My 10 Most Influential Books

All my books are in boxes on the other side of the country.

I don’t know if this has infested your Facebook newsfeed yet, but there is a post going around asking people to list their top ten books. And as an English major/writer/blogger, I thought I should at least attempt this. I apologize in advance for the pretentious choices. It comes with the degree.

1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

This is my absolute favorite book. I’ve never felt a stronger connection to a writer than I do with Dave Eggers. The book is a fictionalized memoir, chronicling the difficulties of losing one’s parents suddenly and at a young age. Eggers brilliantly expresses the breadth of emotions one feels while trying to make sense of mortality, and attempting to use heartache to create art.

Favorite quote:

“I stand up quickly and throw, this time some of the cremains sticking to my palm, which is now sweaty—fuck!
… how lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it is beautiful. I can’t decide if what I’m doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting. I want to be doing something beautiful, but am afraid that this is too small, too small, that this gesture, this end is too small…
but even if so, even if this is right and beautiful, and she is tearing up while watching, so proud… I knew I would do it, and I know this, I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful but gruesome because I am destroying it’s beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it is no longer beautiful. I fear that even if it is beautiful in the abstract, that my doing it knowing that it’s beautiful and worse, knowing that I will very soon be documenting it, that in my pocket is a tape recorder brought for just that purpose—that all this makes this act of potential beauty something gruesome. I am a monster. My poor mother. She would do this without thinking, without the thinking about the thinking—
oh fuck. I throw more.”

2. Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling

Thank Merlin for the crush I had in fifth grade and Scholastic book order. I begged my mother to order this book about a boy wizard, and it isn’t ridiculous to say that this decision changed my life. Harry Potter taught me about struggle and choices, right and wrong. It opened the door to writing for me, gave me a community of peers. I will always be grateful for these books.

Favorite quote:

You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” (Prisoner of Azkaban)

3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

Oh man. This book taught me so much about race and gender and sexuality—perhaps more than any other book in the “literary” canon. Le Guin uses a platform (SciFi) that is easily dismissed as escapist to explore such remarkable emotional depths, and cultural struggles. I love Le Guin for her take-no-prisoners attitude, her eloquence and her storytelling. She gives us such an incredible love story.

Favorite Quote:

A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.

4. Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis

This book made me fall in love with C.S. Lewis. I was surprised by this retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth from the point of view of one of the jealous sisters, as I expected it to be mere entertainment. Yet Lewis uses these brilliant characters to give such profound insight into the struggle with a deity, the silence of the gods. This book changed many of my views in such remarkable ways.

Favorite quote:

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

5. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner

I did my senior thesis on this novel, and I still don’t think I understand it. I love coming back to this text, it is so rich. This book taught me a lot about literary study, and how enjoyable it can be. Even after studying it for a year, writing a 16-page paper, and watching the sunrise over my laptop the day it was due, I still love this book.

Favorite quote:

“…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire… I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

6. Underworld – Don DeLillo

This is definitely one of my pretentious English major books. But having conquered this ridiculous 832-page monstrosity, I feel like bragging. But I did love this novel. I loved that while I followed it, there was so much more I didn’t follow, that there is so much happening under the surface that I can return to it again and again and find a different book. I love the giant canvas it is written on, the ludicrous things it tries to say. I love everything about this book.

Favorite quote:

“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know if I’ve ever cried as hard reading a book as I did reading this one. This book taught me so much about form and style, and how it can be used not only to make a literary point, but to make an emotional point. Foer builds such moving and real characters, and I never wanted it to end.

Favorite quote:

“You can’t love anything more than something you miss.”

8. New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver

The importance of this woman in my life still surprises me. I never expected to fall in love with Mary Oliver, but the moment I read Dogfish I knew I’d found someone who understood struggle and knew how to put it into words. I am so grateful to have found her poetry.

Favorite quote:

“I wanted / the past to go away, I wanted / to leave it, like another country; I wanted / my life to close, and open / like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song where it falls / down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted / to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know / whoever I was, I was / alive / for a little while.” (Dogfish)


And nobody, of course, is kind, / or mean, / for a simple reason.

9. The Waste Land – T. S. Eliot

This might be the quintessential “pretentious English major” book, but it’s difficult for me not to love Eliot. His poetry is just so full—it continues to reveal itself again and again after every read. I still don’t think I understand this poem, but I love that every time I read it, I can find something new.

Favorite quote:

“In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”

10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

This man taught me a lot about subtlety. I have to admit, when I first experienced this story as the independent movie with Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightly, and Carey Mulligan I hated it. I thought the plot twist was unmerited, and the entire piece made no sense. But the story haunted me, I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I picked up the book. And I loved every minute of it. The subtlety that felt surprising and off-putting in the movie just shone brightly in the book. Every minute decision of the characters had purpose, and it broke my heart to watch their pain. The book is breathtaking.

Favorite quote:

“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”

Now it’s your turn. What are your 10 most influential books?


Diversity in Young Adult Lit: Why You Should Go See “The Maze Runner”

Let me say this before we get started: I quite openly disliked The Maze Runner book. I found the characters boring, the excessive infodumping cumbersome, and the style somewhat lacking. The book didn’t keep me engaged, I wasn’t rooting for anyone. But the plot (which, I’d argue, works better as a screenplay) originally pulled me in.

We start with a boy riding in a freight elevator, with no memory of anything that has come before. When he reaches his destination, a large group of 12-18 year old boys stare down at him. Our hero, confused and overwhelmed, runs from the group, only to discover he won’t be running far. He’s in his new home, “The Glade:” a giant field surrounded by high cement walls. Outside the Glade is a massive maze, about five stories tall and ever-changing. Each morning the boys send out Runners to map the maze, and search for a way out. No one has any memory of what happened before the freight elevator (save their names), and they’ve been trying to find the exit to the maze for three years.

The movie takes this plot and soars with it. The story builds itself on action-packed scenes and big surprises—which translate to tight camera angles, tons of night filters, and a healthy dose of dramatic music. But none of these individual parts feel overwhelming (it doesn’t get campy or silly), they just play with already well-created, tense scenes. And the plot is pulled out neatly, if somewhat quickly, as the tension of the changing maze begins to effect the group.

Where in the book the characters often became interchangeable and forgettable, the actors bring life to these boys. Dylan O’Brien creates a brave and thoughtful Thomas, and Aml Ameen shows us a wise, but fraught Alby. And our resident villain, Gally (played by Will Poulter, sniveling Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia movies) is fleshed out and deliberate—he is more than just the bad guy, but rather a confused, if somewhat bull-headed, young man. What’s more is that the interactions with these boys is familial, but strained—think Lord of the Flies without devolving into chaos. Each of the actors (including the smaller roles) flesh out a group of boys desperately trying to be men in this new world they’ve been tossed into.

Finally, my favorite thing about this movie: the diverse cast. In the book, James Dashner makes a point of telling the reader the race of each of the boys. It doesn’t effect their personalities much (seeing as how they have no memories), but it does say something purposeful about the society they’ve built for themselves in the Glade—they are all equal. What’s more, it gives us diverse faces in the often very white world of young adult literature.

I don’t know whether to credit Denise Chaiman (the casting director) or Wes Ball (the director), but after the disaster with The Hunger Games, it’s refreshing to see a movie adaption that hasn’t been whitewashed. Aml Ameen does an incredible job as the group’s leader (Alby), and Ki Hong Lee is charming as Minho. On top of that, a diverse cast of extras fill out the Glade—again, something not even The Hobbit can apparently pull off well. In these minority roles are mostly unknown actors, giving them a jumpstart for their careers.

Going to see this movies means speaking to Hollywood the only way they will listen: with your money. By supporting this film, we can say “Hey, I like this movie with its diverse cast and new actors. And look! There isn’t even any sexualization of anyone in this film! I want to see more movies like this!” The Maze Runner could be the start of some big changes we can effect in the movie industry, if we show them what we want. It’s not only a smart, fun action movie, but it is a platform for diversity. Now, let’s support it.

The Maze Runner opened everywhere Friday, September 19th. Check for local movie times.