Well, folks, I am not listing some big fancy book on semiotics (though I read one or two back in graduate school). I am not pretending that I am hot stuff because I plowed through some obscure critical theory book (yep, did that too), or read some literary fiction that only a few academics know about (yes, read some of that as well). In making this list, I am going for the books that have actually stuck with me and have actually told me something. The ones that actually moved me, or taught me something, or that to this day make me smile. If you want fancy lists of thick books that only a few read (or pretend to read) and even fewer are pompous enough to admit it, go someplace else. Here is my no nonsense list of ten books that have had some degree of influence in my life. They are listed in no particular order.
- The Bible. Whether people love or hate this book (or collection of books if you want to get technical about it), the Bible has a great influence in society and history. Whether as a force of good or evil, you can't get along without at least some passing knowledge of its contents. Since I was raised Roman Catholic, I had to study this book quite a bit. I am a Catholic school survivor, so to speak. The one good thing I took away from that was the discipline. When the clerics actually did their work teaching, they were among the best educators I ever knew. While I am no longer religious, all that studying has paid off. For one, any time some alleged Christian wants to throw Bible verses at me, I can throw them right back at him with some additional verses to refute and bury him. I may not have the Bible memorized, but I know enough of what is in it to know when someone is trying to feed me a line of male bovine solid food waste product with a verse they cherry picked.
- Gabriel García Márquez, Cien Años de Soledad (translated into English as One Hundred Years of Solitude). I wonder if my mother knew how much this book would influence and shape my life and worldview when she suggested I read it. This was one of her favorites, and it has become one of mine. In fact, if I am asked the old question of what books I want in a deserted isle, this would be on top of the list. This book covers fiction, history, well, the human experience overall, and it also has dark humor, grotesque elements, magical realism. To this day, my friends and I have a saying for certain convoluted, messed up situations. We say, "esto es como una novela de García Márquez" (this is like a García Márquez novel. And it usually refers to this one).By the way, my personal copy is the one that belonged to my mother. It was a bit beat up when I got it, and it is falling apart by now. However, I have not chosen to get a new copy. For one, this is one of the few mementos I have of my mother.
- Paulo Coehlo, El Alquimista (translated in English as The Alchemist). Coehlo was another of my mother's favorite authors. I read this during the time when I was searching for my first library job after library school. It was a time when I had dropped out of that dreadful doctoral program in English, and I was starting to get over the experience. I basically took the word of a librarian friend and jumped ship to go to library school. While librarianship has had its up and downs for me, overall, I like what I do, and I am glad I became an academic librarian. Coehlo's tale of the alchemist is a tale about pursuing your dreams, and the ending, which I will not spoil, is one of my favorite magical moments in literature. When I was feeling a bit down from the job search, this book reassured me that I would make it. And the book serves as a reminder to me of the need to pursue your dreams and your passions.
- Mario Puzo, The Godfather. There is a line in the film You Got Mail where Joe Fox, the character played by Tom Hanks, says about The Godfather,
"The Godfather is the I-ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." What day of the week is it? "Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday."
He was referring to the film, but this is very applicable to the novel, which I think more people should read anyways. I say this especially to fans of the film. While the film is very faithful to the feel and overall basics of the book, there are a lot of things that did not make it into the film. At any rate, there are some notions and values about family that are worth considering regardless of the fact that we are dealing with a Mob family in the novel. For instance, the simple idea that Don Corleone tells his godson, "a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." It was true in that book, and this is very true in society. Granted, some of the men in the novel are less than virtuous, but the message is still a good one. If more men did spend quality time with their spouses and children, not only would they be real men, they would probably have better families. Say what you will--the book glamorizes the mafia, it's a fluffy novel, so on-- but in the end, there is much wisdom in this novel. And it has stuck with me. It is also another book I reread every so often.
- Eduardo Galeano, Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (translated into English as The Open Veins of Latin America). I read this for the first time as an undergraduate. I read it for a course in Hispanic Culture, an elective class which would have a lot of influence on helping me decide to become a teacher and study literature and history. This book is a history of Latin America without the sugar coating. It tells it like it is, and it provides detail on how the United States has basically pillaged Latin America. It is written as a narrative, so it can be read almost as novel. But do not be fooled. This is not fiction. When Hugo Chavez gave President Obama a copy of the book as a gift, Obama should have done himself a favor and actually read it. This is regardless of how you feel about Chavez. If you want to truly know the history of the continent, you have to read this book.
- Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha. Don Quixote was a life shaping experience for me in high school. It was my senior year project in Spanish literature class. We spent a full semester reading this novel, and in baroque Spanish by the way. Not some sissy modernized version, mind you. At the end of the semester, I wrote a paper on it. The topic of the paper was on the influence of the Amadís de Gaula on Don Quixote, looking at how it influenced the character as well as Cervantes in his work. That paper probably made me realize that I could be a good writer as well as literary scholar. Plus it had the added benefit that I read Amadís de Gaula, cover to cover. Reading Don Quixote is quite the undertaking, so I do feel proud that I did it. Cervantes covered a broad range of literary genres as well as forms of human experience that are universal. For me, it was the medieval romance and picaresque elements that stayed with me. This stuff led me to take an interest in more fantasy reading as well, things like The Lord of the Rings.
- Federico Rives Tovar, 100 Biografías de Puertorriqueños Ilustres. This was a juvenile collection of biographies of famous Puerto Ricans. The book was a collection of short sketches. I read this somewhere in middle school, and I find myself wishing I had my copy of it now. This book was one of the best for me to learn about Puerto Rican history and the men and women who made it. From Ponce de Leon to Cofresi to Ramon Emeterio Betances, they were all there, in an easy to read format, to inspire a young boy.
- Griselda Gambaro, Information For Foreigners (known in Spanish as Información para extranjeros). I read this for one of the drama studies courses I took in graduate school with Dr. Lee Papa. This play was one of the most moving plays I have read. It goes very well with reading things like Galeano's book. But the play also teaches you about the sense of space in theater and the integration of other genres as well as gives you a good look at Argentina during the Dirty War. This was one of the plays (and literary works overall) that inspired me during graduate school in terms of literary engagement and looking at the broader picture of the world. I even wrote a paper on this play that got accepted to a conference. However, due to personal reasons, I had to withdraw it, so I never delivered it. When most professors were just stuck in "classics" or "canonical" literature that every one keeps reading and rereading and writing yet another dissertation for it, Dr. Papa was showing us a whole other world of relevant, significant, engaging, and edgy literature. This was the kind of work I would have specialized in (or science fiction) if I had finished my doctorate. Works like Gambaro's play made me say, in essence, "damn, look at what you can actually accomplish with literature when you push the boundaries, have a sense of social justice and decency, want to engage an audience, and actually put in some work to make it happen instead of the usual stuff." Unfortunately, there was only one Dr. Papa, and I cannot thank him enough. If you are interested in learning more about the Dirty War, you may also want to read Verbitsky's Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior (see my note on it here).
- Jonathan Kozol's books, especially Illiterate America and Savage Inequalities. When it comes to pointing out what is wrong with the American educational system, to showing the shameful way American schools are segregated, and the hypocrisy of people who say you can't solve the problem with more money but send their kids to expensive private schools, Kozol is the man to read. His works are books that definitely piss me off when I read them because I know that this nation could have an excellent educational system if people only cut the male bovine solid food waste product, grew a spine, used some serious political and moral will, and just got it done for the sake of the common good. That children in this country are allowed to languish in what are essentially prisons is a shame. That it is done by choice because society does not want to fix it is reprehensible. Kozol had a lot to do with my shaping as a teacher and educator. I was fortunate enough to meet the man when I was in graduate school, and this man is basically a national treasure. Americans ignore his words at their peril.
- Samuel G. Freedman, Small Victories: the Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and their High School. I read this right before I went to do my student teaching experience. A lot of my view of teachers came from this book. Personally, I think it is better than Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren, which I had to read at the time. Freedman's work seem much more real, and it spoke to me more. I think in large measure because Jessica the teacher was teaching high school, which was where I was headed as well. By the way, this was before a lot of the books about teachers meant to be inspirational and "feel good" stories really started to hit the bookstores. Personally, I think those books tend to glorify teachers who are exceptions and whose work likely cannot be replicated as easily as most people think. I like Freedman's work because in the end the teacher comes across as a normal person doing work that many would not dream of doing. Later narratives pretty much portray teachers as super heroes (and not in a good way) who can do no wrong, who never suffer defeats, and somehow have a happy ending no matter the setting.