Staff picks: five most influential books
Titles that last
We’re in the dog days of summer now, limping along from one air conditioned haven to another, trying to escape the humidity and heat, or dashing onto a porch to escape a sudden summer shower. But if August seems like a bit of a slog, here’s something to brighten it up: It’s the perfect time to get in the last of your summer reading and get ready for new fall book releases.
It’s also a good time to while away the hours revisiting some of your old favorites, which is what the Chronicle staff did when we each sat down to come up with a list of five books that have influenced us the most. Have a list of your own? Share it with us: email@example.com.
Adam Reinherz, Staff Writer
1. “Paradise Lost,” John Milton. At each read I marvel at Milton’s language and buildout of biblical narrative. Throughout my life nothing else has captivated my interest and so defeated me, while inspiring a belief that although interpretations are restricted by certain “adamantine chains” the battle for understanding is epic.
2. “On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,” William Zinsser. After submitting certain pieces I’ll feel as though I’m progressing. I then read this and remember how much I should have rewritten.
3. “52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas,” Robert McG. Thomas Jr. Try reducing someone’s life (meaningfully) to 800 words in print. Thomas can. His puns, clear prose and employment of perfect anecdotes render each entry an unmatched work of art.
4. “Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom, and the Common Good,” George Anastaplo. The late author was my teacher. In many ways he taught me how to read. Reviewing his work lets me hear his voice again.
5. “Daniels’ Running Formula: Third Edition,” Jack Daniels. I read this in bed, in the bathroom and everywhere in between. Daniels is a genius. Thanks for making me faster.
David Rullo, Staff Writer
1. “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s most famous poetry collection is filled with verses and lines of varying length. He often spoke of the Greek influence on the rhythm but there’s a strong sense of the type of chants heard in Hebrew prayers as well.
2. “Life After God,” Douglas Coupland. Where does a generation find meaning when it no longer believes in God? Coupland sought to answer the question through these short stories.
3. “Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald. A romantic tale of the Lost Generation told in most tragic terms.
4. “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac. The quintessential American road novel.
5. “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl. The drive for purpose and meaning, even in the most horrid of spaces.
Liz Spikol, Acting Editor-in-Chief
1. “The Idiot,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read this at a dark time in my life, when I was dealing with an illness that prevented me from engaging in everyday life. The book’s protagonist has epilepsy, and is an outcast in Russian society. I related to his alienation and took comfort in his company as we both made our way through worlds that were hostile to us. Books are good friends.
2. “The Genius of Birds,” Jennifer Ackerman. Isn’t is strange how you can see something your whole life and never really see it? I liked birds before I read this book, but learning about their brains, their cognition, their similarities to humans completely altered the way I interact with the world. Now, even a short walk from the office to the train station is filled with wonder, as I watch sparrows living out their tiny, fascinating, largely unexamined lives as we graceless humans clomp on by.
3. “The Soul of an Octopus,” Sy Montgomery. If I’d never thought much about birds, I’d probably thought less about octopus. It turns out, they are remarkable creatures whose consciousness is so complex, they’re more like ultra-sophisticated aliens rather than fellow animals. “Soul” made me realize how much we don’t know about animals — and heavily influenced my decision to become a vegetarian.
4. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Phillip Roth. At the time I read this (too young, surely), there weren’t many Jewish people on TV or in popular culture. So what a kick to see the East Coast, vulgar, profane, hilarious, intellectual, deeply feeling, fully Jewish human beings from my own life represented in a book! Portnoy’s also honed my instinct to be authentically myself, warts and all, in my own writing.
5. “Orientalism,” Edward Said. I know, I know — Said was controversial, to say the least. But when I went to grad school to study translation theory in the ’90s, the postcolonial curriculum owed everything to his positioning of the West vs. the Other in this book. His thinking helped reshape the academy’s approach to black and brown cultures ages before you could take online quizzes about implicit bias. For me, Said provided a new way of understanding my place in the world — a consciousness I carry even now.
Toby Tabachnick, Senior Staff Writer
1. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Alice Through the Looking Glass,” Lewis Carroll. I wrote my college thesis on these works, spending more than a year scrutinizing each passage, as well as the often bizarre journals of Charles Dodgson.
2. “The Edible Woman,” Margaret Atwood. This was Atwood’s first novel, and my introduction to the writer who would become my lifelong favorite. Atwood describes the work as proto-feminist, as it was written in 1965, anticipating second wave feminism.
3. “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott. Invaluable suggestions and advice on how to write well and what it means to be a writer.
4. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee. I first read this book in seventh grade, and have revisited it many times since then. It’s the perfect example of how to make a difference in the world through fiction.
5. “The History of Love,” Nicole Krauss. A brilliantly woven plot about love and mortality, the Holocaust, literature, betrayal, forgiveness. As soon as I finished it, I started it again. PJC