Every now and then, I appreciate a good Internet meme. My friend and former boss tagged me to name ten books that have had a meaningful influence on me. I’ve presented my ten below, in no particular order. I have a terrible memory for exercises like this one, and I’m certain I’ve forgotten some very important or influential books. I’m also a little ashamed that my list is so damn white and so damn male. Out of ten authors, nine are white dudes. Poor Cacilda Jetha is the only one to check any boxes on the diversity chart. I even managed to work in an outspoken homophobe. Jeez.
Partly I can blame that on the fact that many of these come from my childhood or adolescence, when women and writers of color received less prominence, but mostly it’s a reflection on my reading habits.
I was tempted to massage this list a little bit, dropping in One Hundred Years of Solitude or Wild Seed to make myself look more inclusive, but decided to go with the ugly truth. I never finished the Marquez in its entirety, and while Octavia Butler is a genius and her book was terrific, it just doesn’t have the same long-standing influence on me that these ten do. The ugly truth is that, while I join the calls for more diversity in fiction, the books that shaped me most were by white dudes. But I’m working on changing that.
1. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton 1990
This book will always be dear to me, because it’s the book that made me want to write novels. It came to our house via book club, and sat on the shelf for a few weeks before that Tyrannosaurus silhouette wooed me into opening the pages. If you’ve only seen the film and never read the book, you’re missing out on the complex, nuanced plot that first inspired me to try it myself.
2. Small Pig, Arnold Lobell 1969
The book that taught me to read. I made my parents read it to me over and over again, even after I’d memorized it all so I could recite it along with them. To this day, mentioning “Small Pig” will get an eye roll from Mom and Dad.
3. A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, Howard Zinn 1980 (updated 2005)
My mother bought this as a gift for me, and told me she stood in the bookstore crying when she decided to read the first few pages. Right from the opening, this book will wake you up to the way the popular version of American history is distorted, revised, and fabricated. I won’t put this forward as the definitive solution, but it’s a damn good place to start.
4. Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá 2010
You might call this the “People’s History” of human sexuality: An exhaustive review of archaeology, sociology, anatomy, anthropology, and zoology intended to identify the unbiased origins of human sexual behavior. If you, like most people, believe men are promiscuous hunter-providers, while women are selective nurturers, or that humans are biologically inclined toward monogamy, you need to read this book. I promise no less than five revelations that will blow your mind.
5. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card 1990
Back before he was making online declarations about the inferiority of homosexuals or serving on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, Orson Scott Card was an author I respected, author of some of the first “grown-up books” I ever really enjoyed. I read this book cover-to-cover no less than a dozen times, and while its advice is grossly outdated today (please do not run out and buy a copy of the Writers Market!) my copy even bears an inscription I got at one of Mr. Card’s book signings: “To a Fellow Taleswapper.”
6. Dune, Frank Herbert 1965
Despite its shortcomings, Dune remains one of the best speculative fiction novels ever written, and I forget how much it influences my own writing until I pick it up for re-reading. The seamless blend of politics, religion, ecology, and action showed what great world-building could look like, and what science fiction could tell us about our present-day world.
7. Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond 1997
While many of its then-controversial assertions have now been integrated into popular understanding, Diamond’s seminal book remains an eye-opening review of human development, and the influences that shaped various cultures. If you’re still a subscriber to the “Great Man” model of history, you probably haven’t read Jared Diamond yet.
8. Treasury of Literature for Children, Exeter Books 1985
Another highly personal choice. My belief in the importance of reading for kids no doubt comes from the strong influence I still feel from books I read when I was young. This volume, with brilliantly illustrated versions of a number of classic stories, kept me entranced for much of my late childhood and early teens. I can’t decide whether it influenced me more as a writer or an artist.
9. The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling 1894
Yes, Kipling was an Orientalizing colonialist oppressor, but this book is still brilliant. My grandfather had an early edition, and I have read it through more times than I can count. Kipling’s depiction of the various animal societies and their unique poetry, from the proud martial hunters of the Seeonee Wolf Pack to the Bandar-Log monkeys and their dedication to chaos, feels like an early form of the fantasy tropes Tolkein would establish half a century later.
10. Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein 1974
A celebration of pure creativity is just what every child needs, even at its silliest. I’ve told this story before, but a vinyl LP of Uncle Shelby reading his own poems frequently accompanied my family home from the library. I vaguely remember dancing around the room with my brother and maybe my sister, but I vividly remember the poems and illustrations, and to this day I can recite several of these poems with Silverstein’s precise intonation.