• a breathing in, as of air into the lungs
• an inspiring influence; any stimulus to creative thought or action
• a prompting of something to be written or said
• a divine influence upon human beings, as that resulting in the writing of scriptures
Something that moved me to do something, change something, create something, recognize that I could go beyond where I was.”
By this definition, most of my inspirational books begin with some version of “Once upon a time.” Although it might be, “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” or “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing,” or “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Some of these books I first read as a child. One I read this past summer. If you ask me for this list again in ten years, there might be some changes. But for now, here are my Top 10.
This book begins, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Every writer knows not to start a story with that trite sentence, so L’Engle did it and won a Newbery. While growing up, I read Wrinkle too many times to count, and I have a paperback copy autographed by L’Engle, which my mom bought for her future grandkids. (L’Engle’s inscription reads, “For Merry Nell’s grandchildren. Tesser well.”) What has stuck with me all these years is the final showdown, which is all about love. And not love as a sweet, tame, greeting card, candlelit feeling, signified with heart emojis, but love as the most powerful weapon against darkness and evil. That is a lesson I continue to need. Also, Meg made me accept myself as I am, glasses and all.
I’m a born & bred Texan, but I never truly loved my state until I took this book to the beach. Afterward, I wrote about it on my blog in a nine-part series, focusing on the main characters and what they show us about love. It’s not a pretty book. There’s lots of sex and violence, and it does not end happily. But it has friendship — especially between Gus and Call — which is one of the more underrated loves in this world. Also, I’m always looking for good female characters, and Clara is who I want to be when I grow up. There is no end to her love, to her ability to speak truth, or to her joy in mornings.
In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Gaiman said the following about this book:
Diane Rehm: Is there a line you would not cross for children’s literature?
Neil Gaiman: Yes, and I had to discover that when I was writing my last novel Ocean at the End of the Lane. And figure out for myself if it was for children or for adults. And I decided it was for adults because I was not convinced that it offered hope, and I want all children’s literature, that I write, to have hope in it.
I do think the story offers hope, but not in the way children’s stories usually do. It’s the hope that children see more clearly than adults. It’s the hope that, as Shakespeare wrote in the Scottish play, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” That hole in your foot might be a wormhole. And can we all please live next to the Hempstocks, embodiments of the classic maiden-mother-crone archetype.
The book has two epigraphs, one from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, on which the book is loosely based: “I never saw a vessel of like sorrow, so fill’d and so becoming.” Through no fault of her own, Hermione becomes a vessel of sorrow and yet is so becoming, from first page to last. She’s a cheerleader and proud of it, and although I am not a fan of that sport, it is the perfect vehicle for telling this story. When we are pursued by a bear, forced to exit, left in a lake, we need friends and family who will pursue us with bear-like love and bring us back.
Anyone who has read The Joy of Poetry should not be surprised by my love for this story, in which Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life using only five words. It is so well-written, and it teaches me not only how to write well but how to live—and die—well. As Charlotte says, “Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…”
We live in those E.B. White-placed ellipses.
I also talked about Harry in The Joy of Poetry, about how listening to the audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale helped me sleep again. Now, with the help of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, it’s helping me through my waking hours, one chapter at a time. Every Monday, my best friend and I discuss the chapter of the week. We each choose a sentence and put them together using florilegia, our usual spiritual practice of choice. The more I delve into these books, the more I think they explain life, the universe and everything. Terrible people do great things. Great people do terrible things. The person who seems crazy may be the truth-teller. And the books reminds us that chocolate belongs in every first aid kit, to be administered following trauma.
When my husband gave me this book in 2002, it was as if he looked into my future and said, “This is your tribe.” Now I look back through the table of contents and the dog-eared pages and recognize the poems and the poets like extended family. Plus, Keillor’s introduction is so good — I wish it were taught in poetry classes. He says, “But sometimes a poem cuts through the static and delivers some good thing. It is of use; it gives value.” The poems I keep and save and journal about do exactly that, give value to my life. This book gave me permission to evaluate poems not by their rhyme scheme, but by what Keillor calls their “stickiness,” meaning, “You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.”
Please go read my colleague Kevin Tankersley’s interview with Wilkerson. Dear writers and readers, history, like fiction, is best when it tells a story. Wilkerson completely changed my understanding of American history, and she did it with stories of three people whose lives illustrate the three main routes of the Great Migration. I still have three quotes, one from each of these heroes, thumb-typed into my phone. So I will never forget.
George Swanson Starling: “Do not do spite.”
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster: “It confirmed he wasn’t crazy, and that made him feel utterly alone. Yes, there was an evil in the air and this man knew it and the woman at the hotel knew it, but here he was without a room and nobody with a mind to do anything had done a single thing to change that fact.”
Ida May Gladney: “Now we ain’t got nothing to do with God’s business.”
There are internet quizzes you can take to find out what literary character you most resemble. I don’t need a test—I am Lucy Honeychurch. And admitting that is my own version of embracing original sin; if I ever forget that I am Lucy, I am doomed. The story settles me. Many of the book’s chapters include subtitles that start with the word “lying,” including “Lying to George,” “Lying to Cecil,” “Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddy, and the Servants,” and “Lying to Mr. Emerson.” Lucy learns that those lies grow out of lying to herself. She is most honest and most herself at the piano: “But that some sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy had decided that they should triumph.”
This was the favorite book of my uncle Mark Fowden, fly fisher extraordinaire. But you don’t have to love fly fishing to love this novella (I don’t, and I do). But what the heck is it? Is it memoir? Is it fiction? Is it a philosophical treatise? Is it a how-to manual? All of the above. Norman, the narrator, says of his father, “Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word ‘beautiful,’” and that’s really the only word for this book: beautiful. Beautiful despite life’s ugliness, from which it does not shy. It makes me want to take my pencil and notebook outside and write truth.
Top 10 (or So) Books That Inspired You
Your turn! Share your list. It doesn’t have to be ten—just a book or two that, like Glynn said, “moved me to do something, change something, create something, recognize that I could go beyond where I was.”
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro