My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
My mother gave me this book to read at some point in my high school years. It changed me, giving me a deep love for Art and for those who are destined to make it. It also opened up the world of the Hassidic Jews to me, and I looked eagerly for them on my first trip to New York in that same time period. This book should be assigned reading for anyone interested in art, and also for more academic types that work in the art world. It is easy to overlook the soul of the artist in exchange for smart words, big money, and notoriety.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My high school English teacher (senior year, Mrs. Lile) required this book for her AP course. What a perfectly beautiful illustration of sacrificial love. What a poignant snapshot of the French Revolution. What an outstanding introduction to Charles Dickens. I have never developed any desire to learn how to knit since reading this exceptional book. And this alone makes it one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read, as I am not crafty or bent in that direction in any way, shape, or form.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Again, a suggestion from my mother. She’s usually right on with books. I will give you her email if you need further suggestions. I re-read it as an adult on a very long bus ride in Russia, and it was even better the second time. I hear that the third time’s a charm, so I think I will get this one out again. The use of letters exchanged between characters is brilliant, always has been. Which reminds me of this next little gem:
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
You’re the best. Thank you for giving me this book to read and insisting on my actually reading it. I tried to put it aside but you kept asking me what I thought about it. After I finally picked it up one night when I was not yet sleepy (oh, to be a teenager again…but only for the ability to stay up past 10!), I couldn’t put it down. This book is what cemented my desire to live in London. See? It is your fault, this love I have for England! It took me several years, and even though it was but a short semester as a student abroad, I did it. And I hold this book – and you! – accountable for this insatiable need to travel, to see things in a new way, to taste new foods and smell new smells. What a funny, witty, and wistful book this is…did you know that Ms. Hanff also wrote a book called Q’s Legacy, detailing her initial introduction to Good Literature and Writing through a book (On the Art of Writing) by the famous Cambridge professor, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch? I got it for you…but I’m reading it first.
Love, Your Daughter
A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare
My first Shakespeare play that I read for myself, by myself. Hilarious. Opened up an entirely new world for me, one in which I finally realized that there is nothing elitist or snobbish about Shakespeare, or good literature in general. That it is for all of us, for any who care to mine its depths. That we are all human – depraved yet hopeful, lost yet searching, in love yet selfish still, tired yet ready to celebrate, busy and running to and fro, yet still pursued by Love Incarnate.
Paradise Lost by John Milton at Project Gutenberg
Another requirement by Mrs. Lile for AP English, and my first time realizing that Satan appears in books other than the Bible. Even more importantly, I think this was the most important classic I’d read to date, and I felt somehow older and more mature after I’d read it. Mrs. Lile was a wonderful teacher, and helped us to really see ‘mercy tempered with justice’ and how Lucifer wanted to ‘reign in hell rather than serve in heaven’ – pretty big concepts for our soon-to-be-adult minds. Try as he might, Milton never has convinced me to feel sympathy for the devil, but I enjoy his efforts immensely. Another book I need to pick up again soon, as it’s been too long since I’ve read it.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I honestly cannot remember the first time I read this book. I’m fairly certain I was in high school, as I remember being very stirred by the poor monster’s ‘humanity’; I am no longer fooled by this argument. I know, I know, ice water running in my veins. But I just don’t feel sorry for him. I think I learned too much about his true creator, Mary Shelley, and her parents, and her politics, and the Romantic movement in general, for me to hold on to that initial sense of sorrow, or at least sorrow for him. He’s not actually a person, with an actual soul. And really, y’all – it’s fiction. Having said all that, I include it here because I think it should be required reading for everyone. Herman Munster is not Frankenstein; the sooner we clear that up, the better. And you can watch Young Frankenstein after you’ve read this much more somber novel.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce
I am still upset about this short story. You will be, too, after you’ve read it. Unforgettable.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
I am still scarred after this one, too. I’m not a huge Poe fan, but this short story is so well-crafted, and so riveting…another one that stays with you.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I picked this one up because someone – cannot recall who – suggested that I’d really enjoy it. And I did. This should be required reading. I didn’t buy a Kindle for, like, years, because of this book. It led me into other Ray Bradbury stories, such as the The Martian Chronicles. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, a local radio station continuously played Elton John’s Rocket Man, with added tracks in the song featuring statements by President Reagan, and the now-famous, “Go at throttle up,” the last words spoken from the Challenger. And I cried (I’m not a cryer) and it got all mixed up with Nathaniel York and Captain Wilder and that lonely blue canal on Mars, and I love them all…but this one about books is the most important, in my opinion. Read it soon. And then read There Will Come Soft Rains.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
My brother had to read this for a class in high school, and he paid me to do it so I could tell him about it. His loss. It is a wonderful book. And I have not accepted money for doing anyone else’s work since then.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I chose this author and her work as the subject of a research paper for my 11th grade English class simply because I wanted to impress my teacher and my peers. I had no idea who she was, but I was a quick study, and the world of contemporary poetry opened up to me. I did learn to appreciate her poetry, and that of her husband’s, and others in their circle. I didn’t really enjoy reading about this poor woman’s really horrible life (abuse, loss, suicide) but I did gain something valuable: Never try to impress others with what you read. It doesn’t help anyone.
The Cross and the Switchblade by David Wilkerson
I did not know about drug problems until I read this book. I did not know that some people could choose to walk away from their drug habits after encountering God until I read this book. You may not agree with this and other stories related in this book, but I particularly recall a scene in which the church leaders did not have any money for food, or maybe it was no food, for their ministry (and there were lots of young people needing help), and so they prayed for immediate relief…and within a short time, someone showed up at their door with…yes, food. Enough for all of them. My take on it is this: If I believe that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, and that He performed miracles on earth, and that He is who He says He is, and that He died on a cross and then rose again to save a fallen world, and defeat death once and for all, and I do, then I can believe what Wilkerson says happened in this book.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
Another almost unbelievable story about an ordinary Dutch woman who did extraordinary things in the face of great adversity, danger, and persecution. Corrie Ten Boom and her family were aligned with the Dutch Resistance in World War II, helping an estimated 800 Jews to escape certain death in Nazi Germany. Ratted out by another Dutch citizen, she and her family were arrested; she and her sister were sent to Ravensbruck, where her sister died but Corrie survived. She went on to establish a rehabilitation center for survivors of the concentration camps, and later a worldwide ministry. This book taught me about thanks, about true gratitude. That lesson I learned in the story about the fleas. You will have to read it to get the whole story, because it is worth reading.