What books have shaped your view of the world?

Posted February 5, 2017 by Lory in discussions / 26 Comments

This question comes from one posed on Facebook by a friend in the wake of the election, which made me want to respond in more detail than was possible in a comment there. And a few weeks ago Cathy of 746 Books started a feature called The Books That Made the Blogger, in which she considers the books that were formative influences on herself and others. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’d love to hear about your own choices as well.

When I consider the books that shaped my fundamental view of the world, I first think of the ones I read in childhood, before the age of ten or so, when reading had the most direct, powerful effect on me. And I’m not sure that I’d say they “shaped” my view, as though I were a featureless lump of clay to be molded, as that they resonated with me in a way that strengthened my sense of how I as an individual human being could exist in the world.

Interestingly, I have found that when I read these books again as an adult, they all have serious weaknesses that do NOT resonate with the way I now view the world. And yet that does not negate the very real benefits I derived from them, and still treasure today.

The Oz books by L. Frank Baum

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

Deb of The Book Stop wrote a wonderful post for last year’s Witch Week in which she touches on some of the aspects of the series that also stand out for me. The books contain many strong, active female characters, for one thing — which was not so common in the early twentieth century. Baum’s wife and mother-in-law were early feminists whose views clearly come through here, though not in an obviously didactic way, and not without embodying certain unconscious prejudices. (In The Land of Oz, he pokes fun at suffragists, a reference that completely went over my head as a child.) Being grounded in the Oz books definitely gave me the sense that women could do anything — rule countries, learn magic, stand up to evil creatures, save their friends. It was a good beginning for my reading life, and for my growing up.

Deb also points out that the books are full of odd, unusual, and unique characters. Sometimes their differences make them aggressive and they just need to be left alone, but more often they are appreciated and celebrated for their individuality.  They have to learn to work together and build on one another’s strengths. Conformity is never a virtue in Oz, but creativity, kindness, and cooperation are — diversity in action.

One weakness of the series is that it was never intended to be one; Baum had zillions of ideas for other magical worlds he wanted to write about, but when the first Oz book and its sequels became a huge hit he became somewhat trapped by their success. His writing was sometimes sloppy and frequently inconsistent, and as the series went on some of the interesting social commentary and inventiveness of the first books faded away and became more tame and repetitious. The Emerald City, for example, is not really green in the first book (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz); it only appears so because the Wizard makes all who enter it wear green glasses to supposedly shade their eyes from the dazzle. It’s a sly dig at the American propensity for false glitz and glamour. By a few books later, though, the City has become truly covered with emeralds; Baum couldn’t keep up any one satirical motif for long.

In later books he also made it so that the inhabitants of Oz could never grow old or die. This was satisfactory to me as a child, but now it seems horribly static. Baum introduced this idea with no irony whatsoever, but it also makes a comment on the not-so-healthy American reluctance to come to terms with death. Can you imagine a worse fate than to be cut into pieces and not be able to die, for each part to remain separately living? Or to be stuck forever as either a child or an adult, not able to pass from one state to another, not able to learn and grow and change? The inability to see the cycle of life and death, growth and decay, as a necessary and beautiful path of transformation is an unfortunate feature of Oz, as of our national character.

But in other ways, Oz is a land of transformation, of infinite possibilities, full of marvels and wonders, and also full of humor and a sense of the absurd. How sorely we need all of these qualities today, and how glad I am that I had a chance to encounter them in childhood.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Most everybody knows now about the Christian aspects of the Narnia books, but I had no clue they were there when I first read them. Someone else had to point out the connection to make me identify the great lion Aslan with Jesus. I now think, in retrospect, that this is because the most overtly “Christian” bits of the book are not very much like the actual Gospels, and oversimplify and distort the mission of Christ. To take but one example, the Saturday between Christ’s death and resurrection is of supreme importance. He spent the day of rest, the Jewish Sabbath, penetrating the earth with his being before appearing in the resurrection body. But in Narnia, Aslan is killed in the evening and comes back to life in the morning, then chases away his enemies, which Christ most emphatically did not do. It’s a pagan sacrifice rather than a Christian initiation, picturing the victory of the old Sun rather than the birth of the new.

In fact, I think that it’s the pagan elements that shine most strongly in the Narnia books, and they definitely made a bigger impression on me. The walking trees, the talking animals, the stars that come to earth, the mermaids, dragons and fauns…these were what I loved about Narnia. On the other side of the everyday, humdrum world, just through the wardrobe door, was a land of beauty, nobility, and enchantment. Even more than with the Oz books, it was the place itself that most appealed to me. In Narnia, an ordinary child could become a king or a queen, could encounter and commune with the spirits that enliven the natural world, could grow in courage, self-knowledge, and wisdom. (They also, I now notice, could join the Resistance movement against a cold, unloving tyrant, a motif that appears in each and every one of the seven books. I used to consider that part of the fantasy element.)

Lewis’s moralizing is a bone of contention for many. I agree that it’s terrible when done in an offhand, simplistic way, as with the ridiculous matter of Susan, who in a couple of throwaway sentences is utterly dismissed, perhaps damned, for liking lipstick and nylons. And the portrayal of the dark-skinned, Arab-flavored Calormene villains is definitely not sensitive or nuanced at all, though probably based much more on medieval literature than on actual people given the place and time in which Lewis was writing. But what made the greatest impression on me was the connection of morality with beauty, not in terms of superficial, outer beauty, but as a deep, inner longing of the soul for the transcendent, expressed in metaphorical pictures. Here Lewis’s own childhood longings come most into play, I think, and mesh somewhat uneasily with the Christian faith he adopted only in adulthood. This tension continues to intrigue me to this day, and provides the foundation for some of my most enduring questions.

The Time Trilogy by Madeleine L’Engle

You’re starting to see a theme here, right? Again we go off on adventures in another world, but this time it’s through space and time, to other planets, the inside of a human cell, and the past of our own Earth. L’Engle’s blend of science and mysticism was highly appealing to me, and confirmed for me that the two modes of seeing the world did not have to be in conflict with one another. The quotations and references to mythology and great literature enlarged my soul; the thought-experiments like the description of tessering and the planet of people without eyes stretched my mind. L’Engle wrote about the science of our own world — the idea of time as a fourth dimension, the unimaginably tiny world within a cell — in a way that made it as exciting and wondrous as Narnia or Oz. This, too, is something that has remained with me ever since.

And then there was Meg, the brainy, unattractive girl who got to be angry and imperfect and mistaken, but still worthy of the love of the cosmos and herself a vessel of that love. I find myself these days often thinking of the scene from A Wrinkle in Time in which she realizes that if she could love It, the evil disembodied brain that has captured her brother, It would be utterly defeated. But she can’t, so she has to turn her love on her brother instead to save him, just as we now have to strengthen and focus our love for what we know is good and true. Love as a power, a force for change, rather than merely a fuzzy, weak emotion, is another picture that endures for me.

On the other hand, when rereading the books in adulthood, one finds elements that are seriously groan-worthy, especially in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The flying unicorn and the visions of harmony and joy dazzled my ten-year-old self, but now I find the good/evil racially determined dichotomy with color-coded eyes quite disturbing. I believe this was completely unintentional and thoughtless, in the way one could be back in 1978, but today it’s an obstacle to enjoying the books as whole-heartedly as I once did.

But again, I would argue, the way reading shapes us is a dynamic process. Later reading and life lessons inform our earlier experiences; we keep what holds its value and discard what no longer accords with our view of the world. Thus, if we are active and conscious in this process, we shape our reading as much as it shapes us.

What enduring values have you found through your reading life? I’d love to know.

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26 responses to “What books have shaped your view of the world?

  1. Great post, Lory, especially the then-and-now analysis of your choices. I could mention two books that made a big impression on me as a child. “The Velvet Room” by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (published in 1965) captured the heart of my young reading self. Like this girl protagonist, Robin, I was enchanted by the thought of finding a secret room in an empty house, where I could simply go and read in utter quiet and secrecy. It is odd in a way that this touched me so deeply, since I was the only child living at home and had plenty of space and time and quiet to read as I wished. I think this followed me into adulthood as a desire not only to read but to seek interior silence in meditation. The velvet furnishings and wallpaper (I remember that detail!) were also significant; I still need to watch that my wish for creature comforts doesn’t get out of hand! 🙂 Another influential book was “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon (first published in 1896 and reprinted still), which told about a congregation that made a vow to ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ in their decisions for a year. I took this book out of my church library when I was under 10–I know this because I lost it when my family moved, and it is the only library book I’ve ever lost (it still bothers me :)). Of course, I would add the Bible and parables of Jesus to the life list of books shaping my outlook.

    As an adult, Les Miserables has been a seminal book for me, with its powerful story of forgiveness, sacrifice, and redemption. Forgiveness–loving first–initiates repentance in Jean Valjean when he accepts it through Father Myriel, but Javert cannot accept Jean Valjean’s forgiveness and thereby loses himself. Sacrifice and unselfishness, played out in so many ways by Jean Valjean and Fantine especially, set forth an ideal that is lofty indeed–as Mario Vargas-Llosa calls it, “the temptation of the impossible” in Hugo’s novel.

    • I loved writing this post and it was hard to limit the selection — I’m thinking of doing another one about books that influenced me as an adult. It’s fascinating to see what themes play out through both children’s and adult fiction, and also, of course, how they correspond to the great moral and philosophical texts and principles that also shape our lives.

  2. This is a great theme for a post and your post is super Lory.

    I love your choice of books that have influenced you. I am in the process of mentally creating my own list. I am actually thinking about a lot of non – fiction books as well as fiction.

    The issue of books not resonating as much when we are adults is also very interesting one. Personally I find that this is true sometimes but not always the case.

  3. It seems there is a theme running through your choices which all seem to have hyper-imaginary worlds. You must have been a very creative child!

    • I definitely lived primarily in my imagination, which caused some problems at the time. The challenge is to take up the imaginative pictures and apply them fruitfully to the real world. I’m still working on that!

  4. Oh the Chronicles of Narnia were a big one for me. There’s something pretty Harrowing-of-Hell-y about Aslan going into the Witch’s palace, don’t you think? And unfreezing all the statues? The parallels aren’t perfect but I still dig it.

    I didn’t read Diana Wynne Jones until I was a little older, twelve or thirteen I think? But her books were a big influence on me and how I see the world. Even now, and often, I still see the world in the terms she gave me.

    • I do best with Narnia when I forget about the parallels and try to see the images on their own terms. The unfreezing of the statues is a wonderful scene that remains imprinted on my memory.

      I didn’t start reading DWJ till late in high school, and continued going through all her books as she kept producing them well into my own adulthood, but she definitely influenced and inspired me as well. I’m so delighted that my own son (who is ten) has taken a liking to her for our nightly read-aloud and says he wants to read ALL her books. Hopefully this will become a formative influence that he will look back on in later years.

  5. Just as your titles deal with imaginary worlds so mine too, I think. Growing up I had little idea of how the world was run or functioned, taking things either for granted or as mysteries beyond my ken: grown-ups ran the world, and I wasn’t one so why worry?

    Imaginary worlds in books are easier to fathom, to get a handle on. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books had youngsters solving mysteries their stupid adult mentors dismissed; an Australian kids book called Snugglepot and Cuddlepie had tiny humanoid creatures facing “the wicked Banksia men,” an early vision of pure evil; and, later, the Tarzan books (despite some implicit racist attitudes which we should acknowledge) started me thinking along eco lines with this model of the Noble Savage.

    Must do a post on this!

    • Snugglepot and Cuddlepie? That has got to be one of the best titles ever – and not quite what I would expect as an “early vision of pure evil.” Can’t wait to hear more!

        • It’s amazing how some post-Freudian authors managed to be so unconscious (ha ha) of what they were doing. I suppose at that time May Gibbs might not have known much of Freud as his ideas probably did not enter the general stream of education, particularly for females, until later.

  6. What a wonderful, thoughtful post about the influencers of our childhoods. I didn’t really start reading fantasy and ‘other wordliness’ until young adulthood. And that right there would be helpful in a therapy session about what happened in young adulthood!

    When I think back on my reading choices as a child, I see I chose mostly what we now call historical fiction, like the Little House books, where I learned the word ‘calico,’ that oranges in a Christmas stocking were prized, and wondered how people went to the bathroom; Pollyanna, which I read to my second grade class from my Golden Book and wanted to wear clothes like her, ride in horse carts and fell in love with the prisms and hoped someone would buy me one 🙂 And finally, The Bronze Bow, which pulled me into the time of Christ and made real all the groups and issues of that time.

    Even as a child, I wanted to know more about the worlds of these books and I think they may have influenced my eventual major in history. And if I think about it, I still read this way. When I read classics, I always hone in on the historical aspects of daily life, the social customs and interactions between men and women and different classes, the food, the way words and phrases have changed.

    • Interestingly enough, these days I tend to read much more historical fiction and history than fantasy. Two different paths that have crossed each other, and inform each other in many ways.

  7. My goodness, Lory, I could have written large swathes of this post (except that you are so much more articulate than I!). I wasn’t a huge fan of the Oz books but did read them all, and my favorite character was General Jinjur, which shows you how terrible I was at understanding satire. I had no idea he was poking fun at her. I read every L’Engle book I could get (I still have them) and got many of the same things you did out of them, but I no longer enjoy reading her; her books aged very badly, I guess; at least I see glaring flaws now where once I just loved them.

    Narnia is the biggest for me, of these listed. But I will take issue with your dislike of Susan’s story; while I agree that he didn’t do a great job of getting his point across, he didn’t just writer her off. He tried to have Susan be himself, although female–so worried about growing up and being cool (as we’d now say) that he/she deliberately shoved eternal things aside. He said in a letter that Susan’s story was by no means over, but he felt like the rest of her story didn’t work in a children’s book.

    The two others I’d put on my list are DWJ and Daniel Pinkwater. Between them they built large portions of my mind!

    • Separated at birth? I have the same experience with L’Engle, which is so very odd. The books can’t have changed, so why do they seem so different to me now? Someday I need to figure that out.

      Point taken about Susan. I think there could have been a very complex and interesting story there, and could have taken Narnia to an adult level, but as he says, that was not appropriate in a children’s book. If the topic couldn’t be given a more substantial treatment, maybe it should have been left out entirely, but it’s too late for that now. I think the people who get all het up about it should set their concerns aside and read Till We Have Faces, which is a truly adult book, and in my opinion (as in his own) Lewis’s best and most morally complex and satisfying novel.

  8. I’m considering using A Wrinkle in Time in my homeschool co-op curriculum next year, so I was especially interested to read your thoughts on that one. I’ll have to make sure that I read critical commentary on it if I decide to use it so that I can discuss the bad along with the good with my students. I remember loving the book when I was young, but I don’t remember much else.

    • I think if you just reread it for yourself you will see whether there is anything that appears problematic, but with that book in particular I imagine the good will outweigh the bad. There are elements that just appear rather silly to an adult consciousness, like the giant pulsing brain that seems lifted from a bad sci-fi movie. But when it’s a new idea you have never met before, it’s quite different.

      Of course, children today may be different, with way more media exposure than I had. You will see how it plays out with your group.

  9. I’ve felt the disconnect between my childhood best loved books and what I think now so many times. I adored the CoN when I first read them (at 17, haha), but totally didn’t realize all the allegorical aspects until an article I read pointed them out. I was rather distraught, haha. The other series I absolutely LOVED was Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (I read my first one of those when I was about 7 or 8). For whatever reason I was captivated by the story of that family and one little girl in particular growing up and becoming a woman. I haven’t re-read those in forever so I’m not sure what I would think of them now.

    • It can be disillusioning to reread childhood favorites in adulthood, but I still find it fascinating. It doesn’t destroy what I still find valuable in them, but I see so many different aspects that were not apparent before.

  10. I’ve never read The Wrinkle in Time – based on what you say, I may have missed out on the right age to appreciate it. I think for me, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books were a pretty big deal – I still remember the moment realises that Ma hates sewing too and that sometimes you do just have to get on with a job even if you hate it. Noel Streatfeild was another writer whose work loomed large for me when I was a child, then also Arthur Ransome and Brian Jacques. I am aware though most of all of how they influenced the way I played – my Playmobil figures would reenact a lot of their adventures and I drew maps of my own version of their stories. They definitely sculpted my imagination.
    Really interesting post – thank you! 🙂

    • It’s interesting that several people mention the Little House books. There’s such a lot of archetypal material there, with all the elemental tasks of survival. In Laura there’s also the quiet awakening of an independent spirit, who sees and observes so much around her, rebels sometimes against her expected roles, and yet, as in the anecdote you mention, recognizes that she has to acquiesce to a greater necessity.

  11. Great post, Lory! And you’ve really got me thinking about it. And no matter what, I always come back to LM Montgomery’s books. They were my constant. I was always reading them and thinking about which one I’d read next. And, yes, they have some old-fashioned ideas and stereotypes in them (which I didn’t notice when I was young), but I think what I really got out of them was the love of life. Her characters know how to live, to notice and appreciate the beauty in life. Re-reading her books always reminds me of this, and makes me want to live a better life. Kinder, simpler, more grateful.

    • Yes, I so much appreciate that about her books and characters as well. In an age of cynicism, to have that joy in life is refreshing — and extremely important.

  12. Deb

    I love this topic – you and Cathy have given me much to think about! I agree about the Oz books (of course!) and also share your criticisms. The not-dying thing was maybe meant to be comforting but I found it disturbing. I also share your love of Wrinkle In Time although I never could get into the books that followed.

    • There is still so much to explore about Oz; I feel like I’m not done with this topic. Still, I’m glad I got to make a start and that so many people resonated with it — and that I had your post to help get my thoughts going.