Ten most influential books in my life

I like the random lists that float around on FaceBook.  The problem is they’re just lists and so you don’t really know much more about why or their impact.  I’m all about context, so I decided not to do my book list on my FaceBook page, instead I’ll share it here with you. So these are the books I’ve read over the years that have had a big influence on me.

I went through two paperback copies of the Lord of the Rings until Lorri bought me the red leather volume for our first Christmas.

I went through two paperback copies of the Lord of the Rings until Lorri bought me the red leather volume for our first Christmas.

1. JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings–I read this for the first time when I was 13, in the eighth grade.  I’ve worn out two paper back editions of the book, and I would guess I’ve read it at least 25 times.  It is such a marvelous construction of knowledge and imagination.  I used to read the appendices for hours on end.  It is my goal to host a game based on the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in 15mm before it’s all over, and I have a 15mm Rohan army.

I've had this book since before I could drink legally.

I’ve had this book since before I could drink legally.

2.  John Keegan: The Face of Battle. I remember when this book came out in 1976.  It was exciting because in the middle 70’s military history was suffering from neglect–it simply wasn’t politically correct. Keegan, a Briton, tried to bring some seriousness to the genre by offering this book, a formal, scholarly means of analyzing battle.  Though the entire book is interesting in its discussion of battle and offering a means of serious analysis, it is the first example battle, Agincourt that caught my attention.  Whenever I want to try to get my arms around what a set of game rules might look like for the Hundred Years War, I pull out my well-worn copy of Face of Battle and take a look again.

I have two copies of TKAM.  One is a hardcover keepsake, the other is a paperback scrawled with my notes.

I have two copies of TKAM. One is a hardcover keepsake, the other is a paperback scrawled with my notes.

3.  Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird.  Before I began teaching this novel to high school students I read this book almost every year for ten years. I believe Atticus Finch may be the most admirable figure in literature.  He risks his reputation among his friends, neighbors and family to do the right thing.  Lee is so good at walking us through Finch’s reasoning and thought process for why he takes Tom Robinson’s case though he knows the consequences will be severe, and that  it will have unforeseeable consequences for his children.  It is a beautifully written story, told through the eyes of a child.  Absolutely one of my favorite books.

Five Seasons is written with wit and a joyful embrace of the best sport there is.

Five Seasons is written with wit and a joyful embrace of the best sport there is.

4. Roger Angell: Five Seasons.  Baseball is superior to every other sport for many reasons.  But one of them is because of the fabulous literature that’s grown up around the game, from great columns by Red Smith, to short stories by Ring Lardner, to snapshots of the season by Roger Angell.  Five Seasons covers the 1971-75 seasons, and Angell tells it with grace, charm and wit.  He always has an interesting perspective on what is important.  If you’ve never read his account of the 1975 World Series and descriptions of Luis Tiant’s various deliveries, you’re missing out.  It is laugh out loud hilarious.  If you are looking for wonderful sports writing, accept no substitutes.  I’m pleased to see Angell was awarded the J.G. Spink Award last week.  At the age of 93, it is a thrill to see him take his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame while still living.

There is a part of me who wishes I could sit both my sons down and read them this book.  Even though they're both in their 30's.

There is a part of me who wishes I could sit both my sons down and read them this book. Even though they’re both in their 30’s.

5. Roald Dahl: Danny, Champion of the World.  There is one thing I really miss about teaching elementary school and that is reading children’s literature aloud to kids.  Kids have it so much better in the reading department than I did 50 years ago, because the available stories are soooo much better.  J.K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer, Cornelia Funke and many more write such great stories that kids can often relate to.  However my favorite story was written by the late Roald Dahl.  Danny’s story is about a relationship between father and son, built on love and mutual respect.   It was often a book that would leave me close tears, not because it was sad, it wasn’t, but it was the way I hoped my own sons could see me, and certainly how I saw them.  Danny Champion of the World is a book every father of sons and every son should read.

Tuchman was a great narrative historian, and this is a complicated bit of storytelling.  I still revisit it occasionally.

Tuchman was a great narrative historian, and this is a complicated bit of storytelling. I still like to revisit it.

6.  Barbara Tuchman: A Distant Mirror. The subtitle to this book is “The Calamitous 14th Century”  This is not Tuchman’s most remembered book, but she does such a wonderful job of providing a, mostly, social history of the 14th century of the most important country in Europe, France. France was torn by the Hundred Years War, religious schism, the Black Plague, and civil war over this period, that there is fertile ground for examination. Together with Keegan’s account of Agincourt, it catapulted me into a lifelong fascination with The Hundred Years War.  While the battles hooked me, there is so much more to the period.  I bought this book in 1978.  I can’t believe it was that long ago.

Most of what you need to know about the 1920's is in this book.

Most of what you need to know about the 1920’s is in this book.

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby.  I read Gatsby for the first time the summer before I began teaching at Emerald Ridge.  I was immediately captured by the characters and this story of insiders and outsiders, of secrecy and love, of what is true and what is illusion. I’ve taught it to two classes a year, for seven years and I always look forward to it.  I actually saw the Redford version of the movie when I was a freshman in college.  I saw the DiCaprio version last year.  I like the newer version better, though they race through the last two and half chapters of the story.   I’ll be reading Gatsby again with my classes right after the Christmas holidays.

Reading this book was a little like losing my virginity to historical revision.  Not an easy read, but some important ideas.

Reading this book was a little like losing my virginity to historical revision. Not an easy read, but some important ideas.

8. Laurie Winn Carlson: Seduced By the West.  Nobody knows this book. But that isn’t why it’s on my list.  I read Carlson’s book in the midst of my Lewis and Clark library building.  It offers a revisionist look inside the early days of America’s western expansion.  Carlson suggests that Lewis and Clark were bait for a Spanish attack, thus provoking a war with Spain along their vast, undermanned frontier.  It was my first knowledge of the Spanish efforts to intercept Lewis and Clark, and my introduction to the friction between the United States and our revolutionary ally.  I’ve tried to learn more about this, but Carlson really inspired my interest in the topic as a wargamer.  Since then I’ve assembled a massive miniature wargaming project based on a frontier war between the United States and Spain, as well as a miniatures engagement between Lewis and Clark and Spanish frontier forces.

I don't know if I think of any more readable writer of history than Bruce Catton.  Just like he telling stories from his rocking chair.

I don’t know if I think of any more readable writer of history than Bruce Catton. Just like he’s telling stories from his rocking chair.

9. Bruce Catton: The Army of the Potomac trilogy.  Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road, and A Stillness at Appomattox are the names of the three books that were published for the Civil War Centennial in the early sixties.  Catton hooked my with the simplicity of his narrative and the brilliance of his description.  It was probably the first adult non-fiction I read cover to cover, and then cover to cover again.  Though I’ve accumulated far more books on the American Civil War than I can safely house in my limited library space, there will always be room for Catton, and I will always take it off the shelf to read the account of John Sedgewick’s division at Antietam, and the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg.

Stephen Ambrose really knew his stuff.  He also hooked me on Lewis and Clark for a lifetime.

Stephen Ambrose really knew his stuff. He also hooked me on Lewis and Clark for a lifetime.

10. Stephen Ambrose: Undaunted Courage.  I read Undaunted Courage shortly after it was published in 1996.  I was still teaching Washington State History in Seattle to 8th graders and the book changed my life.  Though Ambrose’s approach to the Lewis and Clark Expedition was pretty traditional, he did a great job of telling the story and inspired me to learn it fully, discover who the players were, and more importantly reach out and read less traditional, revisionist accounts of the Corps of Discovery as well as other military expeditions into the west.  I still love this book.  I still love Ken Burns little documentary on the Corps of Discovery, mostly based on Ambrose’s work.  I’ll never forget when I was teaching elementary school in the last year of the bicentennial and the staff was looking for a “book club” suggestion and I offered this, they didn’t care for the 500 page length.  I hardly thought about the length at all.  Sort of like taking a BMW 700 class on a road trip.  It’s so good who cares how far it is. For the better part of a decade Ambrose inspired me to embrace the Corps of Discovery and the mountains of new history that came out, or was re-visited for the bicentennial.  From Donald Jackson to Gary Moulton, from James Ronda to David Nicandri, I have a Lewis and Clark library worthy of a small college that began with Undaunted Courage.

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