Books I Love is a series where writers talk about the books that inspired them, the books they keep coming back to, and the books they'll always remember.
I believe reading certain books can be a life-altering experience. I know that certain books made me rethink my life, my moral code, the trajectory of how I want to spend my short time on this earth. In the following list, I trace from adolescence through mid-life books that, each in their unique way, affected my world.
The Collected Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor - As a freshman in high school, I was first introduced to the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. English had always been my best subject and I was always a voracious reader, but something about O’Connor’s Catholic view, the intense moral conundrums acted out by her characters and, looking back, her absolute belief in God, made me walk around thinking of nothing else but her stories. This was the beginning of my desire to write. Needless to say, I’ve read them repeatedly over the course of my life, and everything else she’s written.
After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie by Jean Rhys - In college, I picked up this slim novel from the bookshelves of the Women’s Center at Boston University. I never returned it. It’s not as famous as Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s masterpiece, but it holds a special place in my heart. It’s unromantic look at the power of class, of money itself, of the fine line between freedom and aimlessness. It’s a cautionary tale that resonated with me as a young woman who wanted adventure and security. It was also a lesson in style. How can so much be said with so few words? It’s where you put them. Like with O’Connor, I went, I went on to read everything of Rhys’s.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill - When this book of stories was published, I was newly out of college and had just moved to New York City, where many of these stories take place. This is perhaps the most pivotal book of my life. Firstly, can people actually write about these things? Apparently so. The freedom to write about what no one wants to think about or acknowledge thrilled me. Secondly, I decided, for certain, that I wanted to write if this is what writing can do. I applied to graduate programs in creative writing and although I’d already been writing fiction, I had been a little secretive about it, a little ashamed of my desire to write. After reading Bad Behavior, that changed. I announced to myself and the world what it was I wanted to do.
The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta - I read this shortly after my first son was born and then again, ten years later. The title, while not ironic, belies what a terribly sad book it is. Set in post-colonial Nigeria, it’s a devastating portrait of woman struggling to adjust from her village life to Lagos, to take care of her growing family and make sense of the world. It’s simply told and it’s a completely unromantic look at motherhood while showing absolute compassion for the second oldest profession. Nothing is more important in this world than motherhood in my mind, and Emecheta’s character feels the same. But that doesn’t make it easy.
The Kreutzer Sonata and Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy - Shortly after I started my family, I read these two stories by Tolstoy. Everything that shapes us as we settle down--our love and lust for our partners, how we decide to be both privately and publicly as a family--is examined with a combination of cold-eyed precision and compassion. The destructive aspect of social ambition in particular interested me as a Midwestern transplant to the uber-competitive world of New York. I wrote the majority of my first collection of stories, Baby and Other Stories, as a modern day depiction, or response, to these two stories.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - Quite simply, this is the best novel I have ever read. I think Graham Greene said that after reading it, he wondered why he bothered to write at all (thank goodness he kept writing). But it really is that sort of an achievement, mind-blowingly expansive and detailed and human. It was the most satisfying read of my life, and the most excruciating, too. Like many good books, it took me into a different world and showed me that we are all struggling and we always have. Some people read to relate to characters and while I get that, there also is the great thrill of being taken into another world. War and Peace made it clear to me that reading and great books are important and frankly, can make us better people for having read them. The experience can enrich and inform, however subtly, the way we live our lives.
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard - This quartet of novels set in England at the end of World War I and Word War II is the most underrated sustained narrative that I have ever encountered. After War and Peace, I think this is the most amazing reading experience I’ve had. Like War and Peace, the lives of the characters during such a terrible, historically important time combine to make the great novel. Absolutely thorough, painful, at times funny, and just plain masterful, these books should be put into one volume and studied. It belongs firmly in the cannon. Howard wrote it in her middle age, when her life quieted. I’m inspired and hopeful for that time in my life to be half as productive.
Paula Bomer is the author of Nine Months (Soho).