The Most Influential Book Ever

I’d never heard of Gary Wills until Robert Siegel interviewed him on NPR’s “All Things Considered” the other day. I listened because I was in the car on the way home, and NPR is the best thing for preventing high blood pressure in Atlanta traffic. Also, I like Robert Siegel’s voice – there’s something about the calmness of it, with just a hint of a lisp, that makes it seem comforting without being pretentious. So when he mentioned “Pulitzer-Prize winning” and “historian” in the same sentence, I smiled at my good fortune and turned the volume up.

I’ll spare you the details on Wills (besides, this link on sums it up better anyway) but I will say that I became fascinated by one of Siegel’s questions: “You’re signature question came about during an interview with Richard Nixon. You asked him, ‘What book has influenced you?'” Wills answered that Nixon’s response caught him off-guard because it was A) long, and B) thoughtful. Nixon’s book? “Beveridge and the Progressive Era” by Claude Bowers (1932).

Wills has asked the question of countless people since, including Hillary Clinton (“The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky, for opening up spirituality in a new way). It’s a fascinating way, if you’re a reader, to learn about other people. It’s not flawless, of course – taste in books is like taste in wine or fashion or movies: usually, anything that doesn’t match yours is to be scoffed at – but it does give us a common ground from which to examine people.

Needless to say, the interview, and the revelation of Wills’ most reliable and delightful question, has gotten me to thinking: what’s the most influential book that I’ve read?

Being a Christian, the Bible is tops. Nothing else stirs me quite like the Good Book, especially once I learned how to read it properly and not like a right-wing political manifesto. But that’s also an easy answer, and a bit bland. Like Amish prom dresses, it doesn’t reveal much.

So I’ve been wrecking my brain for some answers, and I have a few.

Most influential non-fiction? There are two. Lewis Grizzard’s “Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself“, which I read as a pre-teen by sneaking it out of my parent’s bedroom one afternoon while they were outside working in the yard. It was the funniest book I’d ever read up to that point (and still holds up pretty well, actually), and one that I would re-read countless times over the years. Grizzard showed me that the world I grew up in – Southern, down-to-earth, slightly awkward – was one that could produce stories that both moved and delighted people. I learned that you could bring people to tears with hysterics and profundity; that if you were honest about what you saw and felt (with maybe a dash of fictionalization tossed in for good measure) you could communicate simple truth in a powerful way.

In short, I learned that my natural knack for humor and storytelling was something that people might one day want to read. It changed my life, literally.

The second non-fiction book was “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Enough has been said about this book to fill a million blogs over, but Lewis’ straightforward and unorthodox (compared to how I grew up) approach to the faith gave me hope that I didn’t have to be ashamed of being smart and being a Christian. Until that point, there were powerful messages of shame that had been lobbed at me throughout my youth (not by my family, but outside sources) because I was smart. Because I liked to read. Because I could see things in the Bible that other people couldn’t see and teach those things in ways others couldn’t. I was told to not be uppity, or high-falutin’, or bigger than my britches. I was told that college was not for a good Christian man. I was told a lot of things, and Lewis showed me the exact opposite: that God wanted all of me – brain, imagination, soul, body. It was liberating.

But I came to Lewis’ non-fiction by his fiction. The first thing I ever read by C.S. Lewis was “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and it still remains the single-most influential piece of fiction I’ve ever read. Sure, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl stirred my mind in a more evocative sense with his chocolate river and great glass elevator and endless use of smell to ignite my imagination, but Lewis’ work was deeper, more profound, larger in a sense that very few books have matched since. Before I knew about Lewis’ Narnian tales and what he was attempting to do through fiction, I was amazed and awed by Aslan and his roar. I could imagine his mane being as golden as Lewis described and wanting to bury my face in it alongside Lucy’s. I could feel the coldness of Winter But No Christmas, and even got nauseated with Edward on Turkish Delight. I knew that the White Witch was an evil unlike any other, and I cried at the Stone Table. I experienced all of this without knowing its subtext, without knowing that Lewis was telling me a story that ran deeper than Narnia’s Deep Magic, ran deeper than the blood inside my veins.

And once I knew the Story behind the story, had experienced all of Lewis’ thoughts on fiction and art and beauty as a path to God, I became that much more enamored with the world behind the fur coats. I’m no Narnian scholar, not even an expert, but I know what I’ve taken away from the books, and how it’s changed what and how I want to write.

I could go on, but that would only serve to cheapen the books I’ve mentioned. I think, as I look back on it, while I’ve loved a great many books and had certain epiphanies as I read or shortly thereafter, none have impacted me as much as the three I’ve mentioned.

But in the spirit of knowing and learning, indeed in the spirit of Gary Wills, I would like to ask: what’s the most influential book you’ve ever read, and why?

Thank You, Walter and Patty Berglund

So I’ve been sitting in the hospital again all day, waiting while Rachel undergoes the second of her preventative surgeries, this one to remove the expanders and insert the permanent implants in her breasts. I’ve listened to the stories of the people around me, overheard some conversations whose participants were not concerned about others hearing, and I’ve watched the faces come and go like clouds in the summer sky. I’ve passed the majority of the time reading Jonathan Franzen’s newest book, “Freedom”, a most excellent (if somewhat profane) book on a regular American family.

And after reading the profoundly disturbing antics of the Berglund family, I’ve come to the conclusion: I love my wife so much that I cannot live without her. Don’t want to live without her. Won’t live without her.

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve not yet read “Freedom”, leave this page now. I’m going to touch on the book’s resolution, and I don’t want you screaming at me for ruining the book for you. So, once again, SPOILER ALERT!

If, however, you don’t even know what I’m talking about, have never heard of Jonathan Franzen or his latest little book, then read on. And consider watching Oprah; then you might have at least heard about this guy.

So, back to where I was.

I came to this conclusion about my wife after reading about Walter and Patty Berglund, two seriously flawed people (in that way that all people are flawed, only magnified) who cannot seem to be rid of each other, despite manifest reasons to do exactly that: be rid of the other. In reading Franzen’s marvelous prose, the two main characters of the book come alive with all of the suburban, polemic breath that we’ve come to identify as life these days; in fact, Walter and Patty are so marvelously fleshed out, you almost feel voyeuristic in certain sections of the novel, as if by reading Franzen’s words about imaginary people you’re somehow looking into their fenced in backyard with your high-powered telescope. But this life, this magnificent reality that Franzen creates, is what makes Walter and Patty so tragic.

And spurs realizations of your own.

Reading about the damaging, almost fatal, completely bizarre and hard to understand love that keeps the Berglunds together, I was compelled to consider my own relationship with Rachel. To examine the ways in which I love her. To imagine what my life would be without her. And ultimately to realize that we will be together always.

I’ve always known this, of course, but sometimes you have those moments of “what if”, those fleeting seconds where you wonder what would have happened if life had gone differently, if you had taken the door on the left 0r not made that phone call, you can find doubt setting in. And not the okay kind of doubt, the curious, demonic, hellish bad kind that can rip a person in two. And in those moments, as you realize the darkness that everyone has inside them, you wonder if it’s realistic to believe that a love professed between two people, who are bound to change and grow and become different over the years, can really last. It’s a question so profound, and so in need of answers, that the preeminent literary novelist of our times just wrote a whole book about it.

And in reading about Walter and Patty, in reading about these two colossally screwed up people who damage one another in horrible ways but still end up together because their love, no matter how demented, still conquers all…well, I realized that my love for Rachel, healthy and rooted in our faith in the All-Powerful God, will last just as long.

As they say, “When you know, you know.”

“Freedom” is not a novel that I would recommend for your church’s book club. It’s probably not anything that you would want your grandmother or children or judgmental neighbor reading either. I’m not here to praise it’s content – as I’ve said, everyone in this book is tainted and disturbed and ruined by the disease of more – but rather the questions that it makes you ask and the answers it makes you consider. This is literature doing what literature should do: push us to consider life.

Sitting in the waiting room, as far away as a spouse can possibly be from their mate, separated by walls and wires and anesthesia, I was reminded in the brokenness of two fictional characters how precious my wife is to me. And how much I love even watching her breathe, or laugh, or walk.

I am grateful for the reminder. And the confirmation.