Tyler Cowen and Peter Suderman have both compiled (non-definitive) lists of books which have influenced them the most over the years. I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays. So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.
The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose. I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe. The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.
The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth. So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively. I read these ones countless times.
The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil. One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.
A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.
The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history. Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.
The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently. Please don’t watch it. Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.
The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories. Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.
Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them. This was one of the first.
I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.
Some honorable mentions:
I should probably put child’s things away at this point and read more serious works of fiction and non-fiction – more philosophy, theology, et alia. And yet … perhaps it is having children of my own now, or perhaps it is simply that I read to escape, but when it comes down to choosing I still find myself with some fantasy novel in hand, or some work of science fiction or mystery. Yes – I do dip into non-fiction at times. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is certainly one of the most influential histories of my adult life. A Short History of Nearly Everything has been one of my favorite non-fiction reads in the past few years. Crime and Punishment is hardly fantasy, and has been one of my favorite works of fiction that I’ve read since high school. I blazed through a great deal of literature both contemporary and classic during college. Some of it was quite good.
But the books that I’ve really loved have been Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell; the George R. R. Martin books; even the Harry Potter books. True – much of the fantasy genre is fairly awful. Perhaps that’s why I’m so glad whenever I do find something good – even older children’s fantasy that I missed somehow as a child, like the work of Diana Wynne Jones.
What I’d like to read soon are the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. And Jane Jacobs. And Diane Ravitch’s latest. And Joe Abercrombie (who, like Banks, is mysteriously missing from the local library…) And some Chesterton.
I’m currently reading the sprawling Malazan books of Steven Erikson (now on House of Chains); and After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre – though I do not spend enough time reading (and I have a suspicion that this will remain the case until my children are older.) I’ve also got Mieville’s The City and the City lined up, though I admit to being a little stuck in Erikson’s series, making it hard for me to move on to other things.
So much to read, so little time.