The hashtag #7BooksToKnowMe is popular right now. I’ve decided to participate, but as usual, I’ve overthunk things. Rather than, as I’m sure was the original intent of the exercise, just listing seven books I like or that sum up my taste in reading, or, as many people seem to be doing, listing my seven favorite books, I intend to address the prompt as it is written. What seven books would help someone who didn’t know me, get to know me better. That list would be different from my seven favorite books, although their would be some overlap, because the list of my favorite books would include multiple books in the same genre (or even subgenre), while the list of the books to get to know me would be specifically chosen to showcase different aspects of my personality.
I have not included books directly related to the works I’m currently writing. While Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe have dominated my reading list recently, and while I love them both, I am not sure that would make the list once the projects on which I’m working is over.
This list is also a snapshot. Books that would have appeared on this list at other points in my life, like On The Road, The Watchmen, Wuthering Heights, Through the Looking Glass, A Storm of Swords, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are not on this list. The books on this list might not be if I did this again a year from now, or even tomorrow.
With that preamble out of the way, here are my seven books to know me:
- Dune, by Frank Herbert: I first read Dune when I was in the 11th grade at the recommendation of my history teacher, Dr. Stone. I had asked him for a college recommendation, and he agreed, but wanted to meet me during a free period to get to know me outside of the class. He asked me what I liked to read, and when I told him I liked science fiction, he was flabbergasted that I hadn’t read Dune. It was, by far the greatest book recommendation anyone has given me. I read it and immediately loved it. I ended up writing one of my college application essays about it (in those days, there was no common app, and I wrote a total of 13 essays for the 11 schools to which I applied).
Over the years, Dune has influenced nearly every aspect of my life. The philosophy of the book influenced me greatly at a time when I was figuring out the type of person I wanted to be, but in addition to that, lessons from the book affected other, less-obvious aspects of my life, ranging from the way I played basketball (not responding to a trash-talker unnerves the trash talker in any sport), to the way approached martial arts matches (to many lessons to list individually, but the Fremen made me a better fighter.) I still keep a file of Dune quotes all these years later, and with every re-read, I find more to add.
- The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkein: The Hobbit is the book that made me want to be a writer. I ordered in from the Scholastic Book Club in 7th Grade, and, while I was reading it, I thought, “hey, maybe the games I play with my castle Legos are actually stories people would want to read.” It is also a smaller story than The Lord of the Rings. The fate of the world isn’t at stake (at least we don’t yet know it is when we’re reading it). It concerns the fate of one group of dwarves and one particular hobbit. In my own work, I tend toward the small stories rather than the larger ones.
Tolkien became my favorite writer, and The Lord of the Rings (which Tolkien thought of as one book) would be my desert island book, but if the point of the exercise is to get to know me, then The Hobbit is the one to read.
- Shoeless Joe, by WP Kinsella: This is the book that Field of Dreams is based upon. It is, in my opinion, better than the movie, and I love the movie (it’s the only movie which made me cry). The book is about baseball, and about fathers and sons. It reminds me of my father, who gave it to me before he passed. Much of my relationship with my father was based around sports, even when our fandom was a metaphor for other things which we may have been more reluctant to discuss. Sports have played a huge role in my life, and I have my father to thank for that too.
- Daniel Deronda, by George Elliot: Speaking of traditions and how they’ve influenced me, this is the book which addresses the traditions in which I was raised most thoroughly and most sympathetically. My reading tastes tend to the classics, but I was always bothered by the way the books–even the ones I loved–addressed Judaism. From Dickens, to Shakespeare, to Pyle, the negative stereotypes and outright slanders present in so much of Western literature always bothered me. There are a few books with sympathetic Jewish characters (Ivanhoe comes to mind), but none offer the depth and perspective of Elliot’s novel, which includes both religious and secular Jews, and addresses each character authentically without ignoring the prejudices which existed in society.
- Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams: I considered putting Good Omens on this list, as it introduced me to both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, two of my favorite authors, and two others whose books would be on my list of favorite books, but when I think about–and the fact that I’m rapidly running out of space on this list–I wouldn’t have read Good Omens if I hadn’t read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. So why not just put Hitchhiker’s Guide on the list? Well, the thought did cross my mind. Adams introduced me to the dry, British wit and humor which has been such an influence on my life. But, he wrote other books too. Choosing a deeper cut in itself reveals an aspect of my personality. Moreover, I am running out of space, and I haven’t mentioned the Romantic poets yet. As this book features Coleridge, it will have to stand in for them as well.
- Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut: Kurt Vonnegut is another author who has been hugely influential on both my worldview and my writing. Slaughterhouse 5 was the first Vonnegut I read. I always admired his writing, which is simultaneously literary, speculative, and humorous. Some people say that Terry Pratchett does for fantasy what Douglas Adams did for science fiction. I have sometimes said that I hope my writing will, one day, have a similar relationship with Vonnegut’s.
If you understand those last two sentences, you are probably my type of person.
- The Tao of Gung Fu, by Bruce Lee: My martial arts practice has been a major part of my life. I’ve been practicing since I was 8. I am drawn to the philosophical aspects as much as to martial practice. The Tao of Gung Fu includes Bruce Lee’s best essays about martial arts and Taoism, and should be essential reading for anyone who practices martial arts.
Looking back on this list, I feel like it’s a failure. While the selections do reveal aspects of my personality, I am remiss to have left out Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens, Gaiman and Pratchett, Poe, Marlon James, Colum McCann, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and so many others. While it’s an incomplete picture, hopefully it does, indeed, help you know me better.
Now it’s your turn. What are the seven book to get to know you better?