I’m sure this isn’t an original idea. There are probably plenty of bloggers pursuing this kind of topic for their Thanksgiving-week posts. But I liked the thought of narrowing it down to a list of ten and thinking of how the ten had impacted my thinking and my writing in profound ways.
Of course, the challenge is limiting it to ten. At first I thought about doing ten books, but that would be even more impossible for me. Besides, I don’t want this to end up being a list of favorite books but a list of writers who have somehow changed my worldview. So here goes.
- C. S. Lewis — for perspective. Like millions of other people, I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia. The first novel I tried to write, as a fifth grader, was a spin-off of those books, with a portal to another world. As an adult, I am blown away by Mere Christianity. “It is no good asking for a simple religion,” he says in one part. “After all, real things are not simple. . . . Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” I also read Till We Have Faces as an adult and savored the new perspectives he offered in fictional form about religion and the new angle he gave the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
- Megan Whalen Turner — for twists, subtleties, and complexities. Her Queen’s Thief series is one you could read over and over. The twists made me gasp the first time around — and cheer. The subtleties made me fall in love because of the quiet moments where she gives you just a hint of what’s happening, because more than a hint would ruin it, because quiet moments can be that fragile and beautiful. The complexities made me think, like when Eugenides confronts the gods so often with hard questions about why. I learned from Megan Whalen Turner that these are key ingredients for masterpieces of fiction.
- Susanna Clarke — for storytelling. Who else do you know who can produce an 800-page novel — in a tiny font size, no less, with footnotes that often take up half a page or more in an even smaller font size — and have it be a bestseller? Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell taught me about storytelling. Each little footnote is a story unto itself, and every one of them is captivating. You have the option, even on the audio tracks, to skip the footnotes, but I don’t, even when listening to that book a second or third time, because the little stories are just as fascinating as the main ones. That, to me, is masterful.
- David McCullough — for breathing life into facts. When I was in middle school, we had to read a biography, and oh how I wish I knew about David McCullough then! He hadn’t written John Adams yet, and I have always loved John Adams because I grew up on the musical 1776. So I chose some random biography, and it was boring. Because biographies used to be that way. I could be wrong about giving McCullough all the credit for this, but it seems like he’s the one who brought storytelling to history and decided to tell it with all the uncertainty and tension it deserves.
- Billy Collins — for accessible poetry. I’ve always loved poetry in small doses. I started subscribing to The New Yorker just for the two-to-three poems per issue. But Billy Collins wrote the first book of poetry I read from start to finish and couldn’t put down. He solidified my love for it and proved that the modernists didn’t know everything. The Washington Post says it better than I can: “[Collins] takes the mundane thing and shows you its mystery. And he takes the mysterious and strips it naked.”
- Marilynne Robinson — for beauty in simplicity. Her books require an unhurried mood, but you get rewarded for that patience by a hundred gems like these in Gilead:
- “Grace has a grand laughter in it.”
- “Love is holy because it is like grace — the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”
- “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
- “I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.”
- Yann Martel — for the power of ideas in story. In Life of Pi, when the interviewers refuse to believe Pi’s story, he has so many great responses like this: “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.” Life of Pi is the opposite. It’s a book that does make you see higher and further and differently, and I love it for that. It’s a story full of insight.
- Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card, and Laini Taylor — for magic. I didn’t consider myself a fan of fantasy until I read The Goose Girl, Enchantment, and Blackbringer. These books converted me to the kind of richness of detail they have in common. They make magic seem like something real because the worlds of their books are so real.
- Aaron Sorkin — for passion about intelligence. He makes “smart” look good. He says no to the standard dumbness of television. The West Wing is still our favorite TV drama of all time, and miraculously, I know both republicans and democrats who love it. Somehow, Aaron Sorkin managed to create a successful political drama that captivated audiences thirsty for an intelligent look at the complexities of both sides of politics, avoiding simplistic stereotypes. We loved his brief season of Studio 60, too, which brought the battle of intelligent television right into the show.
- Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and Kristin Cashore — for page turners that made me fall hard. My sister and I often get asked how we can be fans of Stephenie Meyer as English majors who know what “good writing” is. Well, for me, it’s because I can appreciate all sides of good writing, and these three authors taught me about creating characters that you cling to and pacing that holds you tight. I read Twilight in November 2005 based on my thesis chair’s recommendation. I started it at 7pm and finished at 2am. The Hunger Games and Graceling were similarly all-nighters for me. I had to keep turning every page, and I think there’s a lot to learn from that about what makes a good story.
What about you? What writers are you thankful for? If you’re doing a similar blog post, feel free to put the URL in your comment. I’m excited to hear whose writing has influenced you!