My life as an avid reader began with fiction. I learned to love the devouring books in the pages of fiction: The Little House series, Charlotte’s Web, and The Boxcar Children series (all of them, in numerical order). Little wonder then that I could a number of novels amongst the most influential books of my life. Here are but a few.
The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
I first read The Lord of the Rings during a summer in high school. The first movie premiered that Fall, and like a good bookworm, I insisted on reading the book first. (Because the book is always better!) I read it in three days, one book a day. In other words, way too fast to appreciate the rich detail Tolkien created. Still, it invited me into another world, and I eagerly soaked it in.
I’ve reread it multiple times since then* and each time I’m moved by the themes Tolkien draws: peacemaking demands bravery, hard work; friendship proves stronger than power; a love of home, food, and hearth creates a more peaceful world. More than teaching any specific lessons, The Lord of the Rings, encourages me to live more bravely and work toward peacemaking.
Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling
It took me awhile to get into the Harry Potter series. I grew up in an ultra conservative environment, and the whole “witchcraft” thing made these books taboo in certain circles. Once I did start reading Harry Potter, I immediately realized the story depicts a fantastical variety of “witchcraft”, far removed from any actual occult practices, also that this was one of the best pieces of fiction I had ever read. I continued to re-read the books each summer in college as more of them came out. I shamelessly stood in line for midnight releases of books and movies (the books are better!), and jumped all-in on the Potter fandom.
The vividness and humor of the world Rowling created served as “TV for book people,” a way to relax in the summer without rotting my brain. But, the depth of theme and character development kept me coming back over and over again. Many have written about about Rowling’s emphasis on empathy. Just as Tolkien has encouraged me toward peacemaking, Rowling encouraged me toward seeing clearly the suffering of oppressed groups.
The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Like many high school juniors, I read The Scarlet Letter as a class assignment. Unlike many, I actually read it, and I loved it. Once again, I read this book in one sitting (an old habit of mine). I found Hawthorne’s language beautiful, and the character driven tension enrapturing. His picture of the difference between the effects of confessed and unconfessed sin remain the vividest I have seen in literature. Rereading The Scarlet Letter, continues to point me to the hope of Christ and our freedom in him.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice made me laugh out loud at a book for the first time that I remember. I read it (again, in one sitting) instead of going to a dance at my high school. The first few years of high school I constantly tried to fit in and mostly failed. But in reading this book I consciously decided for the first time to be ok not going along with the crowd. I found it incredibly freeing. Little did I know, Elizabeth Bennett would become my perfect heroine for that moment. This book continues to be one of my go-tos when I’m perusing my book shelves for something to read, and each time I appreciate Eliza Bennett a little more.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
I’ve read several dystopian novels and failed to connect with most of them. Fahrenheit 451 on the other hand, appeared the most realistic to me. Instead of a dictatorship criminalizing books, society entertained itself into mindlessness and determined — through a democratic process — to eradicate books. Tyranny emerged through democracy. Even in the early aughts when I read this, I could imagine our society moving in that direction. Now with “news entertainment” and even more distraction – not to mention the 2016 election — it becomes easier and easier to imagine. Bradbury’s novel ingrained in me the value of learning, producing, imagining and enjoying intellectual pursuits. It validated my inclination to pursue a deeper life than that offered in pop culture. While not comprising the whole of a valuable life, books — good, thought provoking books — enrich any life they enter.
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing I first read all of these books in high school. I need to get on my game in reading the Great Books again. Maybe I’ll attempt Moby Dick one more time.
*Right now I’m reading it aloud to my husband. Reading aloud is the best way to read good books! It slows you down enough to notice the details of the story, and you get to experience the story with another person.