Recently, I have enjoyed seeing folks on Facebook share their favorite books. I have always contended that one can tell much about another by the books they read. One of my favorite ways of getting to know my students, for example, is to ask what they are reading. The amazing conversations that begin with that question more than compensate from the disappointment I experience when people tell me that they don't read.
A few people nominated me to participate in sharing my favorite books, and rather than posting one every day, which I would hopelessly forget after two days, I decided I would offer my list here, in blog form. Asking me to choose my seven favorite books is quite a task. The makeup of the list is likely to vary based on what I just finished, what I'm hoping to read next, what sort of mood I'm in, what I had for lunch, etc. However, the books on this list have all changed my life in some way.
The list below might surprise you because there are no historical monographs, and I am, well, an historian. However, I think it's essential that academics break away from the literature of their profession to read and enjoy broader literature. Therefore, I have attempted to leave the "work" out of the list that follows. After all, I have plenty of other reading lists for those looking for academic recommendations. The following list is in no particular order.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek. I first became interested in Rawlings's work during my senior seminar in literature at Western Carolina University. Dr. Brent Kinser introduced me to her work, and she has been one of my favorites ever since. During my first semester of grad school, I had an opportunity to travel to Lakeland, Florida to present at the annual Rawlings Society conference, and that experience cemented Rawlings as one of my all-time favorite writers. Cross Creek is a beautiful memoir of a place, documenting Rawlings's arrival in rural Florida and her challenges in managing a 72-acre orange grove. After you read Cross Creek, you should pick up Short Stories by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a collection of Rawlings's best short stories, edited by Rodger Tarr. Compare her fictionalized short stories with Cross Creek and see which version you like better.
David Joy's Where All Light Tends to Go. This book touched my soul. In the characters in this book, I saw myself, my hometown, and the plethora of complicated emotions that surround growing up the way I did. I'm not certain there has ever been a better-articulated exploration of the Appalachian idea of not getting above your raising. Joy's characters reveal the region in all its beauty and all its complication. Though it is a novel, Where All Light Tends to Go is a substantially better exploration of Appalachian culture and community than most of the nonfiction books available.
Ron Rash's The World Made Straight. This is another novel that offers a compelling exploration of the world in which I grew up. I discovered this book at a point of major transition in my life. I had just moved back to my hometown, and this book helped me to extract meaning from the changes going on around me. I mentioned above that there are no historical monographs in this list, but The World Made Straight is, in some ways, a work of history. Rash is one of my favorite authors because he balances incredibly real characters with an impeccable grasp of the history about which he writes. In this book, Rash offers a moving story and a fascinating exploration of a piece of Appalachian history. I read this novel again every couple of years, and each time, I find a new layer of intricacy and meaning.
Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. This is the book that made me fall in love with books. I can still vividly remember Mr. Buchanan, my 7th grade language arts teacher, reading this book aloud to us. It was one of the first times in my life I was able to enjoy hearing a book rather than reading it, because my parents never read to me when I was a kid. This is a book I still revisit every couple of years, both because it's a great book, and because it was my gateway to literature. Thank you, Mr. B!
John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. I love John Steinbeck. While Tortilla Flats, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath are also some of my favorites, Cannery Row resonates with me because of its focus on the humanity of people who are often invisible to those around them. Set in a small part of a seaside California community, this book offers a fascinating and beautiful exploration of life, with love and community, rather than material things, at the center.
William Faulkner's Light in August. Until I read Light in August, I knew that Faulkner was something I should love, but his books seemed pretty inaccessible. I still struggle with the first part of The Sound and the Fury, admittedly, but after I read Light in August, I decided to go back and look at Faulkner with fresh eyes, and it helped me finally love Faulkner. While some of his short stories will likely always be my favorite pieces of his work, Light in August is, in my view, mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the complicated nature of race relations in the American South.
Nadia Bolz-Weber's Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. This is a radical departure from the rest of the list, admittedly. However, I can't think of another book that has been so instrumental in shaping my own faith. If you aren't familiar with Bolz-Weber, she is a seminal figure in the Emerging Church movement. She founded a beautiful little Lutheran congregation in Denver that welcomes all. Literally, ALL. Bolz-Weber's brand of radically inclusive Christianity resonates with me, and this book helped me to broaden my own understandings of Grace and love within the context of the Church.
In truth, I could add a dozen more books here. I suppose that's an indication of the fact that books have changed, and continue to change, my life. Maybe I'll revisit this list again in a year to see what, if anything, has changed.