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 NPR.org 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?