The Books That Shape Us

January 25, 2013

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”
—Oscar Wilde 

Last year, as part of a multi-year “Celebration of the Book,” the Library of Congress opened an exhibit of 88 “Books That Shaped America.” According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, “This list is a starting point. It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books—although many of them fit that description. Rather, list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.” (The list did indeed spark conversation—as usual there was much squabbling about what was on the list and what was left off. Simply type “Books That Shaped America” into your search engine for proof.) While the physical exhibit has now ended, click here for the online version. 

The exhibit got me thinking about the books that have shaped me. Books have been my friends for as long as I can remember, and learning to read was one of my first goals when I was a child (along with learning to whistle and to blow bubbles with gum—I was an ambitious young lady). The books that follow are mostly not considered “classics,” but for some reason they resonated deeply with me, shaping my understanding of myself and the world. Here are just a few of the books that I consider have shaped who I am:

Product DetailsThe Anne of Green Gables series (L.M. Montgomery). Hands down my favorite childhood books. I didn’t just enjoy the stories: I loved Anne and aspired to be like her. She was smart, spirited, loving and she always tried to do right and help others. A girl could do worse than emulate Anne Shirley. Even now, every couple of years, I reread the series for the pleasure of renewing my acquaintance.

Sidetracked Home Executives (Pam Young and Peggy Jones). I loved the system of organizing household chores that these sisters created to move from “pigpen to paradise.” I really didn’t know how to stay on top of cleaning when I first got married, and their advice helped me figure it out. I still use some of their basic principles to keep my house running. This book was funny and charming and their 3 x 5 card program was super simple to implement.

A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson). This book was a revelation of how non-fiction could be just as riveting and entertaining as fiction. Bryson tells a great story, weaving historical information seamlessly into the narrative of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail. This book is funny, fascinating and educational all at once. I want to write like that.

Poisonwood Bible.jpgThe Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver). Another revelation. This was my first experience reading Kingsolver, and I was forever hooked. Up until I read Poisonwood, other than the occasional “classic,” I rarely read anything more taxing than an Agatha Christie mystery. I’ve read nearly everything Kingsolver has written, and continued to expand my fiction horizons.

Refuse to Choose (Barbara Sher). I’ve read and liked several of Sher’s books, but this one helped me understand why I flit from interest to interest, and why so many things sound fascinating to me. I’m a “Scanner”—a person who scans the horizon, eager to explore everything out there instead of zeroing in on a single pursuit. I want to learn about so many things, and pursue so many hobbies, how can I do it all? My favorite of Sher’s tools is what I call the Six-Year Calendar of Happiness: a list of the major interests I want to pursue in the next six years (as opposed to trying to pursue them all at once). I admit I haven’t been able to follow the calendar as well as I’d like because my current interests (my horse, learning to sketch and paint in watercolor) are time consuming enough that I really don’t have much time for other interests. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on things like learning another language or doing cross stitch projects. It just means they keep getting bumped back on the calendar.

When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter). Authors Hirschmann and Munter believe that dieting turns women into compulsive eaters obsessed with food. Instead, if we stopped hating our bodies, we would be learn to accept them, feed ourselves what we really need, and stop trying to measure up to society’s “ridiculous and impossible standards of female beauty.” I read this when I first noticed that I could no longer eat anything I wanted and not put on weight. (Sadly.) I believe it did keep me from hating my body, though I still struggle with true acceptance. I think I’m more balanced in my approach to eating and my body because of this book.

The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho). I read this for a book club, and I loved the simple story with its inspirational message to follow your heart. After reading this, for the first time I realized I actually had dreams to follow and that it was OK to do so.  

Ursula K. Le Guin said, “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Through our reading we shape and reshape our opinions, our beliefs, our lives. These are just a few of the books that have shaped me. What books have shaped you?

P.S. I’m excited to tell you that later today my bookshelves and I are being featured in Danielle’s (A Work in Progress) Lost in the Stacks: Home Edition series. Come by, sneak a peek at the book bounty and say hello.