Recently a thread has been bumping around on social media called “Ten Books that Have Stayed with You.” This doesn’t necessarily refer to the ten greatest books you’ve ever read, but more to the ones you think about from time to time, the ones that have become part of who you are. With that in mind, here are mine (in roughly chronological order):
- The Phantom Toll Booth – Way back when Mister Words went to elementary school, teachers read to us; after recess, we’d come stumbling in and listen to the next chapter. (The theory, perhaps, is that it calmed us down.) This book by Norton Juster, illustrations by the great Jules Feiffer, was our fifth grade selection. It taught me to love puns, wordplay and the number 17. (You could look it up.)
- A Wrinkle in Time – I think this was our sixth-grade choice. Today, it would be classified as “YA,” but the term hadn’t been invented yet. Regardless, it’s a great sci-fi/fantasy adventure with appealing characters, outlandish situations, a great message and a genuine sense of danger.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – I know this American classic is on everyone’s list, but so what? It was the first real grown-up book I ever read, probably sometime in junior high. It was also the first book I read that didn’t have a happy ending. Atticus Finch is one of the great characters in fiction, a role model for generations of American males who would someday become fathers.
- Stranger in a Strange Land – In my mid-to-late teens, I embarked on a sci-fi phase that included Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. While Bradbury and Clark were better writers (honorary mention to Martian Chronicles and Childhood’s End), I really connected with Heinlein’s unique blend of satire and imagineering. I have a feeling the adult me wouldn’t enjoy the story of Valentine Michael Smith as much as my teen version, which is why I’ve never revisited the book. But there’s no doubt I grocked it at the time.
- How to Stop Worrying and Start Living – When I was in my early 20s, the company I worked for sent me to a Dale Carnegie public speaking course, for which I’m still grateful. Although How to Win Friends and Influence People is Carnegie’s better-known book, this is the one that has had a more profound influence on my life. Not only does that yellowing dog-eared copy still occupy an exalted place on my bookshelf, I re-read it every few years when I find myself backsliding.
- The Green Ripper – Although I read and enjoyed noir mysteries by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler while in college, John D. MacDonald (not to be confused with fellow mystery writer Ross MacDonald) somehow slipped past me. After a coworker introduced me to quixotic private detective Travis McGee in 1985, I rushed to my neighborhood used book store and bought up every copy I could get my hands on. The Green Ripper, focusing on a middle-aged McGee coming to terms with his own mortality and life choices, is still my favorite.
- Glitz – And speaking of binge reading, there’s Elmore Leonard, the man who taught me more about writing dialogue than any course or how-to manual ever could. Leonard could do more with a couple of lines than most authors can do in a chapter or an entire book. Or, as he said in his short but essential guide, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip. I guess I could have picked any Leonard book, but Glitz is a great representation of his body of work, including the trademark quirky characters (especially creepy bad guy Teddy Magyk), dry humor and sudden violence. I miss Leonard, who died not long ago at the age of 87.
- Stormy Weather – And speaking of quirky characters, the current champ has to be Miami author and newspaper columnist Carl Hiaasen, who knows how to create folks who jump off the page and make themselves at home somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain. For me, there’s none more memorable than Skink, the one-eyed possibly crazy ex-governor of Florida now living in the Everglades and emerging from time to time to make things right with the world. Skink has appeared in a half dozen Hiaasen novels and he’s always a welcome sight.
- Jitterbug Perfume – You know how sometimes you’ll read a passage from a particular author and think, I could never write like that in a million years? That’s Tom Robbins for me. Part mad genius, part shaman, part man of mystery, Robbins’ command of the language (and quite possibly the universe) is unfathomable. I was lucky enough to be in the audience when he served as opening keynote for the very first Vegas Valley Book Festival. During the Q and A, fans tried desperately to divine how Robbins does what he does, re-crafting the same question in a variety of ways. Try as he might, words failed him, possibly for the first time.
(Sidebar: A colleague recently introduced me to the writings of Haruki Murakami, who reminds me very much of Robbins. I may add him to a future list.)
- Chinaman’s Chance – I have no idea why Ross Thomas isn’t more popular. The ex-political operative brought a sense of realism, cynicism, fun and panache to his novels that make Ian Fleming seem pedestrian. In Chinaman’s Chance, (I know, the title is politically incorrect but we’re talking 30 years ago), we meet lifelong buddies/con artists/mercenaries Quincy Durant and Artie Wu (who may or may not be pretender to the throne of China) along with the shadowy Maurice “Otherguy” Overby and CIA agent-turned- hit woman Georgia Blue. (I love Thomas for the names alone. My favorite might be Boy Howdy.) Thomas, who died in 1995, featured the same characters in two more novels and I wish he’d written more.
- The Untethered Soul – I obviously can’t count to ten. Let’s consider this a bonus entry. Michael Singer’s exploration of the Zen philosophy is so simple, straightforward and unadorned, I feel as if I understand these complex concepts for the very first time. I first read it a couple of years ago and find myself going back to it all the time. Truly life-changing.