Ten Books



A friend tagged me on Facebook to list 10 books that had had an impact on my life. Or words to that effect. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about my answer. I just stood in front of my book shelves and noted the titles that resonated the most. Then I narrowed the list down from 20 to 10. Here are the ones I choose, and why.


Time of Wonder (Robert McCloskey)

Of course I love Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Homer Price and the Donut Machine. But none of them got inside me that way this gem did – in large part, I think, because of the way my mother read it to me. I could tell that she loved it, and implicitly understood why: the sound of the language, the wild New England coast, the reverent attention to the sounds and sights that signal shifts in the weather, and in the season. This book is one of the main reasons I write picture books. It’s also the reason so many of the texts that are closest to my heart meet with rejection, always on the grounds that they’re too “quiet.”

Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Before I could read, I pored over Garth Williams’ illustrations. When I learned to read, I learned to seek out any book in my school library that was illustrated by Williams. He was instantly recognizable, and never steered me wrong. I had a hard time choosing among the many Williams-illustrated books that I loved, but in the end this it was a no-brainer. What’s not to love about Fern’s courageous defense the runt of the litter? Templeton the Rat’s relish of discarded fair food? Wilbur’s hopeful innocence? And then there’s Charlotte. I have re-read this book more times than I can count, and have never failed to weep at the ending. “Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” That’s what I want them to write on my grave.


Animal Family (Randall Jarrell)

Love makes a family. I learned that lesson from this lovely fairy tale about the love between a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx and a little boy. It’s a lovely story, and also a lovely book, from poet Jarrell’s mesmerizing language, to Maurice Sendak’s lush “decorations,” to the thick, soft paper the pages are printed on and the size and weight of the volume. This is my sister Rachel’s book, but at some point I absconded with it. I hope she doesn’t mind.

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)

Required reading for 14-year-old aspiring Dead Heads in 1971. Nuff said.

World According to Garp (John Irving)

When I was a student at Hampshire College, Irving was teaching writing up the road, at Mt Holyoke. In my freshman year I took his writing workshop, and in my junior year I did an independent study with him. I would have tried to study with him my sophomore year, too, if he hadn’t been on leave, writing Garp. It’s not my favorite book in the world, but of the various writers I studied with, Irving was hands-down the most encouraging.


Machine Dreams (Jayne Anne Phillips)

Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)

Pigeon Feathers (John Updike)

Family relationships. Complicated characters. Resonant descriptive details. Utterly absorbing. I read all of these just after college, when I was trying to figure out how to keep writing while holding down a day job. When I’m stuck in my writing, I’ll sometimes pick up one of my favorite books and read a few sentences, to remind myself of what I’m trying to do, and why. These three are among those I go to most often.


Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schultz)

Isaac Bashevis Singer on acid. That big book of mine that’s still searching for a home might be described as a conversation between Schultz and the three writers above.

Kaddish (Leon Wieseltier)

How a book hits you is all in the timing. I started reading this maybe a month before my mother died, and finished it maybe a month after. I’m a slow reader, and it’s a dense read — a personal search for the arcane origins of the Jewish mourners’ prayer. Kaddish was to my 42-year-old self what Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was to me at 14.


What are your 10?

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5 Responses to “Ten Books”

  1. Bill Mitchell Says:

    Ruth, I purchased Wieseltier’s Kaddish to read when my father died some two and a half years ago. At the time anyway, I found it too dense (or maybe I was too dense).

    My ten:
    1. Matsuo Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
    2. John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
    3. Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.
    4. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
    5. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.
    6. Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities.
    7. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.
    8. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.
    9. Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life and Music.
    10. Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

    All the best to you and David!

  2. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    I kind of doubt you were too dense, Bill…

  3. Bayla Singer Says:

    It’s a real challenge to look back over 74 years to pick out particular impacts – and it’s not only books, but also poems and lines in poems. In some instances, I’ve forgotten the titles …

    1. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

    2. Milton, on his blindness (poem) — the line, “does God exact day-labor, light denied?”

    3. Death of the Hired Man — the line “home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

    4. Several of Carl Sandburg’s poems, particularly ‘Chicago’ and ‘Fog’

    5. Several of Robert Frost’s poems, particularly “Mending Fence” — ‘good fences make good neighbors’ and “Passing by Woods on a Snowy Evening”; O to be a swinger of birches!

    6. The books in my father’s bookcase; on Law, Philosophy, Art, and other ‘grownup’ topics that fascinated me. Those were the ‘forbidden fruit’ of my childhood, though Daddy really didn’t mind if I read them. Some of those books were exquisite works of art in and of themselves; leather bound, gilt edges, folio size, full-page engravings as illustrations, wondrous fonts, … just luscious!

    7. Robert Burns’s poems — I just about gave up writing poetry after reading these, they seemed to be the ulimate word. “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, what panic lies within thy breastie!” and “O wad the power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us” and “My love is like a red, red rose…”

    8. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, particualrly Jo. What strong women these were! Nancy Drew, as well. Shining beacons to my nascent feminism.

    9. Dr Dolittle stretched my mind.

    10. Heinlein’s Waldo, and other science fiction of the 50s and early 60s.

    • Bill Mitchell Says:

      ‘Tis quite a poem:


      When I consider how my light is spent
      Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
      And that one talent which is death to hide
      Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
      To serve therewith my Maker, and present
      My true account, lest he returning chide,
      “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
      I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
      That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
      Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
      Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
      Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
      And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
      They also serve who only stand and wait.”

  4. tdoggett Says:

    Those last two lines of Charlotte’s Web are my favorite ending to any book ever, and maybe my favorite lines too.

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