A few years ago I had the stark realization that no other human would every fully know and understand me. No matter how much of myself I try to put out for people to see, no one will ever actually know what is going on in my head. Each person brings their own experiences and biases to every situation they encounter and this includes me. People will always view me through the lens of their own experiences. And I will do the same to them. I will always assume that on some level, you think the same as I do. That even though our thoughts themselves and our experiences are different, the base of how our mind works is the same. Because I can’t imagine any other thought system than what I have experienced in my own head. But the likelihood that we experience thought in the same way is, well, I have no idea how likely or unlikely it is because, again, no matter how well we try to explain it to each other we will always only be able to understand our own minds.
But then I also got to thinking about how much the things we read and watch and take in can affect the way we think. I realized that if you really want to understand another person, one of the greatest ways is to take in and experience the same things. We are each shaped and affected by different things. It might be experiences, conversations, people, or stories, but we are all affected by the outside world. We obviously have no control over some of our influences and circumstances, but there is a lot that we consciously choose to bring into our minds. This leads to the idea that while we can never be inside someone else’s head and see how their mind works, we can experience and take in the same things. So while the base of it all (the actual mind/thought process) might be impossible to fully comprehend, the bulk of what is affecting and impacting that thought process is something we can take in and understand. So by this logic I put forth the idea that one of the best ways to really know a person is to find out what things (books, movies, places, people) have most affected them and to then experience those things yourself.
I have spent some time thinking about what those things would be for me. Obviously it is a broad and varied field. So for starters, I have narrowed it down to books. As you know, I am a reader and books/stories are important to me. I love that fiction can make me see and experience new things. I like that an author can teach me something or make me look at something completely differently through a story. I feel like I learn better and feel so much more accomplished when I discover something indirectly. If an author just said, “hey, look at this thing a new way” I wouldn’t get much out of it. I probably just straight up wouldn’t be reading that book because it sounds like boring non-fiction. But if they can force me to look at something differently when I didn’t see it coming, it will impact and change me.
This is very likely an incomplete list, but here are some of the books that have been important to me and have an impact on the way I view the world (mostly in chronological order, but I saved my very favourite for the end):
Island of the Blue Dolphins – Scott O’Dell
I include this book because it really (in my memory) marks the beginning of my love of reading. I had read tons of books before this, but this one stands out. I was in Elementary school. I remember being in the library looking through books and I came across this one. I knew nothing about it, no one recommended it to me, but I decided to borrow it. (Okay, I borrowed it mostly because the word “dolphin” was in the title and I really loved dolphins) I loved it. I decided Scott O’Dell was my favourite author and I spent the rest of my time in Elementary school combing the shelves for more of his books.
Peter Pan – JM Barrie
Peter Pan was and is my favourite childhood story, not the Disney movie, the real story. I fervently wished I could be Peter Pan. I know that is typically something that typically a child would dream about, but I dreamed about it until I was much older than I care to admit. Something about the world that JM Barrie created that was so absurd yet so normal at the same time mixed with a fear of growing up.
The Horse and His Boy – CS Lewis
I love all the Narnia books, but this one is hands down my favourite. I love this story. I especially love the part where Shasta finally meets Alsan and he is walking alongside him in the mountain pass. Their conversation is my favourite part of the book.
Wings of Dawn – Sigmund Brouwer
I know that you don’t like this book. I have a memory of a young me mentioning it to a young you and being completely shut down. I do not think, however, that you have actually read the whole thing. But that is neither here nor there. I absolutely loved this book. I read it over and over when I was younger. I remember finishing it once and literally opening it right back up and starting from the beginning again. It has been out of print for years. My mom managed to track down a used copy and gave it to me for Christmas one year. It was an amazing gift.
The White Lion Chronicles – Christopher Hopper
This is a three book series. I have never met anyone else who has read these books except for the friend who lent them to me. It has been a long time since I read them and I only read them once. They gave me a lot to think about regarding angels/demons and opened my eyes to a completely different way of thinking about what heaven/paradise might be like. I hesitate to include them in the list, but they really did have an effect on my thought process. Whether or not they still would is another story, but they were significant to a younger me.
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
This book was my introduction to the classics. It was hella compelling and was the first book I read with that classic revenge focused plot. The Three Musketeers was also phenomenal I should add. Dumas is a fantastic writer. But it was The Count of Monte Cristo that opened me up to the classics and got me reading old books.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
This book re-ignited my love of reading. Haha, see what I did there. While I was in University I read very few non textbooks. The year after I graduated I read this and it started my reading again. Also it made me feel guilty for not getting through the Iliad and for ever saying “old english is too hard to read” or “is there a summary I can read?”
1984 – George Orwell
I know, surprise, 1984 had an impact on the way I think and view the world. But it also stands out because I read it at work and was forced to read it in short increments with hours of break in between. Usually I would have blown through a book this compelling in one or two sittings and certainly never would have stopped at the exciting and suspenseful parts. As a result I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what would happen next while I stacked boards and shovelled sawdust. This meant that I had several theories on what would happen and I kept altering them as the story went. By the time I got to the end of the book I knew how it would end. No matter how hard I hoped it would end happily, I knew that based on everything in the book to that point that there was no other possible ending. I vowed to read more books slowly and spend more time processing them because of how much more engaged I was and how much more I got out of the book. But lets be honest, I will never read a super engaging book slowly unless I am forced to.
Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
This book completely changed the way I think about time. It also began my quest to read everything Kurt Vonnegut has read. I would say I am edging on two-thirds of the way there. But seriously, this book changed everything.
Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse
Okay, you know how good this book was. For anyone who wasn’t there, which is anyone reading this except Glynis, we were at a winter camp and Glynis didn’t have a book so I started reading this one out loud to her. It was kind of a joke at first, but then we both got super into it and read the entire thing out loud together. We had multiple jaw-dropping epiphany moments. Sometimes we would go back and read paragraphs again. I think we might have even reread a whole chapter. I actually don’t remember a lot of the actual content as that was quite a few years ago, but I remember how much it blew my mind.
Boy A – Jonathan Trigell
This book will rip you an emotional new one. It raises some very important questions about second chances and who deserves them and who gets to decide who deserves them. There is also a movie. I saw the movie before I read the book. When it ended I was in such a weird emotional state. I wanted to cry but couldn’t, I just sat there staring at the blank screen. I think I made you watch it with me once. It is an important story.
Equivocation – Bill Cain
This is a play, not a book. But I love it so much that I am going to include it. I saw this play live before I read it. I think maybe part of why I love it so much is that performance. But it is brilliantly written. It is both funny and very serious. It is silly but very real. It is amazing. (ps. can I please have my copy of it back, I really want to read it again)
The Climb – Anatoli Boukreev and G Weston DeWalt
This book really started my Everest passion. I was super into Everest for a brief time as a child, but had mostly moved on. This book brought it all back and started my Everest reading spree. It is, in my opinion, the best book about the 1996 season out of all the ones I have read so far.
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
This book caught me off guard and was a weird mix of civil war and boring Hemingway description with subtle beauty and compelling story. I’m not sure why I loved it so much. There were parts of it I did not enjoy, but when I finished it I was sad. I think I saw the beauty of the story in looking back on it.
The Brief History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier
I have read two Kevin Brockmeier books. They have both been amazingly unique stories set in very normal situations. It is like he takes the world as it is and makes one change or one leap or changes the explanation of something just slightly and then writes a story. So most of the setting and the story is completely normal but there is something small that kind of changes everything. The Brief History of the Dead is my favourite of his so far, but The Illumination is good too. It had the most beautiful short story written into one of the chapters.
Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
This book reaffirmed a lot of things I was starting to learn and realize about vulnerability and shame and how they affect our lives and relationships. I am completely convinced that anyone who reads this book will get something out of it. I am also convinced I need to read it many more times.
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
Okay, I saved the best for last. This is my favourite book of all time. I think everyone should have to read it. It pains me that after years of me raving about it YOU HAVE STILL NOT READ IT. I am pretty sure I am going to get ‘timshel’ tattooed on me at some point. It is everything. It changes everything. But if you want to know more about why I love it, YOU HAVE TO READ THE DAMN BOOK FOR YOURSELF.
So there you go. If you want to understand more about me and the way I view the world, these are the books to start with. If have already read all these and are looking for more, here are some honourable mentions (in no particular order):
Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut
Clatter / Our Numbered Days – Neil Hilborn
The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
The Winter of Our Discontent – John Steinbeck
Gentleman Practice – Buddy Wakefield
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
Tracks – Robyn Davidson
Nine Stories – JD Salinger
Narcissus and Goldmund – Hermann Hesse
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
You should do a list like this sometime. I love hearing about books that other people love. If anyone felt inclined to comment and tell me their most impactful books, I would love that too.