Angie posted today at The Misfits about her favorite books. I'm a sucker for lists, so here's mine:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
There are other books I love and reread, even, but the books listed above all stayed with me in some particular way. They probably have more influence on me as a writer than most other books, too. And they all have some things in common.
To Kill a Mockingbird would probably get my vote for the Great American Novel -- the story, the characters, the imagery all work together to create something memorable. I first read it in high school and have read it several times since -- it's like visiting old friends. (I suppose that's true for all the books above.) I suppose what pulled me into the story is the distinctive voice that holds my attention even with the leisurely pace. It's like Harper Lee invites the reader to sit on the porch with her while she weaves her tale. The events are significant and powerful, but it's the voice and the characters that made me fall in love with the book.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a different kind of book, but I think a lot of what I just said holds true for it, too. Ursula LeGuin is a master storyteller and world builder. She makes Winter a real place, and Genly Ai and Estraven come to life on the pages. I first read this in college, over one weekend -- a weekend that found me so absorbed in the story that when I put it down, I had to remind myself where I was. This book showed me what science fiction could be in the hands of a master stylist. I love how it works on multiple levels -- it's a rousing good adventure story that makes you think about what it really means to believe in something, what price you would be willing to pay for that belief, and the true meaning of friendship and love. And all from a self-described atheist! If you've never read this classic, check it out of your local library and be prepared to lose yourself for a weekend.
The Lord of the Rings is, simply, the greatest fantasy novel ever written. I first read The Hobbit in high school and had never read anything like it before. I was captivated. I started The Lord of the Rings in high school, but didn't read it all the way through until college (I think I got bogged down in the Two Towers the first time). Tolkien makes me want to go to Middle Earth and hang out with the hobbits. Bob and I so loved the book that we named rooms in one of our first apartments after places in Middle Earth. (For example, the bathroom was Mordor, just so we could say "I'm going to Mordor." I've never pretended we weren't weird.) No other epic fantasy has so captured my imagination and I think it's because the characters are so wonderful and vivid.
In This House of Brede isn't a book that usually turns up on people's favorite books lists, but maybe it should. Rumer Godden wrote a number of novels in the mid-20th century and some of them were pretty well known. I first encountered this book as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book at my grandma's house. It's an episodic tale of a woman in England who becomes a nun in her 40s. Most of the story takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s and depicts a way of life that has probably changed a lot since the book was written. But, again, the characters are so real and captivating that it's a pleasure to spend time in their company. Though I'm not Roman Catholic, I appreciated the way Godden was able to write about faith. Her nuns were human and had their own faults and failings, but the underpinning of faith and service in their lives says a lot to me. It's a story that could have come across as sappy and cliched, but it doesn't. God works, but not always the way you expect. Faith triumphs after tragedy but there's a long process of healing. This is another book worth looking up in your local library or used book store.
Jane Eyre, on the other hand, is a classic on a lot of people's favorites lists. I think of it as the original gothic romance. I first read it when I was about 13, so maybe my youthful romanticism colored my first impressions of it. But Jane and Mr. Rochester are such memorable, complex characters that the story holds up well. And when I reread it after I was a little older I realized that Charlotte Bronte was ahead of her time in how she wrote about women and their place in the world. Jane is not perfect, but she shows real courage and sticks to what she believes is right.
While these books were written in different styles and different eras, they have some things in common that pull me back to them: strong, vivid characters; distinctive voice; a slower pace of storytelling. I don't mind a book that takes a little time to introduce the scene. All of these books give the reader a chance to enter the story without being dragged in by the author. Yes, there are compelling elements to the opening pages, but it's not breakneck storytelling here. I happen to like that approach. The writer's voice is distinct in each, too. Ursula LeGuin and Rumer Godden have very different approaches to storytelling, but both work, both styles fit the story being told, both engage the reader. But even more important are the characters. If I read a book over it's because I like the people in it and want to spend time with them again. (This is why I've been rereading the Harry Potter books this summer, too.)
If I could write books that have these things in common with my favorites -- with strong characters, distinctive voice, and an engaging but not overly hurried pace -- I'd feel like I'd accomplished somethng, whether anyone publishes them or not.