ten books

One of the current things spidering its way over the social networks is what I assume is meant to be a quick challenge to name your 10 favorite books or similar. I read entries by a few friends but avoided commenting on any of them because I knew I’d lose a few hours if someone asked me for my list.

It’s no secret that I like books. My wife and I own entirely too many of them – probably 1/3 of the weight involved in our last move was made up of books or book-like-objects (this is down from over 1/2 back before we had children or much furniture). We’re actually on a slow campaign in my family to reduce the physical mass of books in the house. So now we only have a half dozen bookshelves and a really long list of digital books 😛

After my sister got tapped for the challenge and only passed it on to my wife and one of my brothers, I thought I had avoided this round of the asynchronous party game that is Facebook. Little did I notice that she also tapped my mother – who promptly turned around and grabbed the rest of us. Pretty sneaky, Sis.

You see, when I was a kid, I didn’t earn a traditional allowance. There was no regularly scheduled pocket money, and chores were simply mandatory. At a very young age, my parents decided to pay me for reading books. At first, it was 1 cent per page of completed book.

One day, when I was 6 or 7 years old and was stuck home sick from school, I earned $17 with the help of The Berenstain Bears, Dr. Seuss, and some other image-heavy books.

A year or two later, the formula changed and I started earning a flat $1 per book regardless of length since I had stopped reading anything under 100 pages anyway. Into my early teens, I spent most of my book money on more books. It was a vicious cycle. I’m not sure when I stopped invoicing my parents for my reading habits – probably about the time I started looking for an actual part time job? *shrug*

So. It is with full knowledge of this situation (having seen the moving trucks and remembering the bribery) that my dear sweet Mommy has asked me to choose ten books to share. Challenge accepted. I shall share 10 books… plus a few. But I certainly won’t mention Bill Watterson and how I carried the final Calvin and Hobbes comic in my wallet for at least a decade after it printed.

In approximately chronological order, here is a list of 10 “books” that changed the way I think – the way I imagine.

1) The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

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This was probably the first fantasy series that I -really- got into, and I probably read book 4 a dozen or more times before my 11th birthday. It also got me interested in languages in a general sense – there was enough Welsh in the books that I just HAD to figure out how on earth to pronounce everything. This eventually led to my fascination with alphabets that I can maybe eventually blame for my having studied Japanese in college…

These books were also a bonding experience with my father. We read them together for the first time and still talked about them years later.

2) The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

One long pun. The entire book is a cascade of wordplay that is probably to blame in great part for my love of words and what happens when you bang them together in unexpected ways. It’s similar to Roald Dahl or a more modern Lewis Carroll and I certainly read all of these books together – but the Phantom Tollbooth is the one that I really remember (and can still locate a copy of).

3) Discworld, by Sir Terry Pratchett

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All 40 something books wherein the author manages to squeeze absurdity, high fantasy, social commentary, and honest to goodness fun into a largely coherent package. The first couple of books were rough going, and things are starting to fade now – but the majority of the run is just a blast, and I can’t think about fantasy without looking at it through octarine lenses.

I read The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic when I was probably 10 years old. I promptly forgot them until I rediscovered Discworld with the help of the MUD when I was in my late teens. I eventually took to naming all of my computers after Discworld characters and have declared the series off limits when it comes to purging shelf space. My favorite Discworld books are probably Small Gods, The Truth (which I once read in its entirety on an airplane), Guards! Guards!, Mort, and The Wee Free Men in no particular order.

4) The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan

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I have a love/hate relationship with WoT. I’ve started and restarted and restarted it. All told, I’ve probably read the first 5 volumes about 4-6 times each, and the rest of the series 1-3 times each.

And then I discovered audiobooks. The production was amazing. I enjoyed listening to old books on tape when I was a kid – that’s how I finished The Odyssey and a number of other classics for the first time. But this was different. It was a production, not just a reading. And I listened on my commute. Suddenly 30 minutes in the car wasn’t wasted – it was 1/60th of a WoT book 🙂 I could get through one every month and a half.

And then Sanderson got tapped to finish the series… which was just about the best thing that could have happened short of Robert Jordan’s lost but finished and already edited manuscripts surfacing.

I’ve since listened to the entirety of WoT at least twice. There’s something about hard magic systems that really sticks with me, and eventually, I started to see the pattern. I’ll probably listen to it all again next year.

5) Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

This is partially the fault of my teenage brain’s attachment to Broadway which was fierce, but more the result of more than one sermon I’ve heard or read. I’ve personally taught lessons using stories from Les Mis, and one of my lifelong goals is to find the time to sit down and actually put some of them into writing myself. If you throw out the historical filler and gossip sheets, ignore the love story, and stop humming tunes from the play… it reads like a series of parables.

6) Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein

My post-TAMS brain was seriously messed up. What better way to deal with all of the changes than with some gateway 60’s scifi about challenging social norms and questioning the nature of thought and perception? Then I washed it down by finally reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I think I have to blame on my 6th-grade homeroom teacher.

7) The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo

As many of you know, I majored in depression in college with a focus in Japanese literature. Of all of the heartbreaking things I read about the atrocities of WWII, this is the one that sticks with me the most.

8) Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

What else is there to say? It’s Harry Potter. Probably the best children’s fantasy epic that isn’t written for children. It’s the story that convinced publishers that kids could and would read books more than half an inch thick. I can’t think of anything else so popular that has sneakily taught so many lessons. History may well prove that Harry Potter’s eventual cultural significance outweighs that of… something else already established to be very significant.

9) Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson

This was my first Sanderson. Apart from preparing me for Mistborn and eventually The Stormlight Archive, Elantris reintroduced me to the concept of hard magic that I had forgotten (since WoT was on seemingly permanent hiatus at the time). It also led me to formulate some distinct opinions on narrative order and the use of multiple viewpoint characters. Also, cosmere hooks… oh my the cosmere hooks.

10) Fly By Night, by Frances Hardinge

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I picked this up out of desperation in an airport bookstore and absolutely devoured it. It hearkens back to my love of the idea that words are magic. Also, one of the main characters is a psychotic goose. It feels like something that could have come out of a collaboration between Gaiman and Rowling. Definitely something I want to introduce my daughter to when she’s just a bit older. I’m aware that Hardinge has since written an apparently worthy sequel, but I’ve never managed to get my hands on it 🙁

And this is officially WAY too long now. I had intended to go into more detail on a few more books, but it’s getting late. But speaking of Neil Gaiman, I’m ashamed that I couldn’t settle on one of his books. I guess he’ll have to settle on my having coincidentally appropriated his name for my son. Also, maybe The Sandman was completely awesome? I’m especially partial to volume 8. Also his children’s books are amazing. Thank you, sir, for believing that children’s books don’t need to be dumbed down. And speaking of word magic, I would like to thank whoever put a chapter of Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea in one of my elementary school textbooks, which of course reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series for some reason.

Honorable mentions go to my love of postapocalpytia and cyber/biopunk, even if they do require a blanket content warning: The Windup Girl, Pump Six, and Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi; Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Anathem, by Neal Stephenson; The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F. Hamilton; and of course Neuromancer by William Gibson.

Ok, I’m done now.

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