In my first novel (I just began #3), I have a character say something like, you can know a lot about a person by the books he reads. My character said this because I believe this. Not that everything my characters say are sentiments with which I agree. Except the villains. I agree with everything they say.
Fellow blogger Rebecca published this gem: “What Your Reading Arc Says About You.” Here’s the deal. You get ten books to describe yourself. Not your ten faves. Ten that trace your life. Holy cow. I read her fabulous post and got right to it, scribbling down titles as they came. For every point in my life’s journey, I have at least three stories that impacted the way I see the world. For example, I have four craft books that helped me in different ways (two made the list). Many books on my long list read like walks over hot coals, but they imparted perspective I’m grateful to have. For a book to make the ten, I had to love it as much as it changed me.
After much deliberation, here is my ten-book arc. I’ll leave it to you to decide what it says about me.
- Johnny Tremain (8th grade) My teacher struck fear into all of us. In spite of that and maybe thanks to it (how else do you control a class of 20 thugs), she introduced me to a fictional boy and made me care about him. Because I cared about Johnny Tremain, the Revolutionary War became “real,” and for the first time in my life, I was interested in history.
- Alas, Babylon (11th grade) I don’t know if my teacher had a job the next year because I graduated after 11th grade, but if there’s any justice, she didn’t. I mean, one has to be present to teach, and I can’t say she was present even half the time. This I can say, she knew how to pick books. Alas, Babylon was my first apocalyptic story, and again I had the sense that talking about books was the greatest way a girl could spend her time. In fact, being an English teacher might be the greatest way a girl could spend her time. (And I could do it a heck of a lot better, too, just by showing up.) I later realized creating the story is the best way a girl can spend her time.
- The Stand (college) And here begins my relationship with horror and my fandom of Mr. King. The Stand is your epic good vs. evil in post-apocalyptic America where a plague wipes out most of the population. Had they mandated social distancing, masks, and shutting down the economy, there wouldn’t have been a story… Okay, it would have been a different story. Very depressing. Very frustrating. Wait. I’m living it right now.
- Watership Down (right after #3 because King made it sound incredible in The Stand) It is incredible, btw. An intense story about trust, leadership, and perseverance…entirely about rabbits.
- The Bible (age 27) I know it gets mixed press, but it changed my life. I read it every day.
- The Screwtape Letters (age 30ish) The most creative premise I’ve ever encountered. A book of letters between an uncle and a nephew on how to be successful. Both are demons.
- The Things They Carried (age 44) What combat does to a mind. I want to write like Tim O’Brien. That is all.
- The Lords of Discipline (age 45) I want to write like Pat Conroy, too.
- On Writing (too many ages to count) This is the book writers read again and again because it gives solid craft advice and is a shot of motivation. You can tell a lot about a school by the books the English teachers are “allowed” to assign. Saint Ignatius assigned On Writing to help students write their college essays. Their fabulous English teachers also introduced me to two other faves (numbers 7 & 8). I basically pillaged my son’s high school reading list.
- The Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass (age 47) This book taught me the craft of fiction just when I needed it, at the end of my second novel. An author mentioned she worked through it after every first draft of a manuscript. I intend to do the same. Revision is where the magic happens, and this is the magician’s handbook.
I think it’s worth noting that between numbers six and seven I don’t have any books. That’s fifteen years I was knee-deep in homeschooling four children. Didn’t have a brain cell to spare for books, except the ones I read out loud to them. And even as I type, Tom Sawyer comes to mind. I remember thinking it was the best book. The language bowled me over, and the story made me laugh out loud. Why were we made to read Huck Finn in school when Tom Sawyer was so much better?