Science, Fiction, Life

Ten Book Challenge

Ok, I can’t help myself. When I see a book meme, I have to do it. I saw this on Facebook, courtesy of Karen, and I thought it would be fun to do, mostly because I really enjoy recommending books!

Rules for the Ten Book Challenge: In your status blog, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. They don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature. Then tag ten friends and me so I can see your list.

Choosing just ten was really difficult, and I cheated by doing some lumping and listing multiple books by one author for a few of the items. I also should note that I’m trying to stick with the way the challenge was worded and choosing books that “stayed with me”. There are plenty of others that I enjoyed as much or more than some of these, but all of these got their hooks in my brain and really stayed there:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I knew I liked fantasy before this, but the vast majority of fantasy is either imitating or responding to Lord of the Rings, so when I first read this in middle school it knocked my socks off. Middle Earth sucked me in and no other book series has managed such complete and perfect immersion: the result of Tolkien’s unparalleled worldbuilding, plus reading it at an age when I was still pretty uncritical and so I could get drawn in deep.
  2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This book is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam war, written by an author who lived through the war. It was assigned in my AP English class and is an extremely powerful book. I can still remember some of the vivid images in this book very clearly. It somehow manages to be incredibly sad but beautiful at the same time. Great writing. I need to read this again.
  3. Cosmos, Contact, Pale Blue Dot, Demon Haunted World other books by Carl Sagan – These books came along just at the right time. Late in high school when I was interested in science, but before I was old enough to be cynical about Sagan’s purple prose, and before I had heard everything in these books. Sagan’s writing, his passion for knowledge, and importantly his ability to tie science in with history and philosophy and everything else about the human experience, made me want to become an astronomer. Nowadays I don’t read books like this because I don’t learn much from them, but at the time they were exactly what I needed. I learned a lot of science from these books but they also put into words what I had always felt about religion. Having someone so eloquently express why it’s possible to be a good person without a higher power had a huge influence on me. Sagan’s books inspired a whole generation of scientists and humanists, and much of what I see these days in non-fiction writing just paraphrases him.
  4. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – I read these books at around the same time as the Sagan books. The whole summer after my senior year of high school was basically spent reading, and what I read that summer really set the course for my life. This trilogy is still the best sci-fi story about the colonization of Mars that I am aware of. It is amazingly well-researched, and stands up pretty well even decades later. The wonderful descriptions of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars are a great part of this series, but even more interesting was the way that Robinson also examines the politics and social issues among the colonists and between the colonists and Earth. This is a truly epic series with fascinating (if sometimes melodramatic) characters, set on a Mars that felt very very real.
  5. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -Where the Red Mars trilogy tries very hard to be realistic, Bradbury has no interest at all in being realistic and somehow that makes his stories even better. His writing style is unique and wonderful, and there’s a lot of wisdom mixed in among the beautiful prose. I read the Martian Chronicles once when I was way too young to understand it, but when I came back to it when I was old enough it was great. The bittersweet sadness that Bradbury evokes as humans come to live on a Mars among the crumbling crystalline cities of the long-gone Martians is really powerful.
  6. The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Birthday of the World, etc. by Ursula K. LeGuin – I came across LeGuin’s books toward the end of high school and in early college, and they were a great contrast with the other stuff I was reading. Whereas a lot of golden-age sci-fi is about white men doing amazing things with physics and engineering, LeGuin did something new (to me, at least) with science fiction, speculating in the realm of social science and anthropology and using characters of color and women instead of Generic White Physicist. I guess some Generic White Physics types don’t like the idea of reading from the point of view of someone like them, but to me it made her books more interesting, and the focus on social sciences really opened my eyes to what was missing from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Given the choice nowadays, I’d much rather read something from LeGuin than anything from the “hard” sci-fi genre. When the gee-whiz factor wears off, you realize that a lot of hard sci-fi doesn’t have much else going for it, while LeGuin’s writing recognizes that there is much more to life than physics and engineering, an important lesson for someone like me!
  7. Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin – If Lord of the Rings was just right for me when I read them in middle school, Game of Thrones was the right series at the right time in grad school. Reading these books was an eye-opening experience because they are a direct response to Lord of the Rings. The Dark Lord and flawless heroes in white are gone and replaced by a bunch of flawed characters trying to survive in a brutal world. Protagonists die, villains win, and magic is a distant memory when the series begins. Like Lord of the Rings, the worldbuilding for Game of Thrones is great and it sucked me in, but unlike Lord of the Rings, it’s the characters that keep me fascinated by Game of Thrones. This series has basically spawned a new genre of fantasy fiction, and rightly so.
  8. Shogun by James Clavell – This book was the first time I really deliberately set out to read historical fiction, and then realized how much it has in common with the fantasy fiction that I already loved. It’s a thick tome that’s easy to get sucked into, with vivid worldbuilding and lots and lots of courtly intrigue: not all that different from Game of Thrones! But the great thing about historical fiction is that it is also based on real history! Shogun made me realize first that I was interested in historical fiction, and second, that I was interested in history. Not the boring kind taught in school, but the kind that is just the fascinating stories of people who lived long ago.
  9. The Scar by China Mieville – A lot of the books on this list are here because they showed me something new, but none so much as The Scar. This book is also a response to classic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but where Game of Thrones responded by focusing on morally gray characters but within an England-analog fantasy setting, Mieville’s response was basically “Fantasy can be so much more than medieval Europe. Here, let me show you what happens when you actually use your imagination.” And so he wrote Perdido Street Station, followed by The Scar. I much prefer The Scar, and it is delightfully weird. It’s set on a floating pirate city built from the lashed-together hulks of old ships. There are cactus people and criminals whose bodies have been mangled and merged with mechanical limbs powered by coal-burning engines. There is an island where the sand is made of corroded gears and mechanisms and the inhabitants are mosquito-people. There are people whose blood clots into stone, so before battle they cut themselves and bleed to form an armored carapace. And on top of all of that, Mieville’s writing is thick with obscure words that most people have never heard of or only learn so they can pass the SAT. His writing style does get to be a bit much in large doses, but I really enjoyed it.
  10. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – I listened to this one on audiobook while I was in Pasadena for MSL operations. This is a collection of essays by the author about his life, and many of them really hit home for me. He uses his impressive writing talent to put into words a lot of feelings that were very familiar to me. Now, as the list above shows, I love reading books that take me to new places and make me think or experience new things, but sometimes the best writing shows you something very familiar and just describes it perfectly, or shines a new light on it, making connections that you didn’t know were there. That’s what this book did for me. Some of the essays were better than others, but overall this one definitely stuck with me and I want to read it again.

4 Comments

  1. infamousginger

    OK, Books that have “Stayed with me,” Not necessarily the best books or stayed with me best of being good but rather those that come to mind easily for any reason.

    First I would say, Moby Dick by Herman Melville… for more go to my blog the Infamousbotanist.

    • Ryan

      I don’t see it on your blog yet…

      I really should read Moby Dick again. I read it in high school and I think it was over my head.

  2. Rick Anderson

    I see the Redwall series didn”t make the list.

    • Ryan

      I loved the Redwall series when I was in middle school, but I don’t think they “stayed with me” in the sense that I was aiming for with this list. I was going more for books that showed me something new somehow or strongly influenced me in some way. Redwall mostly just made me want to run around in the woods with a sword. 🙂

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