Transformational Books

I’ve seen a couple lists of people’s favorite books and authors lately that inspired me to think about what my own list would look like. But what springs to mind is not a list of my favorite books so much as a list of the books that have transformed my thinking about books. Perhaps the two lists are actually the same. I’m not sure. But a list of transformational books seems different somehow. These are books that have changed my idea of what it’s possible to write about and how it’s possible to write. They are the books that excite me and make me want to share them. People who love (some of) these books are people whose taste I’m likely to trust.

I decided to omit a few categories, for the sake of simplicity and brevity. I’m not including children’s or young adult books, although those are perhaps the most transformational books out there. But that’s a subject for a different post. I’m also not including books that have influenced my life generally – obvious examples are religious, political, or philosophical books that have changed my thinking about the world – but am instead sticking to books that have changed my thinking about literature specifically. It also occurred to me that I could put some books on this list that are negative examples, books that have helped me define my literary aesthetic by helping me figure out what I don’t like. But I won’t get negative here.

This list is in no particular order.

  • Virginia Woolf’s works, especially To the Lighthouse but also Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own
  • Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey
  • All of Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice
  • Middlemarch
  • Montaigne’s essays
  • Mary McCarthy’s essays and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
  • David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and his two essay collections
  • Phillip Lopate’s edited essay collection The Art of the Personal Essay
  • George Orwell’s collected essays
  • Nicholson Baker’s books, especially U&I, The Mezzanine, and The Anthologist
  • Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica
  • Mark Doty’s Dog Years
  • Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book
  • Janet Malcolm’s books, especially The Silent Woman
  • The Quest for Corvo
  • Joan Didion’s The White Album
  • Richard Holmes’s Footsteps
  • Lauren Slater’s Lying
  • Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals
  • W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn
  • Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time
  • David Shield’s Reality Hunger
  • Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage
  • Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo and Our Tragic Universe
  • Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust
  • George Saunders’s Civil War Land in Bad Decline
  • Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
  • Tom McCarthy’s Remainder
  • Henry James’s novels, especially The Wings of the Dove
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key
  • Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone
  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
  • Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris
  • Mary Oliver’s American Primitive
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater
  • Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Looking over this list, it feels partial and unsatisfactory, but it’s not a bad start.

And because this pregnancy thing is getting serious, I’ll close with one of my latest pregnancy pictures, at 29 weeks:


Filed under Books

19 responses to “Transformational Books

  1. I’ve read only three of all of these listed… the William James one [admittedly a real gem], Middlemarch, and The Moonstone. But I’ve had that Rebecca Solnit one on my shelf for ages, and have not yet read it. Respecting you as a wise reader, perhaps it is high time I blew the dust off the top of Wanderlust!
    All the best to you.


  2. Wow, great list! Having read some that are also my favorites (Silent women, daughter of times, Jane Austen), I’d love to explore the rest of them! (and let me add that you look great on the pix!)


  3. You have a fantastic (and very eclectic) list there. It is so hard to choose, isn’t it? And sometimes the most transformational ones aren’t necessarily the ones you expected to like.


  4. Great list, all the more that you could put it together. Love the smile!


  5. Some of my favorite books and many more that are on my TBR list! And you are looking wonderful and happy. I assume you feel as good as you look. Not much longer to go!


  6. Nan

    A couple of mine are actually parenting books – the Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock; and Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach. They reassured me when I was a new mother.


  7. Sarah C

    That’s a neat category, and I think different for me than “best” or “favorite” books (which is always hard – transformational is somehow an easier list because it is more specific). My list would include (but would not likely be limited to): To Kill a Mockingbird, Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, The Trial, Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl, Pale Fire and Lolita, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Kafka on the Shore (by Murakami), Breakfast of Champions, Malloy/Mallone Dies/The Unnameable (by Beckett), Middlemarch, oh there are so many!


  8. While I’ve only read a few of your titles here, I’m glad we share our love of Jane Austen. Also, I’m most interested in your list of religious and philosophical reads that most affected you. Maybe someday you’ll post them. As for yourself at 29 mons., you look great!


    • Thanks, Arti! I might think about the religious/philosophical books that have affected me, although that’s a harder list to come by, partly because I read many of them before I started keeping records and my memory of them isn’t as fresh. But I could try.


  9. Oh I love this list – I think I’ll print it out for reference. I really want to read more essays in 2013, and I know you have found some gems in that department. And you look fantastic – so fit, and such a neat bump!


  10. Pingback: Transformational Books, Updated | Of Books and Bicycles

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