Completely Unrelated: The Ten Books That Have Influenced Me the Most

Look, it’s the offseason. I can’t tell you anything about spring practice you don’t already know from reading David Hale, and the Diamond Dogs are driving me crazy. Heck, the softball team lost last night, too. In short, it’s time for something completely unrelated.

Recently, Smart Football’s Chris Brown posted a list of the ten books that had influenced him the most and asked other bloggers to do likewise. I’ve tried it, and I couldn’t do it; I treated the Holy Bible as going without saying, disingenuously removed poetry from consideration altogether, subdivided the list into ten works of fiction and ten of non-fiction, and I still had to cheat. Maybe I’m indecisive. Or maybe not. I don’t know. . . .

Anyway, this is the list these are the lists, submitted with an invitation for you to share yours in the comments below:

Fiction

10. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. This one almost lost out to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I hated to exclude) because of the weird flesh-eating island episode near the end, but the inventiveness of the premise, the structural soundness of the novel (it is exactly 100 chapters long), and the persuasiveness of the authorial voice on every subject from the humane nature of zoos to the overlapping Venn diagrams of myriad religions kept this one on the list.

9. Love in a Dry Season by Shelby Foote. One of the great ironies of American letters is that lifelong friends Shelby Foote and Walker Percy both are remembered for the wrong thing. Percy is known as a novelist, though he was a much better essayist, and Foote is famous for his non-fiction account of the War, yet he was a fine writer of fiction. I mentioned the structure of Life of Pi, but Martel has nothing on Foote, who demonstrated his mastery of symmetry in the arrangement of Follow Me Down and perfected his technique in Love in a Dry Season.

8. Deliverance by James Dickey. I know, I know, all the Yankees are going to come around and mock this selection, but, if you’ve only seen the movie, you’re doing yourself a disservice. For a great American poet to take up a new form of writing and produce a novel as harrowing and wearying as this one is a real feat.

7. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. This is Deliverance times twenty. McCarthy is pretty dark on the best of days, but seldom has a work of fiction painted humanity in so disturbing a light. The cast of characters is whittled down throughout the novel as it moves steadily to its inevitable conclusion and McCarthy’s prose is epic and Biblical yet never over the top.

6. A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. No one does Southern gothic humor better than Crews; he’s what you’d get if you stuck Cormac McCarthy and Dan Jenkins in the teleportation booth Vincent Price inadvertently entered with the fly. This is Crews at his best.

5. Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron. Styron is one of the two authors appearing on both lists, and, while he published more famous novels than this one, he never painted a more complete portrait of a cast of characters than he did here. The influences of the authors appearing in the first and third positions on this list are obvious, but Styron uses their conventions effectively and in his own style.

4. Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy. To repeat, Percy’s non-fiction is better than his fiction, and his non-fiction so informs his fiction that there is no sense in reading his novels before his essays. (Also, The Moviegoer was a very boring book.) Here is Walker Percy demonstrating his conviction that the best novelists are failed prophets; that is, they have diagnosed the malaise of the age and attempted to warn their fellow man against it. Whether his prophecies failed, I leave to you to judge, but this is Percy’s best work of fiction.

3. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Not since William Gilmore Simms has there been an American man of letters who was so gifted as a critic, a poet, and a novelist, but Simms never wrote the "one great work," while Warren hit it out of the park with this simple, direct, and powerful book, which remains the best novel ever written about American politics.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. There’s a lot to be said for getting it right the first time and walking away on top of your game. How much has this book stayed with me? I refer to my daughter, Elizabeth, as "Scout." Eventually, she will figure out that the way to get her father to do whatever she wants is to call me "Atticus" (although, truthfully, "Gavin" would be the better literary lawyer analogy).

1. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. No American has ever written a better novel, and no American ever will. I would call it the best novel ever written in English, but I don’t want to get into a shouting match with the Ulysses folks. Seriously, I had that argument enough times at enough parties in college.

I know this is supposed to be a "most influential" list, but I have a hard time explaining how a novel has influenced me, other than to describe the effect it had upon me when I read it and upon my writing after reading it. I’ll try to do a little better when explaining the next list:

Non-Fiction

10. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist by Daniel Singal, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country by Cleanth Brooks, and A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner by Edmond Volpe (tie). I slogged through quite a bit of Faulkner criticism (including all that Noel Polk crap, which is absolute drivel) to reach the point where I can tell you that these are the three indispensable works of Faulkner criticism, which are forthright, informative, and persuasive.

9. College Life in the Old South by E. Merton Coulter and The Ghosts of Herty Field by John Stegeman (tie). Before reading these books, I knew we had a pretty campus with pretty girls and that it was fun to stand and cheer in Sanford Stadium for three hours on Saturdays. I cannot define myself in the absence of the University of Georgia and I cannot define the University of Georgia in the absence of these books.

8. Hooking Up by Tom Wolfe. In a way, this does a disservice to Wolfe, whose writing has influenced mine more directly than that of any author other than Faulkner and Foote. I probably liked Radical Chic, The Painted Word, and The Right Stuff better as books, but his essay on the state and the ultimate fate of the American novel is profound and convincing.

7. This Quiet Dust by William Styron. While we’re on the subject of collections of essays, this one had an impact on me because Styron covers a wide range of themes effortlessly. This was the book that convinced me that it’s possible to write intelligently, informatively, and persuasively on a variety of topics. I still don’t know how well I do that, but it gave me the confidence to try.

6. Iron John by Robert Bly. Yes, this is mildly embarrassing now, and, no, I never sat out in the woods and chanted or anything silly like that, but, even though he is wrong about quite a lot (just as he was as a poet and critic), Bly invokes and expounds upon some useful myths that were of particular utility at a specific time. I am glad that time has passed, and it is no accident that this is the only book on either list that I could not put my hands on without descending a flight of stairs and sorting through boxes, but it had its uses in its day.

5. The Reactionary Imperative by M.E. Bradford. I held off on the political stuff as long as I could. Bradford, the subject of A Defender of Southern Conservatism and the focal point of the political battle that permanently divided the neoconservatives from the paleoconservatives, was a man of grace and integrity. William F. Buckley, Jr., and George Will commonly are considered the wittiest, most erudite, and classiest conservative commentators, but neither of them had anything on Mel Bradford, who was a better defender of the best of the Southern tradition even than Richard Weaver.

4. Eat the Rich by P.J. O’Rourke. Any number of O’Rourke’s books could have gone here---during my student-teaching, I used excerpts of Parliament of Whores as assigned readings for my economics classes---but this is an exceptional example of what happens at the intersection of research, conviction, and humor. While O’Rourke’s glibness sometimes makes him simplistic, he offers valuable lessons on how to make dry yet important subjects lively, which is a worthwhile talent I have tried to emulate. (At oral argument before the Georgia Court of Appeals earlier this year, I quoted two former New York Yankees managers with the same objective in mind.)

3. The Tempting of America by Robert Bork. More than a few federal court nominees have been the subject of smear jobs by the other side, and no ideology or party can claim to have clean hands, but no more deserving Supreme Court nominee has ever been done dirtier than Bork, who thoughtfully states a nuanced case without passion or prejudice for a jurisprudence of restraint. I have been less convinced by some of Bork’s other writings---I was highly critical of his Slouching Towards Gomorrah in my Red and Black column several years ago---but this is his best, most elucidating work.

2. The Rebuke of History by Paul Murphy and Where No Flag Flies by Mark Royden Winchell (tie). If my previous references to neoconservatives and paleoconservatives baffled you, these are the books you need to read to clear up your confusion. Louis Rubin’s The Wary Fugitives and Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds qualified for honorable mention in this respect, as, for the matter of that, might John Crowe Ransom’s God Without Thunder and some Wendell Berry. All are explications of the political philosophies and literary sensibilities---which are very much interrelated---of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, who pulled it together about as well as anyone and certainly represent a strain of American thought we would do well to remember, even if only wistfully.

1. Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy. Oddly enough, I am re-reading this right now; even more odd, at least to me, is the fact that more years have passed between the first time I read it and the present day than had passed between the day it was published and the first time I read it. Since the books listed in the preceding paragraph are, for good or ill (or, more likely, a bit of both), works of historical interest only, we need this book (which is slightly dated) more than ever. In it, we are provided with an expert diagnosis of the modern era by a medical doctor, a practicing Roman Catholic, and a Southern novelist.

Those lists were every bit as Southern as I expected them to be but a good deal more recent that I would have guessed, and I wish I could have come up with more biographies and historical works, but those were my choices. Your lists are invited in the comments below.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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