I recently participated in the Facebook meme that asks for a list of the ten most influential books on a person’s life. Here is my list with some brief comments:
1. boneyard by Stephen Beachy—This book showed myself to me in an exact way that I had never encountered before in literature. Queer and Anabaptist: two great tastes that taste great together.
2. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer—My favorite book until I read boneyard. I’ve read it over half-a-dozen times and it always makes me cry. The last line is heartwrenching: “We would have been safe.”
3. questions i asked my mother by Di Brandt—Really all of Brandt’s poetry, but this collection is the one that I read first and that stays the most vivid in my mind. Brandt gave me a model for how to be transgressive when I really needed one.
4. Sleeping Preacher and 5. Eve’s Striptease by Julia Spicher Kasdorf—These two books feel inseparable for me. Kasdorf was the first poet whose work I read that made me realize that poetry could be relevant to my life.
6. Rhapsody With Dark Matter by Jeff Gundy—I had the same reaction to Gundy’s work as I did to Kasdorf’s. (Also, it drives me nuts that “with” in the title shouldn’t be capitalized here. What a dumb rule. I think it’s a significant enough word that it should be capitalized, which is why I have done so.)
7. The Tides of Lust by Samuel R. Delany—This isn’t my favorite Delany novel, but it’s the first one that I read (I also did a dissertation chapter on it), and it was good enough to get me interested in all of the others. Delany is the author whose work has been most influential on my current thinking.
8. Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places by Laud Humphries—I read this while doing research for a paper during my senior year of college, and it completely changed my view of the world because it told me about a practice (i.e., anonymous gay sex) that I had no idea existed. It taught me to begin looking at the margins, because that’s where the really interesting, revolutionary stuff happens. It also helped me to see physical space in a new way.
9. The Blue Mountains of China by Rudy Wiebe—In hindsight, this was my first encounter with postmodern fiction, which is now my favorite kind of fiction. When I first read it, its ethical vision was extremely formative for me.
10. My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—This was the first text I read that explored the relationship between religion and art in a serious way. If I hadn’t read this book, the words of the poets mentioned above would have fallen on deaf ears.
Three observations on this list: 1. It is overwhelmingly Mennonite, showing that no matter how hard I try I just can’t get away, and 2. I encountered half of the texts while at Goshen College, which proves something about the importance of a good liberal arts education. 3. After a few days’ reflection, I still stand by the list’s accuracy. The only glaring omission is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (But what would it replace? My first thought is Potok’s novel, but reading My Name is Asher Lev made my appreciation of many of the rest of the books on this list possible), which I actually think about more than any other book because of its chapter on public restrooms. Every time I go into a public restroom that I haven’t been in before (i.e., the restroom at my job doesn’t count because of how frequently I use it), I check to see whether it has a paper towel dispenser (and if so, what kind) or a hand dryer. The science of hand dryers has advanced a lot since the novel was written, and so sometimes they are better than paper towels, but I still generally agree with the novel’s argument in favor of the paper towels. Both options need to be well-designed in order to fulfill their function of getting one’s hands dry in a sanitary manner, though. It almost is not fair to compare them as entire categories.