Personally Defining Books

Last month was crazy busy, as you might have guessed from the lack of posts! I’m back now, though, with an interesting bookish topic for you.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to the Bookrageous podcast’s 3rd Anniversary episode. For every anniversary show so far, they’ve taken listener questions via social media and email and then answered them on the show. One of the questions asked each of the hosts to list their three most personally defining books. Now, that was an interesting question. Not their three favorite books, or the three books they re-read most, or their three desert island books, but three books that they feel personally define them as readers and, perhaps, as people. Of course, I immediately started making my own mental list. After much debate (with myself, because I’m TOTALLY SANE, people), here’s what I came up with:

  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This is the first book I remember being totally obssessed with. I checked it out of the library over and over and over until my Grandma found an old copy lurking somewhere in her house and told me I could have it. I read it multiple times a year, and then yearly once my reading life expanded, for a long time. I think I have seen every movie adaptation (Katharine Hepburn as Jo is the best, obvs). I haven’t read it in a number of years, but it absolutely my first grown-up book love. What is it about that story that speaks to me? Maybe because it’s got a little of everything – close family ties, strong women, romance, heartbreak, tragedy, gossip, in-fighting, poverty, decadence. Maybe because I’ve always been a little drawn to melodrama, and maybe because Beth was the sister I identified with most, but I wanted to identify with Jo. That last part might be it, actually – I have shaped my personality and life path to the greatest extent I have control over in an effort to become a person with the best characteristics of both Beth and Jo – loving and nurturing, but not a doormat; sweet-tempered but also feisty and passionate; lover of music and of books. If that’s not personally defining, I don’t know what is.
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. This is the first book that totally blew my mind open. We read it in 10th grade in English class and I was not articulate enough at the time to explain it, but I felt awed and privileged to be assigned such an amazing book to read for a school assignment. It ignited the burning love I have for Southern literature – all strange and gothic and batshit crazy with a soft, sweet side. It reminded me of the feeling I associate with the word “home” – small town, close-knit, loving but also back-stabbing, odd, and fascinating. The first time I had to write a curriculum unit for a class assignment (while in college to become a high school English teacher), this book is the subject I chose. It is the book I associate over and over with any writing about the American South, the standard to which I compare all Southern literature. I came to love Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams and Harper Lee and my contemporary favorite, Joshilyn Jackson, by measuring them against this book and finding them worthy of comparison.
  • Macbeth by William Shakespeare. My first Shakespeare, from when I was about middle-school-aged. My town’s Girl Scouts got all of the troops together to throw a Renaissance faire, complete with costumes and games and performances. Some troops performed scenes from Shakespeare, and I was a witch in a scene from Macbeth. Yes, one of the “double double, toil and trouble” witches. I still remember most of my lines. I remember looking up what some of the words meant, because they were so odd but so interesting and fun to say. After that, I read the whole play on my own. Then I read Romeo and Juliet. Then A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then Hamlet. I felt really smart, sure, but I also loved the stories. I think that initial exposure is what started both my love of theater and my path toward being an English major.

And because I can’t make decisions without second-guessing myself, here are my runners-up:

  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
  • Every single book ever by L. M. Montgomery, especially the Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

How about you? How would you answer the question “What three books are the most personally defining for you?”


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