Off topic, or five novels that changed me

books

When I started this blog, I planned to avoid two topics: books and cooking. Not because I don’t love those topics dearly (I do!) but because I worried I would be so busy posting about books and cooking, that I would never get around to anything else.

Today, I’m breaking that self-imposed rule and talking books, thanks to Kate, at Book Nook, who recently asked the very simple question what is your favorite book? And are there different books for different stages in your life?

I could talk about books all day long, and I whole-heartedly agree that there are different books for different ages. The concept of a favorite book has always been problematic for me, not because I can’t pick one book, but because the word “favorite” feels too insignificant to reflect how I feel (or have felt) about certain books.

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When I was an adolescent, I would have called Wuthering Heights my more-than-favorite book. I read it countless times by age 18, and in college I managed to write at least three papers on it. As an adult, I am fairly certain that I might now find it wild, excessive, histrionic. Plus, I pretty much know it by heart. Still, Wuthering Heights is filled with brilliant tidbits, quotes, observations, and the one that has stuck with me the most is this quote, voiced by the ever-romantic Catherine Earnshaw:

“I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” 

It is such a beautiful image for how an idea, a feeling, a thought, can permeate and change you. And books do to. When I try to name favorite book, that is where my mind flies – to the books that have washed through me and “altered the color of my mind.” A bit grandiose, maybe, but still, true of a great book.

Since my affair with Wuthering Heights, I’ve read many, many good books, and a few that changed me, or altered the color of my mind. I’ll post my list below, but first, I’ll add that there are many bloggers who write beautifully about books and reading, including the afore-mentioned Kate at Book Nook, Lindsey at A Design so Vast, and Anny at Dreaming in Stitches. They all inspire me and I’m happy to be jumping in on the reading discussion.

crossing to safety book

(1) Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. When asked what is my favorite book, I often cite Crossing to Safety, a beautifully written story of life-long friendship between two couples. The novel follows the Langs and the Morgans from their ambitious early lives into old age. This book is filled with the realities of adulthood – births of children, illness, faltering careers and transcendant love and friendship. The only thing that surpises me is that I loved it so much the first time I read it and I was only about 24. This book is compassionate, honest, adult and subsequent readings have still held me enthralled.

the known world

(2) The Known World by Edward P. Jones. The only novel written by Edward P. Jones (thusfar) and the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World takes on slavery in the antebellum American South. Jones strips away any vestige of Gone with the Wind style picturesqueness of the epoch. The rawness, the loneliness, and physical vulnerability of both slaves and slave owners is palpable and not surpisingly the story is heartbreaking. What did surprise me is how much I loved it despite its deep sadness and dark subject matter. Even now, eight years after reading it, this book sticks with me.

(3) History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The unforgettable story of world war II refugee Leo Gursky, who is pining for a lost love and a lost book manuscript, and the story of 13 year-old Alma Singer. Their stories are masterfully woven together and the final twist is funny, sad and absolutely thrilling. I read this book when my children were small and one of my fond memories of is sinking into the couch for an hour of reading during their naptime. I don’t have a photo of it because I can’t find my copy – I must have lent it out to someone.

cien anos de soledad

(4) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cyclical time, repeated names, gypsies, fortunes made and spent, alchemy, an unending civil war, an entire town of insomniacs, banana companies that come and go, and an industrious and long-lived matriarch, this book is filled with archetypes, luminous moments and poetic prose, and there is a reason it won so many, many awards. I would have considered this book my favorite in my early twenties, when my Spanish was good and I was working in Latin America. I recently re-read it with my book club (in English this time), confirming my deep connection with this novel. I was surprised that it was not universally loved by the group, but then, maybe I would have not loved it so, had I not first read it as a younger person.

(5) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. As I explained above, I loved this book to excess when I was an adolescent. There’s a reason its a classic.

20 thoughts on “Off topic, or five novels that changed me

  1. I love this post. I often cite Crossing to Safety and, like you, am amazed that I loved it as a young adult when it seems to me now to be so much about adulthood, marriage, long friendship, and life itself. It’s the only book I’ve read four times, and each time I’ve loved it more. I need to read The Known World, clearly!

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    1. thanks, Lindsey… I think the known world is the darkest of the books on this list but I was trying to be honest about books that really changed me, more than just books I loved…. really, the list could be a lot, longer!

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  2. Interesting books! I really must read One Hundred Years of Solitude – I’ve read Love In The Time Of Cholera (which, I guess, is considered is other classic masterpiece although written some twenty years later) and although I like it overall I had some quite serious issues with it too. I have a gut feeling that One Hundred Years will knock me off my feet – I am really hoping it will! I love the way Marquez writes, but also he influenced a lot of other writers who I have loved over the years. 🙂

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    1. I’ve also read Love in the Time of Cholera and enjoyed it, but somehow it didn’t stick with me in the say way. Who knows, maybe I would feel differently if I’d read it first. And yes, you’re right, Marquez influences many, many other writers.

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  3. I am so glad you broke your silence! I can’t wait to read the Wallace Stegner book. Funny, it looks so familiar. It’s on a book shelf somewhere–here or at our cabin. I don’t know why I never picked it up. There is an interesting book written by David Denby called Great Books about his experience rereading the classics 30 years later. We bring life experiences to texts as we wrestle with making meaning, and as you point out, we read with different perspectives at different ages.

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    1. I hope you like it! I agree about the perspectives. I think we might have ‘talked’ about this regarding the Great Gatsby, which I feel like is such a middle life book (Which I love!) and now that I’ve read it as an adult, I can’t imagine what I got out of it reading it as a teenager.

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  4. I’m glad you are sharing with us your favorite books. I need to get back to reading more. I read Grabiel Garcia Marquez in High School. I did’t know you speak Spanish. Nice to learn more about you. I speak Spanish too 🙂

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    1. Sadly, I’m not sure I can honestly say I still speak Spanish, Martha. I worked in Brazil in my late 20’s and since I’m not a native speaker, my Spanish and Portuguese got muddled. I can read it much better than speak it now, because when I open my mouth to speak, Portuguese is what comes out 😉

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  5. Always interesting to hear the book choices of others. I was bored rigid by One Hundred Years of Solitude and disappointed too because I had heard so many people sing its praises. I just didn’t get it.

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    1. I know there are others who felt that way, too, Gina! Always interesting which books speak to someone. I felt that way about Eat, Pray, Love, which garnered raves from so many people, but which really just didn’t work for me.

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  6. The History of Love is one of my faves, too. Couldn’t you write about this topic all day?

    I love these, all for very different reasons!

    The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
    Consequences – Penelope Lively
    Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
    Rule of the Bone – Russell Banks
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
    Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
    The Source – James Michener
    The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand
    The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis
    Bell Canto – Ann Patchett

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    1. I could definitely go on and on about books… I’ve never gotten to Ayn Rand, but I remember when all my friends were reading it (probably as I was re-reading all the Bronte sisters’ books). I think now I’m too old …

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  7. When I was a teenager, I thought I knew the story of Wuthering Heights because I’d seen a couple of film versions, then in my early twenties I ended up living very close to Haworth and when I finally got around to reading it myself, I was shocked and surprised at how different it really is, and how well it seems to fit into the landscape of its setting. I’m not sure I’d call it a favourite, but definitely a classic.

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    1. I’m not sure I would have considered Wuthering Heights a favorite if I’d first read it as an adult, and I don’t think realy ‘got’ the role of the landscape until a much later age. Now I’m thinking I’ll need to travel up to Yorkshire when I finally make it over 😉

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