A recent email from a young seminarian in Missouri:
"Every writer is a writer in part because of the influence of other writers. For my own edification could you share the five most influential writers that you have read, and maybe a book/story/essay of theirs that has been particularly enriching. I am winding through my personal library and I am looking to spruce it up. Thank you for your prophetic witness. It deepens me in my ability to commit to real discipleship."
I promised to give this some thought, and the first thing that came to me is that I don't so much have books that have influenced me as I have books I love. The craft, the ideas, the heart, the excellence, the beauty that went into writing them is the influence.
As a kid I'd say The Diary of Anne Frank was a major influence. Even now I can hardly believe they killed her.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (who had a beloved, tormented son nicknamed Mouse who killed himself by throwing himself on a set of railroad tracks) I responded to deeply. The mystical sense of nature, the cozy underground burrow of The Badger (forerunner to Notes from Underground), the resurrectional springtime, the lovable blowhard of an out-of-control drunk Toad. I always got a book for my birthday and Christmas, and the version we had featured a shiny gold-edged cover that I held to my pre-pubescent breast many a cold winter night.
Also, what would today be classified as a "YA" novel I dearly wish were better known: Whistle Down the Wind by Mary Hayley Bell, which I wrote a post on awhile back. Jesus comes to the English countryside in the form of an escaped, chain-smoking convict. The children of course are the ones who rescue and shelter him...
As an adult, if I were trying to be clever, the books of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, though more and more, those ARE the essential books. I gave away most of my library three years ago and have not missed those books for a moment and have gathered tons of new books. I read for the emotion, the feel, the sense of other possibilities. That click of Someone got it right. Someone described how I have felt, but never been able to articulate, or posed the question I've been posing all my life without even knowing I was posing it! Or someone told a story that is completely different from my story and yet, amazingly, gloriously, is in some way the same as my story.
When I was in the process of converting, Msgr. Romano Guardini's The Lord was an influence. I couldn't tell you one thing that was in it today, but it is still on my shelf, and what I do remember was that it introduced me to the PERSON of Christ. The humanity of Christ. The strangeness of Christ. And for whatever reason, I instinctively understood Oh, that is what Catholicism is. You love Christ. And you serve Him. You come to Christ on bended knee, with a humble and contrite and insanely grateful heart, and you adore Him because that is what you were made for and that is what, unbeknownst to yourself up to now, you WANT to do. In spite of what promises to be unalloyed suffering, profound loneliness, daily rebellion, waywardness, fear of ridicule, etc. And because that is the path to joy! I've never been drawn to writers who in any way try to make Catholicism look "cool" or "hip." I'm all about the mystery of the people in plain sight everyone overlooks: the old ladies praying the novenas, the real estate developer anonymously feeding the homeless, the suburban priest who appears to have wasted his life (which reminds me, J.F. Powers' The Wheat Springeth Green and of course Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanons and don't miss the Bresson movie).
For other spiritual classics, I have always loved Catherine de Hueck Doherty's Strannik, and keep a dog-eared copy by my bed, just to dip in every so often. Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul--beyond profound, as much for what it doesn't say (there is not a word of censure or complaint, and yet she has a huge sense of humor), as what it does--which, again, is: Abandon yourself completely to Christ. You're not going to shape yourself up, and you are really, really, not going to shape anyone else up. So relax. Accept that Jesus really is our only Friend, cultivate a relationship with Him, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.
Fr. Walter Ciszek's He Leadeth Me: ten stars. I only read it this year and I would almost say if there were one book to lean on, this would be the one. While on starvation rations, he and the other lover-of-Christ prisoners in Siberia would observe the Eucharistic fast from MIDNIGHT the night before and on their lunch break from hard labor, in the tundra-temp.woods, celebrate a stolen Mass, with wine and bread smuggled in by nuns in the surrounding villages, on a tree stump. Under penalty of death if they were discovered. That is how much the Eucharist meant to them. That is how deeply they understood, these simple peasants many of them, that we are sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ. And our big complaint is bad homilies! As much to the point, he, too, writes of the long, slow, journey to complete abandonment. He says Everyone has to make the choice, sooner or later: am I going to live for myself, or am I going to live for God? He spent fiver or six years in solitary, before going to Siberia, praying, praying, praying--and then he capitulated under interrogation and devastated, realized he was only at the beginning of the journey. He had not abandoned himself at all, or not nearly completely. He was still relying on his own power...
Books I read, and was bowled over by, last year: Domenica Ruta's With our Without You, a splendid memoir about growing up with a junkie mother in working-class Danvers, Massachusetts. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo who richly deserves her Pulitzer.
I'm always trying to urge Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe (a Nobel Prize winner) upon folks. A Personal Matter is the best for-all-of-life novel, or piece of writing, period, I've ever read. Here's an interview he did with The Paris Review. If I ever get the time, I am going to write an essay on all the writers who are more Catholic than many Catholics. Oe will lead the list.
That is just a tiny, tiny smattering. For iconic short stories: "Good Country People," by Flannery O'Connor. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Tolstoy (that may be a novella). "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton. "The End of FIRPO In the World," by George Saunders. Then there are the essays: E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake." "Late Victorians," by Richard Rodriguez. "A Good Appetite" by A.J. Liebling. I have a thick green hardback of four of M.F.K. Fisher's books combined that I also keep nearby and dip into when the spirit moves. I disagree with many of her food preferences and opinions and often dislike her personality, and yet, she's endlessly compelling.
Again, I don't read to improve myself; I read the same way I breathe: to live. Here's what's on my bedside table right now: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, Nazareth Family Spirituality, by Catherine Doherty, Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia, Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky, I Live Now Not I, by Fr. Pat McNulty, The Awakened Heart by Gerald G. May, Lost Souls by Allan Gurganus, Robert Walser's The Walk, A Guidebook to the Camino de Santiago, by John Brierley, and Streams of Grace by the Abbe de Tourville.
In other words, read what interests you, what lights you on fire, and that book will lead you to the next book, the next person, the next leg of the pilgrimage.
With all that, the book besides the Bible that has most influenced me--literally directed the course of my life--is The Habit of Being: The Collected Letters of Flannery O'Connor. "We are not judged by what we are are basically," she wrote to a friend. "We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness."
Those two lines gave me permission to write.