Monday, September 29, 2014

Books That Have Affected My Life

Recently there have been a spate of lists on social media consisting of individuals listing books that have changed or impacted their lives. While "change" is a strong word, I'm joining in the fun by listing some books and authors who have had some type of impact on me. They are listed in no particular order.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
I remember asking for this book as a gift from my parents for some occasion (Christmas? name's day?), and being quite excited to receive it. I may have been in 8th or 9th grade, and I read it quickly. It had enticed me initially because it was about Lithuanian immigrants in Chicago, but the book is best known for its impact on public policy, as it exposed various unsavory and unhealthy practices in American slaughterhouses at the beginning of the 20th century. It's not a particularly uplifting tale, yet it does an excellent job in describing the difficult life many immigrants experience in this country.

Homo Novus by Anšlavs Eglītis (in Latvian)
In 1982 a large Latvian song festival took place in Milwaukee, and one of the events was a play called "Homo Novus." Many parents would not take their young kids to theater meant for adults, but my mom and dad were not just any parents (and I was not just any kid)! The play, which is about artistic types in Riga in the interwar period, left an impact on me - it was funny and interesting - and when I discovered it was based on a book, I insisted I needed to read it. That was likely a couple of years later, yet I was still on the young side to be reading such a long novel. The story captivated me with its descriptions of bohemians and their vibrant lives in Rīga in the 1930s, and was motivation for reading quite a few more Latvian novels.

Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Not only were these my first ever poetry books, but they are also the first books I remember needing to read. They were so popular in my elementary school that a waiting list was created in our library--only once you reached the top of that important list could you check out one book. I was overjoyed when I eventually received them as gifts, and those 25+ year old books still have a place of honor in my bookcase. Silverstein introduced me to the notion that literature can be really fun. I suspect non-American reader might not be familiar with his poetry, so I will share one of his poems from the collection A Light in the Attic.

Geraldine now, stop shaking that cow
For heaven’s sake, for your sake and the cow’s sake.
That’s the dumbest way I’ve seen
To make a milk shake.

Other poems are more than just silly.
Memorizin' Mo
Mo memorized the dictionary
But just can’t seem to find a job
Or anyone who wants to marry
Someone who memorized the dictionary.

Shel Silverstein's books (including the newer Falling Up) in my bookcase.
As luck would have it, my love of poetry was further developed by a high school English teacher, a college German professor, and - wait for it! - a PBS special by Bill Moyers. The special had a companion book called The Language of Life. It features 34 American poets, a couple of works from each, as well as interviews. Some of them have since passed away, but several years ago I managed to get four of the poets' signatures by shlepping the book with me to various readings and events. 

It was from this TV show and book that I was introduced to my one of my favorite poets: Naomi 
Shihab Nye. She is what one can call an "accessible" poet, as her poems are typically easily understood, and have led me to further appreciate language as such.

I adore Nye's collection Fuel. While I was living in Kalamazoo for a short while after having graduated from college, my love for her poetry compelled me to drive for 90 minutes in the dark and the rain to hear her read and speak at a college in Grand Rapids. (This was pre-internet, but I had read a small announcement in the Kazoo paper about the event.) Below is one of Nye's poems that I love best.

If you place a fern
under a stone
the next day it will be
nearly invisible
as if the stone has
swallowed it.

If you tuck the name of a loved one
under your tongue too long
without speaking it
it becomes blood
the little sucked-in breath of air
hiding everywhere
beneath your words.

No one sees
the fuel that feeds you.
A few of my poetry books.
Latviešu tautas dziesmas by the Latvian people (in Latvian)
It is impossible to imagine the Latvian culture without singing, and - in particular - its folk songs. Thanks mostly to the work of Krišjānis Barons in the late 1800s, we are fortunate to have written texts of many songs. Between 1894 and 1915, eight books containing a total of  217,996 four-line songs were published under the title "Latvju dainas." After World War II, the work was reprinted in Western Europe, and those are the books that I own - having inherited them from my grandparents (paldies, vectev, mati un mamma!). Having now sung with an a cappella Latvian folk music ensemble for over a decade, I have a sincere appreciation of our rich culture, and these volumes on my bookshelf are a reminder of the bountiful beautiful songs that Latvians are blessed to have.
My full set of volumes: Latviešu tautas dziesmas.
Which books have left an impact on you?


  1. Although the Latvian dainas have had a large impact on me and who I am (and thanks to my grandmother we also have the full set at home), I think it was more the reading I did in elementary school that I remember today as being influential. Of course the classics, and others like John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany," but in addition my favorite series "Nancy Drew" and series like "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Maybe it's not that those influenced me so much, as they are the books I remember from my childhood. I also love Shel Silverstein... Thanks for the post - it got me thinking on this rainy fall morning!

    1. It was difficult to put together a list without it getting completely crazy - I don't think any of my readers wish to see a post with twenty or thirty books mentioned! And, as much as I fondly remember many of the books I read as a kid (hello, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, whoever wrote Encyclopedia Brown!; from the Latvian side "Princesite kura negribeja stradat" and "Punktins" and the Astrid Lindgren books - all translation, unfortunately, but great reads either way), they were not necessarily that influential, other than making me into a major bookworm! :)

  2. Great list. I've heard of Shel Silverstein but never read any of his poems. The few you've posted have made me want to read more though. It kind of reminds me of Spike Milligan's Silly Verse for Kids, which I still have back in England.

    1. I definitely recommend reading some Silverstein! The books have great drawings that he drew, as well.


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