It was hard narrowing this list down to thirteen. I wanted to choose books that had influenced me throughout my life. I’m sure there are many I’ve left out simply because of my faulty memory. Many of these books might be familiar to you. Some not, but they’ve all left a lasting impression on me.
1. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Everybody is familiar with this beautiful story. I’ve read it often, and every time, I look forward to the Little Prince saying: “S’il vous plaît… dessine-moi un mouton !” (If you please — draw me a sheep!). The book is filled with gems such as “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (One sees well only with the heart; what is essential is invisible to the eye) and so many others. This little book helps us all get in touch with our innocent, childlike nature and is well worth reading time and again.
2. Mister God, This is Anna, “Fynn”
Another beautiful story set in East-End London in the 30’s, about a working-class young man who meets five year-old Anna, a grave and very determined little girl. She eventually informs him she has run away from home and has no intention of returning there so he brings her back home to stay with him and his mother, and a beautiful friendship develops over time as they discover the world together. Anna is a brilliant and likeable child who has her very own connection to God (whom she calls “Mr. God”) a natural aptitude for math and science, and an insatiable curiosity to understand how the world works. A story which is well-worth reading at any age. Written by an anonymous author only known as “Fynn”.
3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoi
Apparently, Tolstoy considered this book his first true novel. I last read this book when I was 12, and a few of the details escape me, but it has made a lasting impression. There is of course the story of Anna, a Russian woman of high standing, who falls in love with Count Vronsky and brings scandal on herself by leaving her husband to be with her lover. He in turn quickly loses interest in her, which eventually prompts her to kill herself. “Anna Karenina is often interpreted overall as a parable on the difficulty of being honest to oneself when the rest of society accepts falseness” (Wikipedia) I had understood that much as a child, and I look forward to reading it again now that I’ve had my share of experiences with life and love.
4. Nana, Émile Zola
This story details the rise and fall of Nana, the last book in the line of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. In his previous book, Zola introduced Nana, depicting her abusive and alcoholic father who drives her to go live on the streets as a prostitute. In the book Nana, we are re-introduced to Nana as she is making a name for herself at the variety theater. Zola describes her rise as she attracts the rich and powerful men of high society and becomes one of Paris’s most prominent “cocottes”, thus acquiring great wealth and fame. She is amused by the sight of great men begging for her affections and losing their reputations over her. Her decline is inevitable, and one senses that Zola takes at least as great a pleasure in showing her descent into decrepitude as he did describing the splendor she enjoyed. A very good description of a side of Paris in the 19th century which no one could depict as vividly as Zola, every bit the naturalist, could have done.
5. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Another classic of litterature, known as being a semi-autobiographical piece chronicling Plath’s mental deterioration. It’s a well known fact that she killed herself only one month after the book was published, and though I was scared that I’d “catch” whatever she had by reading her book, it was the first time I read something which echoed those parts of me that it didn’t dare speak of, feating they might become true.
6. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
What I remember most about McCullers is the oddball cast of characters she peopled her stories with. They were all misfits and outcasts, and struggling to find their place in the world. Whenever I think of McCullers stories, Diane Arbus’s photographs come to mind as well (and vice versa) — I became interested in their work around the same time and felt that both artists painted a similar world, each with her own tools, yet both with a sense of disconnection and a fascination for all things strange and disturbing. About the story of her first novel: “The heroine is the strange young girl, Mick Kelly. The setting is a small Southern town, the cosmos universal and eternal. The characters are the damned, the voiceless, the rejected. Some fight their loneliness with violence and depravity, some with sex or drink, and some — like Mick — with a quiet, intensely personal search for beauty.” (1981 Bantam paperback) From The Carson McCullers Project
7. Mr. Vertigo, Paul Auster
The story is told by an old Walt Rawley who is recounting his unbelievable life saga. It begins in 1924 when he was a 9-year-old orphan and was picked up off the streets of St-Louis by a mysterious man who calls himself “Master Yehudi”. This man convinces Walt to follow him and that in return Yehudi will give him a home but more importantly, he’ll teach the boy how to fly. After a long and painful process, Walt does indeed learn to levitate, and they begin touring with Walt billed as “The Wonder Boy”. It’s an engrossing story with interesting characters and we are treated to some great scenes of Americana from the 20’s onward.
8. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis
There’s the young narrator, an intellectual who’s lived his life among books and papers, who one day decides to set out to the island of Crete. He has a plan to re-open an old mine, presumably to give work to the working-class folk and peasants. On his way there he meets Zorba, a seasoned old man who convinces our narrator to give him a job as the foreman of his operation. When they start to work on their plans they are quickly beset by problems and tragedy. Still, Zorba, with his great appetite for life, women, food and wine, manages to draw out the narrator from his shell. I read this book while I was living in Crete and reading about Zorba, helped me better understand the Cretan mentality an lust for life. It’s safe to say that meeting Zorba, and being introduced to Kazantzakis in his homeland, was one of the highlights of the trip.
9. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
The only Ayn Rand book I’ve read. There are of course many critics of her work and while I did find that the characters lacked depth and that the story was contrived, I also closely identified with the struggles of the protagonist Howard Roark, a brilliant architect who chooses to work as an unknown rather than having to compromise his genius and artistic vision as is the norm. Roark goes so far as to work in a granite quarry rather that give his clients what they think they want, while his contemporaries don’t think twice about cranking out the same kind of sub-par designs with a complete lack of regard for aesthetics. It’s an interesting look into the man who stubbornly fight for what he believes in, all in the names of good taste and love of the craft. Roark is detestable, but I wanted to applaud him several times.
10. Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar
A classic by one of the most respected masters, this book is considered by many to be the “bible of yoga”. With over 600 photographs of Iyengar demonstrating each asana (or posture). There are detailed instructions on how to achieve the postures, explanations about how each of them affects various organs and parts of the body and an extensive index detailing the health benefits that can be obtained from the asanas. There is also a section of breathing exercises, and an introduction on the philosophy of yoga by Yehudi Menuhin. A long-time practitioner and personal friend of Iyengar, Menuhin helped Iyengar bring his teachings to the West and in effect they both largely contributed to the popularity yoga enjoys today. My father had this book when I was a little girl and I’ve had my own copy for a good number of years. A must if you are wanting to gain an understanding, or deepen you knowledge of what yoga encompasses, or are thinking of establishing your own practice at home.
11. Life of Pi, Yann Martel
One thing that will always stay with me about this book, is that when I got to the last pages and read (not a spoiler, no worries): “Oh please, no more tigers.” I burst out laughing and couldn’t stop — laughed till I had tears streaming down my face. Maybe it was the contrast of the simple words with this amazing feat of imagination: “After the sinking of a cargo ship, a single solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the […] Pacific. The crew […] consists of a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy…”. Yann Martel weaves a tale based on the most improbable combination of elements and does this so brilliantly that it’s practically impossible not to suspend disbelief. Brilliant. Deserves every prize, award and accolade it has received. I’d love to have a look at the new illustrated edition too.
12. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
A big winding tale involving many characters and story lines, and infused with a peculiar, dreamlike atmosphere, which seems to be a Murakami Signature. The narrator, Toru Okada, who is jobless at the beginning of the book, takes care of the house and the cat while his wife goes out to work and sustains them both. He meets his next door neighbour, a teenager called May, who shows him an empty well, which he eventually becomes strangely attracted to and in which he ends up spending time. He’s asked to look into a past rape case involving his brother-in-law, his wife eventually goes missing, he meets a Lieutenant who tells him long stories of Japan’s military past, it’s all a bit confusing, but Murakami depicts the human spirit with great realism, his style is inimitable and it’s an interesting look at what modern Japan is like.
13. Ensemble, c’est tout (Hunting and Gathering), Anna Gavalda
An unforgettable story about 4 broken people who end up sharing a vast apartment in the heart of Paris and who eventually help each other triumph over their troubles. There is Camille, a struggling young artist who works nights as a cleaning woman and may or may not have a drinking problem. Philibert, an aristocrat with a speech impediment and a heart of gold who makes a living selling post-cards. Franck, a cook who’s main interests are his motorcycle, girls and his grandmother Paulette, who is a sweet old lady living alone in her country home but is having more and more difficulties taking care of herself. It’s tender, touching and real, and surprisingly not sappy at all, or in any case, the sentimentality factor is well reigned in, which is a good thing, otherwise the book wouldn’t have made it on this list.
14. The I Ching or Book of Changes
There are many others I’d like to mention, but I have to include the I Ching here since it’s had such great influence over so many years. It’s a divination method, it’s teachings are about the cosmic laws that govern life and the universe, it’s filled with the wisdom of the ages, which most of the time is delivered in very simple terms. I’m just skimming the surface here, but there is much to be said about the I Ching and at the same time it is something you have to experience yourself. I did write a post about Synchronicity and The I Ching you can read as a further introduction. Here’s a version of the I Ching available online — the Richard Wilhelm version it contains is considered one of the best translations around — though I also recommend this one for beginners.
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