I had no idea that last week’s column—“Three Novels That Shaped My Politics”—would engender such a huge response. On Facebook and in real life, friends couldn’t wait to share titles of novels that have been meaningful to them. Though some mentioned nonfiction books and one commented that “my politics wasn’t shaped by fiction,” most friends listed novels I expected to see.
Two of the three books I wrote about, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Cider House Rules,” were favored by several. Many listed classic dystopian novels—“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, “The Stand” by Stephen King and “1984” and “Animal Farm,” both by George Orwell, as life-changing.
Not surprisingly, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” got the most votes. After that, a surprise—“A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines. I’ve never read it but I will soon. Other suggestions that fell into my personal haven’t-read-yet category include “Mutant Message Down Under” by Marlo Morgan, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair (recommended by H-C editor Lindsay McReynolds, who read it in high school and said it made her grateful for her happy, normal life), “Ragtime” by E.L Doctorow, “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse and “Weetzie Bat” by Francesca Lia Block. And then there’s (can you believe I haven’t read it???) “Harry Potter” by J.K. Rowling.
Now for the books I’ve read but will never read again. I’ll start with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” because I hate its message that selfishness is a virtue. Next are “All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren, “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, not because I didn’t enjoy them but because I just don’t want to work that hard any more.
My maybe so, maybe not list includes “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read them in high school, I read them in my early 40s and I read them recently. Worthy for sure, but enough is enough.
The next category is novels I’ll likely pick up again. When you get to be my age (or any age, really) it’s hard to justify a re-read, because a second (or tenth or whatever) time through might mean no first time for other wonderful books. But here’s the list anyway: “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio because kindness rules. “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver because I never really wanted to be a missionary, either. John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” because, you know, friends to the end.
Last but not least is a novel I’ll read at least once a year until I can’t read any more. I’ll read it aloud to anyone, child or adult, who’ll listen. I’ll read it to myself if no one’s around. “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White didn’t shape the way I vote. But it’s still the best book ever.
(July 7. 2019)