New year, new beginnings. However, the New Year demands reflection to move towards the next chapter of our lives. Because of this, I found myself standing in front of an old friend, my refuge on a rainy day, my bookcase.
My fingertips glide from one spine to the next as my eyes scan each book title in search of the perfect match to my nostalgic mood. Organized by author love and genre, I realized my collection consists of crucial benchmarks from my past. I didn’t just open a book to read, I was unlocking doors to my emerging reality. My books were far more than mere amusement. They taught me about love, how to cope with loss, and most importantly, how to grow up and understanding how you affect the world.
I poured over poetry by Plath and Poe, devoured Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Player Piano, and I even undertook Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, which by the way is crazy long, but so worth it. Pshaw!
“Why, pshaw!”… “What do these little whippersnappers know about the things of the mind?” — Mr. Leonard, Look Homeward Angel.
And while I stood upon my friend, the bookcase, I realized there were 5 particular books that defined important phases growing up. Shabanu, Brave New World, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, and Romeo & Juliet are the books that guided me through my youth and awkward years and still influence me today.
1. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Suzanne Fisher Staples)
Blossoming from childhood to adolescence, I stumbled upon Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples when I was 12. This book was probably my first experience with culture shock. I thought puberty and socializing was rough until I read about a young girl named Shabanu living with her nomadic family in the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan. At the age of 12, she was locked in an arranged marriage and forced to leave her family. I’ve never forgotten how gravely aware and grateful this made at such a young age.
“Shabanu, really. What we decide for both of you is what you will do. You aren’t old enough to know what’s good for you.” —Shabanu:Daughter of the Wind
2. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens)
Bright, brazen and on to high school where Great Expectations (internal link) came across my syllabus. Ugh! I did gripe initially because I was not a Dickens fan. Not until Miss Havisham entered the scene. She was dark, calculated, and bitter. Completely relatable to me as a defiant, sassy teen trying to steer my own ship. I was appalled and enthralled at how easily people’s lives become so entwined and distorted when someone decides to lend a ‘helping’ hand.
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
What if Pip hadn’t helped the convict? What if Miss Havisham never arranged play dates for Estella? Would Pip be on the same path if he knew his true benefactor from the start? Burning questions, folks!
3. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
By this point, I was jammin’ to the Doors and well aware of Aldous Huxley and his influential writings. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Brave New World. I still read this one just about every year. I find myself relating to all the flaws and turmoil of each character. To this day it’s a reminder of how easy it is to lose your humanity to convenience, merit, and material comfort.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
4. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Deep, unrequited love and the need to dream big have me hooked on Gatsby! So young, and so full of promise. I wanted to believe sacrifice wasn’t necessary and Daisy and Gatsby could find their way. Gatsby taught me how to live with my choices, and that hard decisions are always around the corner awaiting an answer.
5. Romeo & Juliet (William Shakespeare)
Being a serious case of hopeless romantic as a young adult, there’s no question about my affinity for Romeo & Juliet. My heart was like a storm at sea, rising and falling with immense emotion, leaving sailors to pray or abandon ship! Young love is often bittersweet, but prospect and fantasy is just enough to keep us on cloud nine. The first time I was absolutely smitten without reason, I remember feeling Romeo’s ache, soul of lead, desire for what his heart could not pump without…Juliet.
“These violent delights have violent ends, And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey.”― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
There might be something to those required reading lists and recommendations from our youth. As kids, we want to experience everything and skip the boring parts. Google it and move on, right? Only for some. Reading these books opened my eyes, shaped my interests, and expanded my worldview. I’m grateful for for every author that has braved to express what is truly in their hearts as they have reached out and touch mine without even knowing me. I definitely would not be the same without their great works.
Share with us what books influenced you in your youth that still carries weight today.