Welcome back to another “Influences” post where I discuss things that molded me into the person I am today.
But today, I want to go beyond a simple discussion of books. I want to discuss the best books I own, not containing my analysis to a certain genre or age range. These are the books that stuck in my head, even years after reading them.
Some clarifications are in order, though.
These are not my favorite books
If you want to hear about my favorite books, you should probably jump to this article about the novels that influenced my writing the most.
My favorite novels are easy to list: Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan), Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling), The Lunar Chronicles (Marissa Meyer), and Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky).
Naturally, there is some overlap between my favorite books and the best books I’ve ever read. After all, I tend to only really love books that are also really, really good.
But I would be remiss to simply list my favorite books all over again.
The best books aren’t necessarily the easiest ones to read. My favorite books, on the other hand, are easy to settle into if I’ve had a bad day.
My favorites also tend to clump around the same genre – I prefer YA fantasy over other genres. This doesn’t mean outliers like Crime and Punishment don’t manage to smuggle their way in there, it’s just harder for those texts to be considered a personal favorite.
I’m aiming to cover a wider expanse of genres in this list. These books are not necessarily books I’d love to read again, but they are books that mattered.
These are not sentimental books
I’m not listing all the books that I associate with my happy childhood. Nor does this list contain books explicitly connected with positive emotions, friendships, or otherwise sentimental things.
I didn’t compile this list with rose-colored glasses on. I’m not projecting good feelings and wishful thinking onto these books.
One of these books in particular is hard to read. I hated, but simultaneously loved, each and every page.
I can share a post later about books that make me feel sentimental. We can talk all day about books that weren’t especially well written but still made us feel things and thus became defining beacons in our lives.
These five books, on the other hand, are just good, whether I feel sentimental about them or not.
These are books that are legitimately good
And I’m going to tell you exactly why.
Every book has it’s flaws, of course. And if you’ve read these books and have specific opinions, I invite you to share them. I want to hear your perspective on these wonderful texts.
It was difficult to rank these books when the genre conventions and writing styles are vastly different. But each book captured my awe and attention. I’ve struggled, even in writing this post, to articulate why these books have been so formative for me.
All I can say is they are just legitimately good for various reasons. Books with heart and impact. Books I will continue to think about all my life.
And I’m excited to continue discovering more of these incredible stories. But for now, with my very limited reading experience compared to the millions of books available for consumption, here are the very best books on my shelf.
5. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
There are a lot of conflicting views on the internet about this book. Some people loved it, others hated it. Others hate the author, and still others can’t wait for the hype to be over.
I, personally, found this book to be (mostly) beautiful.
An ode to nature mixed with murder trial set in the 1960s, this book shouldn’t have drawn my attention the way it did.
I’m not the type of person to willingly pick up historical fiction (especially when there’s no magic involved). My mom told me to read it, so I did. And it turned out to be addicting and surprisingly deep.
I was struck by the failed relationships Kya (main character) cycled through. Some of the relationships were more convincing than others, but I still mourned when Kya mourned and felt apprehension when she couldn’t see the destruction awaiting her.
And I still think about the ending, even months after reading it.
This book is proof that popular books aren’t all bad.
We’ve heard of those hit stories that were legitimately terrible (I’m thinking Twilight specifically), with a flat plot, cliched writing, and characters who just don’t do things that make sense.
But Where the Crawdads Sing is popular, recent, and actually a well executed story – minus some characterization issues.
It’s proof that I need to keep venturing out to different genres and different authors, rather than sticking with my tried and true “favorites”.
4. Cinder by Marissa Meyer
I have previously identified this book as one of my favorites of all time. I even reverse outlined it this summer to learn more about novel writing.
Cinder retells Cinderella as a cyborg living in a futuristic Beijing city, with worldwide doom hanging on the horizon with the arrival of the evil queen of the moon.
I could go into all of Cinder‘s merits, but I want to focus most on the awe-inspiring storytelling Marissa Meyer employs.
This is a story where all the plot threads were known by the author since page one. Where all the characters were created on purpose and the plot drama isn’t contrived, but necessary to usher in a new universe order.
Meyer clearly cared about these characters and this story. She wanted it to be good. And in the YA world especially, finding genuinely well thought-out novels is like panning for gold in California.
I’m struck by the careful plotting and care that was required to execute a masterpiece like Cinder, where the plotlines are so intricate and constantly tying back to their original fairytale roots. This is one of my favorites, and I’ll return to this story again and again, but it’s also an excellent example of the type of writer I want to be.
3. You Are Special by Max Lucado
Let’s jump back to childhood for a second.
You Are Special is an illustrated book about a world where wooden puppets give each other stars and dots based on what they look like or can do. The more stars you have, the more “valuable” you are. But Punchinello (main character) doesn’t feel worthwhile because he doesn’t have very many stars, until he meets a girl who doesn’t have any stars or dots at all.
I don’t remember if my parents read this book to me when I was little. Perhaps I just discovered it in my house when I was older and read it myself. But one thing is for sure: even now, I literally can’t get over how brilliant this simple cardboard storybook is.
It’s the story I reread growing up whenever I felt down about myself or my situation. Even as a twenty year old, I’ll still peruse this book for the most important reminder there is: no one’s opinions about you matter.
They just don’t. Whether you’re celebrated or put down, other people’s perceptions of you don’t change the beauty of who you are and the fact that you were created exactly right.
Out of all the books I have on my shelf, including self-help and universally acclaimed classics, I still consider this children’s book to be the most focused lesson about how we should perceive ourselves and where our self-worth should come from.
2. We the Animals by Justin Torres
I was assigned We the Animals in my second ever college level creative writing class. And it was honestly so emotionally draining to read.
This story follows a highly dysfunctional family as the kids grow up and understand themselves better. Except, “dysfunctional” is a complicated concept. The family goes through a cycle of brokenness, followed by good times, followed by dysfunctional good times, followed by brokenness. Over and over and over until “dysfunctional” has a clearer definition.
We the Animals tells of abusive relationships like they are experienced in real life – not as simple evils, but psychological upheavals and uncertainties, where good moments are used to excuse the bad and unpredictability becomes a lifestyle.
This isn’t a good book because it ends well or because it’s a source of positive inspiration for me. It’s actually neither of those things.
This is a good book simply because it tells the truth in a way most books – most authors – will never be able to.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to write something so completely accurate and heart-wrenching, but I’ll always aspire to make my readers care the way Torres made me care.
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
You should’ve known this was coming.
The absolute best book on my shelf.
I only bring up Crime and Punishment in every single writerly and bookish conversation I can. I only gush about Raskolnikov’s blatant act of murder, extensive guilt (lasting 350+ pages), and eventual redemption in every discussion prompt starting with “Name a book that….”.
I read Crime and Punishment in 9th grade and it still hasn’t left my brain. Dostoevsky was a literal genius whose concept of plotting and characterization should be taught in every creative writing program across the country.
But more importantly, this book, with every page turned, hurdles toward one inescapable conclusion: it’s never too late for restoration.
After grappling with the guilt, regret, and sorrow of committing murder, Raskolnikov confesses and is offered a new life, even when it means going through the consequences of his sins (in this case, prison).
The fact that a 400 page book about guilt held my attention at age 14 and taught me about storytelling and redemption is a miracle.
The fact that it’s still in my head seven years later, when I’ve pretty much forgotten about every other book I was forced to read in high school, makes this book significant.
Crime and Punishment isn’t the type of *aesthetic* or *fall vibes* read most people are looking for.
But it is the most important and influential book I’ve ever read due to its powerful storytelling techniques and themes that I could spend fourteen decades analyzing. I’d recommend everyone read it and stand in awe of the masterpiece Dostoevsky created.
I realize these five books are super random. There is no specific genre. There is no connecting theme. Each of these books ended up on the list for different reasons.
Some for their storytelling merits. Others for their impactful themes.
But if you’re looking for a little bit of enrichment in your life, perhaps pick one of these up and give it a read. (And if you’re looking for something quick, You Are Special will take you like 15 minutes and might even entertain the children in your life too).
Subscribe to the blog and get blog posts delivered directly to your inbox