Sunday, October 25, 2009

Books that Stuck With Me

I was tagged with the Book List meme on Facebook about three months ago.  I was distracted when it hit, and I DO like thinking about and writing about books, so... better late than never, right?  Right?

Instructions: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.  (I'm not tagging anyone, but all are encouraged to play!  If you publish a list anywhere, please tag me or send me a link so I can see what books are living in my friends' heads.)

1. The Hobbit
2. The Bible
3. Dubliners
4. Snow Crash
5. Crying of Lot 49
6. Moby Dick
7. Design Patterns
8. Hamlet
9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
10. Brave New World
11. Lord of the Flies
12. The Official Book of Ultima
13. Tripod Trilogy
14. Dave Barry Slept Here
15. Choose Your Own Adventure series

Although it isn't listed in the Instructions, I've limited myself to books that I first read at least five years ago; they have already passed the test of time.  Also, I'm sticking literally to the "memorable" requirement: these aren't necessarily the best books, or the most influential on my thinking, or the ones I've enjoyed the most.  They are all books that pop easily into my head to this day.

Brief notes on each:

1. A book that made me passionate about reading, and in a sense paved the way for everything else.  It also awakened a love for fantasy that continues to this day.

2. I know, it's a cliche, but it's also true.  As a child I devoured all the bible stories in Sunday School, and fiercely competed in contests to recall facts or race to look up verses.  (Gotta love the Baptists!)  I remember sitting in the sanctuary and, any time I wasn't tracking with what was going on, I'd quickly flip to Revelation and get lost in the phantasmagoric scenes there.  The book has continued with me as I've grown.  Like a lot of other college kids, I was intrigued and devastated by Ecclesiastes.  These days, I'm most drawn by the Synoptic Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.

3. The first Joyce I read.  I'm tempted to put Ulysses here instead, since its cumulative impact was greater and I'll always vividly remember Circe, Stephen and Bloom's nighttime walk home, the vicious anti-semitic voice in the tavern, stately plump Buck Mulligan, and everything else.  But Dubliners is quiet and filled with moments that I'm still unpacking: the plate of green peas, the election day passion, and above all the heart-dropping end of Araby.

4. Aw yeah!  Stephenson rocks my world, and Snow Crash remains one of the most flat-out kinetic yet mind-bending books I've ever read.  It affects the way I think about technology, about politics, about the future, about pizza delivery, McDonald's, the primal howl of pre-electronic man and the drone of constant information.

5. I love Crying of Lot 49 more each time I return to it.  As I grow older I increasingly appreciate ambiguity, and this book has it in spades.  There's something incredibly compelling about unpacking more and more from a mystery that you know you will never be able to solve.

6. I was pleasantly surprised by how much more exciting this book was than I had expected.  There's a ton of stuff going on in there, and plenty more to unpack.  The reason why it's listed here, though, is primarily from the amazingly vivid scenes that Melville created: above all, the apocalyptic image of monomaniacal Captain Ahab lashing himself to the ship's main mast in the middle of a torrential storm, raging with pure fury against the intractable force of nature.

7. Almost the only non-fiction book on the list.  What can I say - I love novels, and even the best non-fiction books don't burrow as deeply into my brain.  But Design Patterns underlies almost everything I do as a professional developer.  Not only do I use its tools; more importantly, it helped me learn how to think about software development, how to approach problems and find solutions that didn't just fix the problem but were repeatable, generic, communicable, and robust.

8. Shakespeare occupies a huge cumulative space in my brain, and Hamlet remains my favorite of the bunch.

9. This book is considered passe by a lot of folks, but I can't pretend that it didn't have a big impact on me.  It helped me settle on a major, guided me to my university, and changed the way that I think about programming.  The word Quality is overused, but it's still something I feel compelled to strive for.

10. This is my favorite in a dystopic triumvirate that also includes 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.  What's most chilling to me is that, unlike the other two books, there isn't an overt authorial voice telling you how bad the future is.  People in the world treat it matter-of-factly, and I get a little woozy when I think about that life.  Creepiest of all, we're inexorably moving closer and closer to that world.

11. Lord of the Flies may have had the biggest impact on me of any book that I read in junior high.  First, it was filled with vivid imagery that implanted itself in my mind: poor put-upon Piggy, patient silent mystical Simon, the buzzing flies surrounding a dismembered head.  Lord of the Flies also made me start thinking about the basic building blocks of society: who has power, where power comes from, how power is used, the consequences of usurping power.  As such, it kicked off a fascination with politics, both in the abstract and the specific, that remains to this day.

12. My love for the Ultima series was entirely out of proportion to how much of it I had played.  I caught a few brief glimpses of Ultima II at a friend's house while growing up, played Ultima VI at a family friend's house while on a vacation, and years later got a copy of Ultima VI for myself.  (Only later would I play IV, VII, and IX, which in sum would cement my good opinion of the series.) Anyways, what I loved about this book was that it wasn't a strategy guide or something that looked narrowly at the games.  Instead, it described the fascinating process of creating the games, including religious controversy, familial discontent, Richard's astronaut father, selling floppies out of zip-lock bags, and so on.  Even better, in describing his philosophy of game creation, Garriott shares some great advice that I still try to follow.  Most importantly, the first thing to create is the world.  Before you worry about the plot or the characters, create the map.  Once you have a detailed and interesting world, the rest will fall into place, and it will be more varied and interesting as a result.

13. I loved this Scholastic series in elementary school... I haven't read the books in ages, but I still remember the shock when a boy feels his head and finds where a metal disc has been embedded into his skull.  I also appreciate the surprisingly nuanced tone of the series' later entries, which turn away from pure xenophobia and show the workings of the pioneer aliens who have colonized Earth.

14. Dave Barry is probably my favorite humorist, and this is my favorite book of his.  It's incredibly funny.  More surprising, it actually paved the way for learning about actual history much later on... I was surprised to find that his description of the Treaty of Versailles was awfully close to what actually happened.

15. I could have also put Lone Wolf here.  I love games, and I love books, and there was a time when the best thing going was books that were games.  I enjoyed the imagination these books provoked.  They also made me start viewing plots as a series of nodes (scenes) connected by vectors (decisions), which is how I often see even conventional stories.  Choose Your Own Adventure also primed me to love test adventure games, which in turn led me to start programming, which eventually led to the awesome life that I have now.  Hooray for books!

No comments:

Post a Comment