If you are active on Facebook, perhaps you’ve seen the latest tag-your-friend challenge floating around: a list of books that have stayed with you or had an impact on your life. I haven’t been tagged, but the challenge made me think anyway. It was a much more introspective journey than I realized, and it makes everyone’s individual lists all the more special when you see how different they can be. Books that have stayed with me, ones that I have distinct memories of, ones that are so deeply seeded in my mind that I know I would be a different person without them—those are the kinds of books that I’ve listed below.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Let me start out by saying this is the only book series I’ve ever read more than once. My mom would often tell me stories from one of her favorite books she read growing up, a memoir of a British veterinarian caring for animals in the foggy English countryside on the cusp of the development of modern medicine. On my 13th birthday, she handed me a copy of All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, a message written inside the cover passing down what she loved.
Herriot’s touching, witty, earnest stories of being a country veterinarian in the 1920-40s are told with a gentle heart. I instantly feel like I’m trudging along with Herriot at 4 in the morning through the icy winter fields to administer an experimental but potentially life-saving injection to a flock of sheep, and I’m then transported just as quickly to the vibrant owners’ cozy, warm kitchen to defrost with a mug of tea. It’s clear through Herriot’s observations that he is sharing his love of animals, just as much as humans, and you’ll be laughing, cursing, complaining, celebrating, and crying along with him through every case.
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way by Bill Bryson
Back in college, I had to choose between two courses for my English major: Linguistics or History of English. I went with the former because high school taught me that history, for me, would always would be boring. Around the same time, my mom introduced me to The Mother Tongue and suggested I read it since I enjoyed writing. I do not regret taking Linguistics, but this book proved my theory about history completely wrong.
Bryson’s writing makes you keep reading simply because it’s so entertaining and witty. It didn’t even feel like I was learning (not a bad thing, but I was just warming up to nonfiction at the time) as Bryson educated me on the origins of words and sociopolitical trends and events that changed not only our history but also the history of English. One of my favorite quotes on language comes from this book: "Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling, and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines."
The Secret Universe of Names: The Dynamic Interplay of Names and Destiny by Roy Feinson
I’m not quite sure where this book came from, but I remember it being a staple of my family bookshelf for as long as I was able to read. The perfect balance of linguistic theory and party fun, The Secret Universe is a comprehensive dictionary of names that ranks each entry in terms of charisma, friendship, romance, and power based on the origins of the sounds in the name. Your name also gets a detailed breakdown of words and emotions associated with each phoneme, or distinct unit of sound, and attempts to interpret your personality based on these.
This book provides endless fun—whenever a new person walks into my life, you bet I consult The SecretUniverse and look up their name. Sometimes it is freakishly accurate, other times it falls flat (and then you cross-reference for different spellings to double check), but it's always an interesting read in case you want to learn more about the history of language in general or why we feel different ways about certain sounds.
The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank
I discovered this old book on our shelf one day, sandwiched between other ancient, strange books my family has collected over the years. I flipped through the pages, catching the scent of musty paper that could only belong to a book older than me. The odd chapter names drew me in: “TOO DARK,” “TOO COLD,” “TOO LONELY,” etc., and I began to read.
Greenbank’s 1968 survival guide features instructions and tips on how to live when conditions are less than ideal. The “TOO LONELY” chapter describes what to do in multiple situations in which you are isolated from other people, including abandoned islands. Now vintage pen drawings illustrate almost every page, featuring Morse code, knot tying, and other useful diagrams. You may be wondering why I like this book since many more accurate and modern survival guides have been released since then, but The Book of Survival reads like something much greater and more fulfilling, like the cast of Monty Python was trying to advise you on proper survival technique. The overdramatic, overly formal, quirky writing of the 60s makes The Book of Survival an interesting read from cover to cover.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I love short story collections because of the patterns and connections the author can make between each component of the book, and Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies accomplishes this delicately and masterfully. Each story presents a different facet of combining American and Indian cultures—some of Lahiri’s characters never leave India, some were born and raised in America and feel alienated from their ethnicity, and others are still trying to cope with immigrant life. Interpreter of Maladies touches on issues like classism, racism, interracial couples, and the diaspora felt when torn between two lands in a way that may urge you to read some stories twice to ensure you picked up on everything Lahiri presented. Detailed descriptions, characters and tender moments between families and lovers will change how you view not only other cultures, but also America itself. In addition to this short story collection, I also really enjoyed her novel The Namesake, which was adapted into one of my all-time favorite movies.