A list of books from my childhood

wrinkle_in_time Tyler Cowen and Peter Suderman have both compiled (non-definitive) lists of books which have influenced them the most over the years.  I have thought about this some, and come to the decision that the books I read as a child were by far the most influential – far more influential than anything I read later as a college student or the ones I read nowadays.  So here’s a list, from memory, of the most influential books I read as a child.

The Lord of the Rings – This one is the obvious choice for a fantasy reader, I suppose.  I read it in fourth grade for the first time and loved it, and have read it several times since. It is still the definitive work of epic fantasy, I believe.  The only downside is that so many people attempted to imitate Tolkien when they should have been writing their own ideas.

The Prydain Chronicles – Lloyd Alexander was never as well known as Tolkien, but his Prydian books were wonderful young adult fantasy novels steeped in Welsh myth.  So while some of the characters mirrored those in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the stories themselves were unique and interesting and lively.  I read these ones countless times.

The Dark is Rising Sequence – This series taps into the old Welsh and British mythology fairly heavily, mixing the modern world and Merlin and time travel together in an epic clash between good and evil.  One of many books I read and loved that transports us from the mundane world into one much darker and more fierce.

A Wrinkle in Time – This was one of those books that really stopped me in my tracks. Free will, conformity, and the seduction of evil are all present here.

The Giver – Another glimpse into totalitarianism and conformity and the dangers of ‘sameness’ and ignorance of history.  Less fantastical than my typical childhood read, but sort of shocking also.

The Bridge to Terabithia – They made a movie about this book recently.  Please don’t watch it.  Sometimes movies can enrich the book experience, but not when they are mangled by over-Disneyfication. Terabithia helped me understand tragedy and loss better.

The Castle in the Attic – To be honest, I can barely remember this book, but like Narnia it helped transport me into another world – something I did a lot of as a kid.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This was a good, funny, cynical take on the King Arther stories.  Very helpful to round out all that heroism and chivalry with some good, honest, witty realism.

Narnia – Like the Lord of the Rings, these books are simply staples of young adult fantasy.

King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table – I have read so many King Arthur books at this point I can barely keep track of them.  This was one of the first.

I Am the Cheese – This was far more dystopian a tale than I typically read as a child, and still sort of haunting whenever I think about it.

Some honorable mentions:

Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Wind in the Willows, The Last Unicorn, the Redwall books, the books of Roald Dahl and many others…

I should probably put child’s things away at this point and read more serious works of fiction and non-fiction – more philosophy, theology, et alia.  And yet … perhaps it is having children of my own now, or perhaps it is simply that I read to escape, but when it comes down to choosing I still find myself with some fantasy novel in hand, or some work of science fiction or mystery.  Yes – I do dip into non-fiction at times.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is certainly one of the most influential histories of my adult life. A Short History of Nearly Everything has been one of my favorite non-fiction reads in the past few years.  Crime and Punishment is hardly fantasy, and has been one of my favorite works of fiction that I’ve read since high school.  I blazed through a great deal of literature both contemporary and classic during college.  Some of it was quite good.

But the books that I’ve really loved have been Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell; the George R. R. Martin books; even the Harry Potter books.  True – much of the fantasy genre is fairly awful. Perhaps that’s why I’m so glad whenever I do find something good – even older children’s fantasy that I missed somehow as a child, like the work of Diana Wynne Jones.

What I’d like to read soon are the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks. And Jane Jacobs. And Diane Ravitch’s latest. And Joe Abercrombie (who, like Banks, is mysteriously missing from the local library…) And some Chesterton.

I’m currently reading  the sprawling Malazan books of Steven Erikson (now on House of Chains); and After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre – though I do not spend enough time reading (and I have a suspicion that this will remain the case until my children are older.) I’ve also got Mieville’s The City and the City lined up, though I admit to being a little stuck in Erikson’s series, making it hard for me to move on to other things.

So much to read, so little time.

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27 thoughts on “A list of books from my childhood

  1. Great list – we had similar tastes ED.

    My list:

    The Boy Scout Fieldbook

    Summer of the Monkeys

    Tom Sawyer

    Huck Finn

    Treasure Island

    Swiss Family Robinson


    King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

    The Dark is Rising Sequence (big ups for that one ED)

    Gentle Ben

    To Kill a Mockingbird

    The Chocolate War

    Island of the Blue Dolphins

    Dracula (Bram Stoker)

    As for non-fiction, the three books that influenced me the most were a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls, a book about the Shroud of Turin and a book about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. When I later cashed my first paycheck as an archaeologist those books were responsible for getting me there.

    I would also be remiss if I didn’t include dozens of copies of National Geographic Magazine and plenty of comic books.

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  2. I’ll second most of the above, although I still haven’t read “A Wrinkle in Time.” I also loved “Hatchet” and “My Side of the Mountain,” both survivalist fantasies for the middle school set, but interesting, none the less. The image of the dead body in the submerged plane from “Hatchet” is one that stays with me still.

    Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. “Time and Again” by Clifford D. Simak, “Caves of Steel,” “I, Robot” and “Foundation,” all by Isaac Asimov.

    And ED, I’m about half way through “House of Chains” right now. Thanks for the suggestion of Erikson, I’ve been really enjoying the books. The first one was kinda rough going through about the first half, but it’s really picked up.

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  3. Aaron, thanks for calling out the great master Asimov so I won’t look like an utter geek by mentioning him.

    If you ever go back to fantasy E.D. I’d strongly recommend considering the Fionavar Tapestry series by guy Gavriel Kay. It’s a brilliant fantasy trilogy touching on a multitude of old mythos’ and with a lovely theme on the place of free will in a moral universe. It was one of the foundational fantasies of my own childhood (and the author is Canadian).


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  4. I read Steven R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books and then the second series and there is, apparently, a third series out. I bought the first one (it’s signed!!! I asked the cashier “was he here?” and she laughed at me and said that they just had some signed ones shipped to them) and never cracked it.

    I don’t reckon that the story has aged particularly well and I doubt I could go back and reread it… but, my goodness, I thought it was good when I was in my teens. His Mirror books were pretty good too, as I recall. Dude has some serious unresolved issues when it comes to women, though.

    But I have a signed copy of the first book from the third series.

    David Eddings wrote a series (the Belgariad? Is that right?) and I read it more than a dozen times. The first time I read it, it blew me away. The second time (and subsequent times) I wrote myself into the story in my head. It was my first Mary Sue. Sigh.

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    • Yeah the Belgariad was nice if repetative by the second go-round of their theme. It was cute that the repetativeness was explained in the story but it struck me as a cheap way to extend a wildly popular series.

      Dude! Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series! You totally took me back with that one. Good stuff. I never got woman issues from it, maybe if I read the newest one. Now Robert Jordan, there’s a man with woman issues in his writing.

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  5. Yes. Thomas Covenant. I was babysitting my cousin’s kids when I foud the first book. I read it, not realizing there were three. So I read all three. And they were LONG. Then I realized that there were another three. Read those, too. I don’t recall loving them, though. I just felt like I had to finish.

    Now, I know I run the risk of being “that guy,” but I do have to say that Ayn Rand had a whale of an impact on my worldview when I was 19. I never got infatuated, but it struck me as important. I had a similarly cliched attraction to Hunter S. Thompson, although I admit that I still find him quite good.

    Long prior to that, I found an Edgar Allan Poe anthology that through me for a loop. Same as Kafka.

    One of the most important books in my life has long been The Brothers Karamazov. One of the greatest works of all time! Only I can’t finish it, and I feel really bad about it. I keep trying, but I can’t even get to the part where they kill the dad.

    A little humility is always a good thing.

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    • Absolutely. Reading the Dune series was a really major formative experience for me. Moreso than anything else, actually, until I discovered Philip K. Dick in my teens (and also Neon Genesis Evangelion, but lets not go there).

      I would apply Erik’s comments about Terabithia to Dune as well though. Neither the mangled David Lynch version not the painfully low-budget miniseries come close to doing it justice.

      Oh, and I have read a bunch of these books, but most of them were assigned reading in school. Context matters.

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  6. I have a Watership Down story.

    When I was a little kid, my father passed away (it sucked). Our family walked through a haze for a few months and then mom sat me down and said “hey, we’re still a family, we’re still going to do family things… hey, look. There’s a movie playing down at the Penn Theater. It’s a cartoon about bunnies!!!”

    And we went to see Watership Down.

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  7. I just thought I should also mention, I had a major love of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling when I was a kid. I think Conrad holds up, for the most part, but Kipling is a little bit more questionable. However, I did truly love “Kim” and some of his short stories.

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  8. I would like to add, as an endorsement, David Shi’s absolutely brilliant “The Simple Life,” which tracks the recurring American urge to simplify, from John Woolman to Thoreau right up through the “eat local” folks. Fantastic stuff. And “I’ll Take My Stand.” I encountered both of these well after college, yet somehow they made a real impact. I suspect I might be done with such things now. But if you get a chance, check them out.

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  9. Jaybird assures me it would be kosher to repost something I wrote on this topic a few years back, seeing as how the answers haven’t really changed, so here goes:

    All the wonderful books I read as a child seem to have fairly heavily influenced me, judging by rereadings. Adult books, enh, not so much – though maybe I just need to be farther away from them to be able to trace their influence.
    That being the case, I’ve fretfully reduced my answer to two of the earliest “serious” books i remember reading, and rereading, until they flowed in my veins:
    Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen – Some of the things which captured me in this book: the fierceness with which the gods strive for their desires; Ask and Embla, the trees who became the first people; Odin’s ordeal, and his two ravens; the giants; the social complexity of how the various races (man, giants, gods, pre-gods, etc.) were intertwined; the creation myth (ohhhhhh, the creation myth); the humor; Loki; Freya and Frigg and, for some reason, apples. It mattered because of the sheer power of the stories, which came to live and draw breath in my head. Also, it taught me to be proud of my earthiness, to revel in my delight for dirt and rot and gut-driven actions. I didn’t believe in those gods, but I wanted them to be true. I ended up seeing Catholic rituals and dogma through the pre-existing filter of these myths, so that the Christian story resonated through Ragnarok and Baldur’s rebirth, rather than the other way around. [The caveat to this is that I’m under the impression, as an adult, that Green’s version of Norse mythology was heavily filtered through his own Christianity.] And, well, Bifrost made such an impression on me that I’ve never been able to see a rainbow without wishing to ascend it.
    The Once and Future King, by T. H. White: My immersion in this book was certainly a contributing factor to: a fascination with natural history, particularly *old* style natural history; a fervent desire to be chivalrous, and a concomitant curiosity about the social customs pertaining thereto; a particular way of speaking, overspecific, full of large words, and almost – deliberately stilted? – for the purposes of self-amusement; and a willingness to risk all in an effort to leap onto the right thing. The original delight of my small mind with the idea of a person living backwards through time has led to to an inexhaustible interest in time travel and probably started me upon my explorations of physics. Again, this is a living, breathing, compelling story, a myth that drew me into all sorts of history.

    Both books are as filled with wonder as was the world I saw around me. Reading them was akin to a long, sustained cry of delight, one that had room for sorrow in it. Still is; I could gratefully dip into either of them out loud at any time, with any person of whom I’m fond, under almost any circumstances.


    Rereading that now, having *done* more rereading in the last few years, I would say that Lord of the Rings, Wrinkle in Time & sequels (can I get a shout out for the Wind in the Door?), and of all things, a trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce about a unicorn named Firebringer (oh, hush), were also heavily implicated in my shaping.

    But, you know, my mom is a children’s librarian. I’ve read almost every book mentioned so far, and I actually *remember* their plots and most of their themes, unlike 99 percent of the stuff I read in high school and college. No wonder they were more influential.

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