we go.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
It’s my entry point into the fantastic. The archetypes of Bilbo, Gandalf and Smaug are dug pretty deep into my artistic psyche. The adventure, the convenience of invisibility, the force into so many kinds of bravery and ingenuity – ah, it’s just neat stuff. Also, The Hobbit sticks with me because no matter how I study it, I cannot figure out why as a kid I thought Beorn was black.

2. Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy

My father was pleased that I liked it, but looked dismayed when I said how good it was the Science Fiction could be fun. No, I didn’t mean “funny.” It was the first SciFi I ever encountered that didn’t take itself so seriously that it failed to entertain, and it remains one of the cleverest novels I’ve ever read. Oftentimes I reflect on it as the end of the spectrum, where all goofy Speculative Fiction ideas race to the edge of visibility.

3. G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was

Part was reading it so long after its publication. Time has certainly helped the satirical novel’s opinions age and become more pliable than originally intended. That initial reading made it a damning satire, but also a damnably effective satire of satire itself. Religion is defended, but also excoriated. Anarchism is embraced, but by morons. Especially after Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s a stirring reminder not to leave any side standing in humor.

4. Jim Starlin's Infinity Gauntlet

At least one comic book would be on here. At several junctures in my ADD-addled childhood, they got me to sit down and read at all. This one introduces Thanos, probably my all-time favorite villain. It’s rare that a god doubles as a mad scientist, and rarer that either of those is a hopeless, cuckolded romantic. There’s a Mary Sue quality to his rise to power and eradicating so many iconic heroes, but there’s also a Hamlet quality to how he loses it. And who doesn’t want an Infinity Gauntlet?

5. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

One of the first novels I ever re-read, and one that I re-read as a bedridden teenager. Divorced from social interaction, I misinterpreted Tom’s romantic values, which Twain meant to be skewering satire, for earnest instruction and tried to live by them when I started walking again. I got made fun of a lot. The comedy of errors I lived out for a few years as I weeded this stuff out of my head has always stuck with me.

6. Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam and Eve

Hard not to go back to Twain. I read this one later in life, in a collected edition. It’s disappointingly funny – disappointing in that very little comedy can hereafter be written about the tensions between the sexes without seeming pat. That he disarmed with anarchic humor to mount some deep emotional catharsis about attachment and loss has helped it stick around in my head.

7. The Book of Job

I actually got offended when a friend told me she wasn’t surprised this was my favorite part of The Bible. Sure, life has kneecapped me a few times, but come on! Yet, it is one of humanity’s greatest hits. It was also one of the biggest hype-bubbles my non-academic ever burst, as it’s not about blind devotion to God, but about how people rush into inaccurate judgment of each other, especially in bad times. It’s a literary and theological kick in the ass that most people need twice-daily.

8. Stephen King's Needful Things

The first of the King novels stuck with me, following a familiar theme in his work. This time it was Mr. Gaunt as the creeping, supernatural thing in civil guise, joining, linking and sinking his teeth into the way we live. One of the sickest things Horror can do is point out how ignorant quotidian life makes us to dangers. Making those dangers abstract or fantastical can deepen things.

9. Stephen King's Desperation

My favorite of the King novels. There is guts, of course, with the blatant relationship to the Bachman book The Regulators, and that stands out for humor. But there’s also god against god – the hands-on against the hands-off, both tormenting us mortals in some ways, sure, but the difference between them is so much more provocative and thoughtful than I’ve seen in any modern novel that grapples with gods. It’s lucky that it all plays out over some crazy set-pieces: the heart-wrenching story of the boy hit by the car, and the family that gets locked up by a mad police officer, and that poor bastard who gets eaten in the bathroom. All that scenery stuck with me too, because it showed the benefits of delivering the goods while feeling out your themes.

10. John Steinbeck's East of Eden
I wonder how many people list this one, of all the Steinbeck books? I’d guess Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath lap it. And those are compelling works, but the primal explosion of the Cain and Abel archetypes is so interesting. It’s almost a blueprint for how you should appropriate someone else’s work, with homage and obvious familiarity, but not leaning on it so heavily that your authenticity disappears. This whole novel is authentic Steinbeck in its tragic psychology.

11. Aleksandhr Solzhenisyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

If we talk about bleak fiction, chances are I’ll think of this. As a general and poor rule, I dislike bleak fiction, for especially in the Literary variety, it leads to masturbatory and uninteresting work. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is neither of those things, nor is it about heroism or a great escape, nor is it so mired in social commentary that it chokes on opinion like 1984. It’s just a day in a miserable life that too many people were forced to live, and through Denisovich’s experience in the gulag, is a veritable model for how not to break under the weight.

12. Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Perhaps the finest book of dialogue I’ve ever read. I still can’t pull of those voices – the plethora that doesn’t need to be marked or divided, each of which is so readily identifiable by vocabulary, topic and coherence. It is brightly and darkly funny, sad and hopeful, and damn it, that ending is better than anything I’d expected.

13. Gail Simone's Deadpool

One more comic book. Like M*A*S*H and Lupin the 3rd, it sticks with me because she assembled such an endearing cast with so many opportunities for modular dynamics. I could read about the fake cowgirl and the crappy hitman and the failed superhero who wears a tuxedo over his costume forever. A shame sales didn’t hold out for this or Agent X. I feel good when I read her missing that cast, too.

14. Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country

I’d wanted a book like this for years. It’s a novel about a nation at unrest with its past and its future, where virtually everyone is guilty. The citizens, the voters, Europeans, natives of all colors, rising political figures, judges – and rather than assaulting them for their failures, it’s compassionate in its descriptions of the ways they can fail. There’s optimism in some of it, obviously, but the holistic approach to why problems are so endemic is too rare.

15. Homer's Iliad
In a little corner of John Wiswell’s mind is the desire that every novel actually be this: dudes beating the crap out of each other until the biggest dudes butt heads, and then the end. It’s gorgeous in every translation I’ve ever read, and the theme of the rest of the world’s experiences being woven in by metaphor to express what war is fought for is among the greatest feats in literary history. But I know me. Ajax is such a hoss.

So there are my fifteen. Any surprises for you? If you decide to play this game and write up why the books stick with you, please link me up in the comments. I'm curious why fiction sticks with you.


  1. Interesting choices, John! I'm interested especially in some of the ones that I hadn't heard before, like the comic - which sounds awesome btw. I was never a big comic person, with the exception of reprints of some of the 50's Horror comics (Tales from the Crypt?). They read like horror flash, no series or cliffhanger endings, like episodes of The Twilight Zone. I loved them. And later, of course, I read the graphic novel of The Watchmen.

    I really like that you explained your choices. I honestly didn't think to do that because so many of them are so well known that I just didn't think they needed an explanation, but I guess that was just lazy thinking on my part. I might steal... uh, BORROW your idea to explain them for a post or a podcast. ;) Plus, there were several that I just didnt' think of off the top of my head, but given a few extra minutes I was kicking myself for not listing them because they were so OBVIOUSLY books I refer to on a daily basis!

    Thank you for sharing your choices. I'm going to be looking for that comic! And I love that you listed Mark Twain. He's one of my favorite authors as well.

    1. Curious - which of the two comics did you intend to pick? I'm guessing Simone's Deadpool since my description was wackier, but it could go either way.

      Some books have very wide appeal that I subscribe to. I suspect a lot of what I love in The Hobbit is what most readers love. But especially as the list went on, I doubted what moved me was quite the same as my peers, and there are folks who simply don't know what Needful Things or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are.

    2. Infinity Gauntlet. The odd description of the MC as a romantic, mad-scientist god. Also, the Hamlet-esque quality intrigues me. :)

  2. What I find interesting when I try to think of books for a list like this, what comes to my mind readily mostly aren't books, but characters from series. (Discworld's Vimes, for example.)

    1. Characters can stick with you. Smaug and Thanos do for me. But are there really no books you identify as having lasting effects? Especially if the characters within don't go on for a series.

  3. I'm always stumped when asked to list my favorite anything. I don't think the best books stick in my head so much as they stick in my life, if that makes sense. Some great pics here, John. I especially like We Have Always Lived In the Castle.

    1. But if the books you consider the highest quality aren't what stick with you, isn't it relevant to point that out? I'm sure my college Lit professors would prefer that Moby Dick or Kafka had stuck with me more than Deadpool, yet if we're charting influences, it's better to expose things that do or don't connect.

  4. I like your eclectic list. Maybe I'll do a personal list on my blog soon. For now, I'd mention The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson. This one won the Newberry Award as the best young adult novel a couple of years back but there is nothing 'young adult' about it. It is a historical novel about a slave during the American revolution. A masterpiece. Lyrical, thematically rich, suspenseful, heartbreaking. One of the best novels I've ever read and, despite the awards, hasn't received its due.

    1. You have high praise for it - would you say it's stuck to you like nothing else has, Robert?

    2. Nothing else I've read in the past few years and as much as any novel I've ever read.

    3. Forgot a little Like at the beginning of that sentence: Like nothing else I've read in the past few years...

  5. I love that you did this. I've actually never read any of these books (well, pieces of Job of course), but I love getting the background into why you chose each one. Books mean so many things to so many people and it's nice to get a peak at what stood out for you with each of these. I'll have to try to put my list together with explanations, although I'm sure they won't be nearly as articulate as yours. Thanks for sharing your list.

    1. Thanks for being so appreciative, Danni! I feel like some of my explanations were pretty inarticulate, though I wrote most of them after midnight. I'm sure you'll do fine explaining why you love the books you love.

  6. I'm intrigued by the Shirley Jackson now, since you give it such high marks on dialogue. Several of these are on my to read list, and I think I'll add Twain's Adam & Eve book too.

    I agree with you on Job. It's not only one of my favorite parts of the Bible, but one of my favorite books period.

    Haven't read the Solzhenitsyn; if it's even half as good as the film, then it must be an incredible book.

    1. You know, I haven't seen any adaptation of Denisovich. Every time I am inclined for more, I either re-read my copy or look up other Solzhenitsyn works. The Gulag Archipelago is so intimidating.

  7. I love numbers 2 & 3. Haven't read the rest, apart from Homer. Is there a difference between books that stay with you and books that influence you as a writer? I'm asking because I don't know.

    Marc Nash

    1. I would say if the influence is persistent then you could count a book as sticking with you, since that influence is the aspect of if that remains with yourself. If you can trace something in your writing back to another work of fiction, then it's all the stronger.

  8. Oh I love this list - I've read 7 of them which ain't bad, and The Hobbit & Cry the Beloved Country might make my 15...

    I also love the Book of Job's inclusion & your reasons are spot on.


    1. Are you considering writing one, Virginia?

  9. Excellent list, John, and I especially liked your reasoning with each. I've never read that Shirley Jackson book, but I think I need to pick it up. I've always enjoyed her work. Not to say that I've read much of her work, but what I have, I've enjoyed.

  10. Great list of books, John, I'm glad you took the time to add a few sentences about why these books stuck around :) I need to go read some of these now.


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