10 Influential Books for this Young Writer

"List 10 books that have influenced your life."

I usually ignore list meme challenges on Facebook, but I couldn't resist jumping in on this one today. 

I like that it wasn't phrased, "List your favorite 10 books," because that would be an impossible task. I'm always discovering new books, and I don't really want to be held to a list of all-time favorites.

Without further ado, here's what I wrote -- and an extra step that I didn't add on Facebook: What I learned from each book.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch, the quiet but outspoken fighter against injustice in all its forms, has been my hero since I read this book at a (probably too) tender age. His example instilled in me that the pursuit of justice is worth the personal sacrifice it often entails.

2. The Sea Wolf, by Jack London. I'm not sure I've met anyone as sadistic or amoral as this novel's titular antagonist, Captain Wolf Larsen. But he seems as real as any villain I've encountered. London's mesmerizing story follows literary critic Humphrey van Weyden as he is shipwrecked, then "rescued" by Larsen, a hedonistic, materialistic seal hunter-philosopher-captain, who brutalizes young "Hump" while also drawing him into nightly discussions of ideology and morality. Hands down one of the best books I've read exploring the capacity of humanity to exercise great evil while also showing great kindness. I learned from this book that ideology drives behavior.

3. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. This classic illustrates perfectly via the relationship of two very different sisters the tension between feeling and principle. Do I act with my heart, or should I follow my head? Austen's gift to readers is that we are left to conclude which sister ultimately gets it right.

4. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I owe the shape of my writing life to protagonist Jo March -- the playwright, novelist, bookworm, fiery sister and fiercely loyal friend. She showed me how to love what is good, pursue what enriches and value what lasts. (Also: Thank you, Winona Ryder, for portraying Jo so faithfully and giving me such a good visual picture of what she should look like.)

5. The eight-novel Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery. I can't narrow it down to just the first book because the series is basically one long book, and I love it all. Anne Shirley inspires me for many of the same reasons Jo March does. She's independent, creative and charts her own path in life. But she stays moored in herself and her roots. (The image below is actually the same set I own.)

6. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. This complex, 928-page tome was Dickens' last finished novel, and in my opinion, is his masterpiece. It weaves together the stories of about 20 major and dozens more minor characters as it explores the deceptiveness of wealth and the spectrum of human values and motives. The lead protagonists, John Harmon and Bella Wilfer, embody one of the most difficult and rewarding romances I've read in literature.

7. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson. This book was my introduction to Bryson, a travel writer, language scholar and humorist who combines all three areas of expertise in all of his works I've read so far. This book explores the history of the English language, with all its influences, idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. This book taught me that scholarly work can be fun as well as educational.

8. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This 19th-century novel is about an orphaned waif who grows into womanhood as a governess while falling in love with her employer. Whatever your feelings about Rochester, I love that he loves plain Jane because of her mind, her intellect, her solid character. Jane Eyre challenges me to develop those traits instead of focusing on physical beauty.

9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy + prequel + appendixes, by J.R.R. Tolkien. This one doesn't really need much of an explanation. It's the ultimate adventure/fantasy trilogy, by the master himself. I love being pulled into his world-building. Tolkien inspires me to use writing to create places people want to visit.

10. Americanah, by a new favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Since I don't at this point have the means to travel much, I like to hear of the world through the eyes of authors who come from other places. I heard Adichie, a Nigerian, speak a handful of years ago at the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, and was blown away by her eloquence and power. I immediately bought three of her novels. I've been keeping up with everything she's written since, and I think this one is her best so far. She tells a tale of a young woman who, much like herself, has a stake in three very different worlds: Black Nigeria, Black America and White America. Places that don't understand each other. Places that need to try.

Share your list 

What 10 books have influenced you? Feel free to share here in the comments or over at my Facebook page, Rachel E. Watson.

Up next

I'm planning to steal Kevin Buist's idea and write about the Ten Books I Pretend To Have Read.

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