Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

This is a meme going around facebook. I like lists, but I also like annotating lists. I, in fact, have made annotated tracklists for mixtapes/CDs I've given to friends. So, this. Notably, this is in "no particular order". It also considers that I have been a "reader" since I learned to read. Ostensibly, this list should be much longer & books that have stayed with me have been edited from here. "Stayed with me" is sort of a hard designation. There are books I love, books I consider my "favorites" that aren't on this list. This is because sometimes I read something and love it, but the plot/characters/etc. go out the window when I think back on it. Often I can tell you why I know I love the book, but not much else about my own personal relationship with it. Does that mean it has "stayed with" me? Not so much as the books on this list, which I can relate facts about AND tell you why I loved it. I tried to avoid books that stick with me because I teach them again and again unless one of the reasons I teach them is because they had already stayed with me. So, these are the ten books that have stuck with me "the most", if such a statement is possible.

Without further ado...

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

1- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My education dictated again and again that I read this book, and every time I read it, I fell a little more in love with it. When I read it in high school, it did not mean as much to me as it did in undergraduate, and then teaching it to my gen-ed lit students after having read it again in graduate school was another step up on how important I feel this book is. It's such a classic that I can't really say much about it that hasn't been already said, but there's one part of this book that will always make me cry/get emotional. If it ever doesn't, I will feel as though I have lost something.

2- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
This book made me believe in modern fiction. Perhaps I wasn't giving it a fair chance before I read and loved this book, which was also before I became such a large supporter of the current literary scene and small press titles. Smith's book isn't a small press title, nor is it bizarre or absurd like many other modern works of fiction I have come to love. But I love this book for its fair representation of fictional Boston academia that it presents. I love the blend of high and pop culture that the book enlists to help tell its story. And I love her characters-- they are beautifully written, and I remember feeling a true sense of loss after first reading this book, like I no longer could hang out and learn about the lives of these people that I had gotten to know so well.

3- The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Suess
I think I took this book out of the library more times than any other book in elementary school. It has always stayed with me-- the plot, the illustrations, the craziness of the hats getting wilder and wilder, poor Bartholomew, who followed the rules and was nearly punished for something entirely out of his control, and perhaps most of all the absurdity of it. Suess books were generally set in strange unfamiliar worlds, wherein this book felt familiar yet bizarre rather that completely otherworldly.

4- Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
This book KICKED. MY. ASS. I had trouble at first getting into it because of the genius way that Kesey switches between perspectives and his interesting/unique use of italics, but once I got rolling, I couldn't stop. This book devoured me. This book broke my heart and then broke it again and then broke it again and then healed it back up only to break it again. I finished it sitting on the floor during an exam my grammar students were taking, and it took everything in me, every cell in my body, every neuron in my brain, not to stamp my feet and noisily emote as I went through its last pages. The book ends like when you are hyper and you can't stop being hyper and just when you think you are going to crash you just can't stop and then suddenly you are underneath a kitchen table in a house that isn't yours because you can't even take it, anything, you can't take anything. To me, his book rivals Huck Finn for "Great American Novel". A friend of mine recommended it, and even though I had difficulty getting into it at first, I persevered and have never been happier to have trusted a recommendation as I was when this book kicked my ass.

5- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
I was going to try to find a way to say the whole series, but the list dictates "book". Of all the HP series books, this was the one that made me realize that these books were special. When I have reread the series in the past, I have often skipped the first two. They are children's books, written for those of the early YA age. However, this third book in the series really steps up the game. While the movie is one of my favorites, the complexities that it leaves out that do exist in the book are important to the series as a whole. This book opens up the series to be something darker than it had started as. While I won't say that this is my "favorite" book in the series (I think my favorite is Half-Blood Prince), I feel like my eyebrows raised in an "oh. OKAY then. Alriight, Rowling" way more in this book. I had come to expect that of her by Book 6, but this one is where it all began. It only improved from here.

6- On Grief and Reason by Joseph Brodsky
As a poet, maybes it's strange that I don't have any books of poetry on here, but there's a reason. Generally, a BOOK of poetry does not stay with me as well as individual poems do. If I were asked to make a list of Ten Poems That Have Stayed With Me, I definitely could. Perhaps I will do that on a future date. But this book of essays by Nobel-prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky has stayed with me since I read it. I return to these essays again and again, sometimes rereading one in particular, sometimes browsing it to reread my underlinings and marginalia. I have, on various occasions, retold anecdotes and quotes from this book. Brodsky has a true relationship with language, evident not just in his poetry, but also in his essays, which often though not always discuss poetry.

7- As You Like It by William Shakespeare
I am not the biggest fan of plays, generally. I teach (and love to teach) Beckett each semester to my lit students, and I love teaching that play somehow. But one semester, in addition to Waiting for Godot, I decided to teach "my favorite Shakespeare". Upon rereading this book, I wasn't surprised at how much of it I retained from reading it senior year of high school-- I played Rosalind in a group project for English class, so it made sense that I recalled many of my lines and the plot overall. What did surprise me, however, was how hilarious the book really was. Yes, there's cross-dressing, which leads to false/mistaken identities, which tend to be humorous, but even on a sentence-level, this book is quite funny. I was extremely glad I revisited it. I think it will always be my favorite Shakespeare and because of my memorization of its lines and plot, it will always stay with me.

8- Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
I remember sitting at the info desk while the guy who normally worked there was on break when I worked at Strand and picking this book up off of the counter in front of me while I waited for customers to ask me questions. I remember reading the first ten pages or so of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and literally laughing out loud at how great Salinger's prose is, how well he paints a scene, and how much meaning he can pack into a sentence-- gestures, thoughts, dialogue, etc. When I teach stories from this book, I lead my students towards the underlying anti-war message that perforates this text. When I tell people this, they often say, "I didn't really read it that way." I don't think I did the first time, either, and perhaps when I read these immaculate stories again, I will find something else in them.  This is part of that I love about them-- the endless yet relevant interpretations that can come from them. I will continue to read and teach this book throughout my lifetime, and I bet I will find more and more within the lines. My students, at the end of the semester, when I ask them what they liked most, so often they say "Perfect Day for Bananafish"-- which is the first thing I have them read a lot of the times. Franny and Zooey was always my favorite Salinger book because it got me through a really rough patch of my senior year in high school. But Nine Stories is superior and lasted longer for me, elevating Salinger from someone who helped me when I needed him to a storyteller whose prose is worth teaching and returning to.

9- The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I used to tell people this was my favorite book. We read it for summer reading the summer before my sophomore year of high school. I remember being intimidated by its length, but White's versions of the Arthur stories have stuck with mer perhaps more than Disney's The Sword & the Stone. There are quotes from this book that are still powerful and important to me today, and that I recognized their impact at such a young age and kept the ideas within the book inside me since reading it, and only reading it once, speak to its power. This is one on this list I could afford to reread, as I have only read it once and it captivated me so. In my poetry, I often return to the mythologies that this book tells so well.

10- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
This is one of the two books on this list that I have only read once. A part of a book "sticking with" me appears to be that it was so good, I went back to it for one reason or another, sometimes not by choice but because a class I took asked me to. I had read Woolf before I read Mrs. Dalloway, but this was the first time I loved her. Reading this book helped me, I think, to understand what Woolf was trying to do with her stream of consciousness writing. It made me appreciate To the Lighthouse more when I reread it and also gave me room to better understand and enjoy Between the Acts. This was another book I couldn't put down, each page begging the next. I wrote a poem that references this line. It's one of those poems that you write & you yourself as a poet appreciate and love but in and of itself, the poem is not my best work. I think this helps strengthen my connection with this book. I was sad when I was reading this book, I was in a sad place in my life, and this book-- and that poem-- helped.

Runners Up:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine

Closing Thoughts on this: I think this is something I should do every ten years. Let's see if I remember in 2023. I will TAG "2023" in the labels. There is a chance that may help me remember.


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