As soon as any civilization solves the question of "how do we eat?" the next question to ponder is "who am I?" followed by "should I try improv classes?" Literature, alongside very short haircuts and dating people with interesting piercings, has always helped us to figure out who we really are. Reading different books lets us try on different identities. Personally, as someone who is deeply afraid of getting a tattoo and pretty terrible at crafting a specific social media presence, books are one of the major ways I have cobbled together an adequate personality. Here are a few of the books that have helped me to understand my personality over the years.
I would be shocked if this is also the exact list of books that have helped you to understand your personality over the years (although if they are... are you single?). Nevertheless, I do think that each of these books has something to offer to everyone, even the people who are not me. Every book, after all, reveals something true within ourselves. Even if that truth is just that we personally don't care for Stephanie Meyer's The Host.
So, for better or worse, here are some of the books that have made me the entirely acceptable person I am today:
1'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith
This book has always been my stock answer to the "what's your favorite book?" question, mostly because it's the one book I used to read every night to fall asleep as a kid that wasn't Harry Potter. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of young Francie Nolan growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the last century. That's it, that's the whole plot. But Francie, like me, was a shy city kid who sometimes preferred the company of books to real people. Francie's quiet, impassioned idealism, her love of reading, and her capacity for seeing beauty in the shabbiest places has always stuck with me.
2'The Sandman' by Neil Gaiman
As a shy, chubby 15-year-old, I was pretty staunchly straight edge. I didn't like gore or horror or anything even remotely uncomfortable. But then, through some terrible error in judgement, I picked up the very first Sandman comic. And I was hooked. The Sandman was really my introduction to literature that could be gross and beautiful, transgressive and uplifting and paying homage to classic mythology in an entirely punk rock way. I started to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, and I read all seventy five volumes in one straight shot.
3'The Woman Warrior' by Maxine Hong Kingston
I read The Woman Warrior in school, when I was still young enough to have my mind blown by a non-sequential memoir. Kingston weaves together personal memories with cultural memories, combining myth, memory, and feminism into one jaw-dropping book. It started me thinking about the ways in which history and myth have taken root in my own life, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
4'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' by Douglas Adams
Maybe it's because I was raised on a steady diet of Monty Python, but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy lodged itself firmly in my brain at an early age. I read and reread the books, constantly listened to the radio adaptation, and watched the movie with director's commentary on every time I was home sick from school (yeah, I kind of like the movie, fight me). This book solidified my sense of humor and my love of any media involving aliens, and is probably at fault for why I didn't date much in high school.
5'The Bartimaeus Trilogy' by Jonathan Stroud
I was a fantasy junkie as a kid, but I probably read Bartimaeus more times than anything else (except maybe Harry Potter and those books about the violent talking cats). It was just so funny. The characters were flawed and snide and witty in a way you didn't see much in other kids' books. No one was pretty. The magical world was bureaucratic and cruel and full of wisecracking demons. This is the series that made me realize I wanted to write either fantasy or comedy or preferably both, and I blame that poor career choice entirely on the wonderful Jonathan Stroud.
6'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Brontë
Full disclosure, I was named after Charlotte Brontë, so I am legally obligated to have a personal connection with this book. But even if I wasn't, I think Jane Eyre would have helped me understand my own need for independence and self-love, and my upsetting attraction to ugly men who are kind of mean and lock their ex-wives in the attic.
7'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Like many people, I thought that reading Sylvia Plath would be a dark descent into depression and angst. But it wasn't. Reading The Bell Jar, I was startled to see myself reflected in the sarcastic, sad scholarship kid stuck in a soul-crushing summer internship. Despite being written in the '50s, this novel is an honest confessional from a young woman struggling with depression in a world with no room for young women or depression. It's not a festival of self pity, but story of breakdowns and recovery, and it helped me understand that I am, indeed, a Sylvia Plath person.
8'Americanah' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
After a nasty break up, I genuinely didn't think I was the kind of person who liked love stories anymore. But then I read Americanah. To be fair, Americanah is far more than a love story: it made me reconsider what it means to be American, and interrogate my own internal biases. But man, I don't know who I thought I was kidding by claiming to be disinterested in love stories for so many years, because I was rooting pretty hard for Ifemelu and Obinze.
9'The Portable Dorothy Parker' by Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker has spiritually guided me through every bad date or career setback I've ever had. She's made me realize that, when I'm truly low, the thing that makes me feel better is not positive thinking but acerbic one-liners. I don't think Dorothy is for everyone (if you like positive thinking, try Elizabeth Gilbert). But if you, like me, take enormous comfort in turning your devastating emotional problems into humorous rhyming poetry, try Dorothy on for size. Martini optional.