1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, and 2. Home, its companion novel. Gilead literally changed my life, my understanding of what it means to be a minister, and what it means to be a child of God. If I had a thousand years to do nothing but write, my best sentence could never approach the weakest sentence in Gilead, yet I am not jealous at all of Robinson's gift. Every word seems like a gift to the reader. Home gives a different sense of depth and dimension to the characters who became so beloved to me when I read Gilead, yet it is a very different sort of book. Its ending preserves the ambiguity of Gilead's ending perfectly, yet is complete on its own. I continue to return to so many passages in these books, scenes or phrases that move me to tears or invite me into the mystery of Christian faith. My dear friend JBB in Washington State wondered how a writer could understand what it means to be a minister, how she could really get it .... and after meeting Marilynne Robinson, I saw why. She is attentive, reflective, deeply faithful to her craft and to Christianity, and she is just radically open to the creative Spirit in an almost mystical way (though she would certainly cringe at such a comparison).
3. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. I read this in high school, and I think it was just a matter of "right book at the right time." It helped me to think about a life very different from my own (of African-Americans, of people of a higher class than my own, of the diverse ways racism affects people, of how friendships change and evolve, etc.). I suppose it may be classified as "magical realism" but it was really just deep and powerful for me.
4. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. Look, all I can say about this book is that if you've read it, you probably get it. If you haven't read it, and you can poke a little fun at your faith without utter irreverence, you probably should get it.
5. The Crucible, by Arthur Miller. A terrific allegory that is true in its own story (17th century witch hunts in Puritan New England) as well as in what it allegorizes (1950s McCarthy witch-hunts). Though Backbencher disagrees, I find it pitch-perfect. And it is about my people - the Puritans. I confess that though the window may be rapidly closing (if not having already closed), I have never yearned to play a character onstage more than I wanted to play Abigail Williams.
6. The Bible. Need I explain this one?
7. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Becket. Well, I was a theatre major in college, so it shouldn't surprise you that a couple of plays made it on here. This play, and Sartre's No Exit were my introduction to existentialism. While I kind of reject it as my own personal philosophy, I was challenged and intrigued by the ideas expressed in these works. Overall I think I'm just too optimistic for existentialism, but I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't read (and thoroughly enjoyed) these plays.
8. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. God, if ever there was a morality book for children, this would be it! The sheep (lamb?), the flower, the fox .... oh, I get all weepy just thinking about it.
9. Oh, the Places You'll Go, by Dr. Seuss. Not because read it at high school graduation (we did not), but because it was read to me as a camper in my final years at camp, and because we read it to our campers as they were leaving camp. He's artful, that Dr. Seuss.
10. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freiere (I've also seen it Freire). Talk about conscientization! This whole book was about opening my eyes to see the world differently. I'm not sure how I can explain the ways this book has challenged so much of what I was taught (and taught to teach), but perhaps two examples may suffice (apologies to any church folk who've heard this story before). One: students' brains are not banks into which teachers make deposits and can ask for withdrawals, and treating them that way, whether they are kindergartners, graduate students, or ESL students, demeans their humanity.
Two: when I was a kid growing up in wine country, California, I often saw Mexican men (and they were from Mexico, and they were always men) gathered on street corners in the morning, usually in work clothes. Like many other people, I made some assumptions that perhaps these men were kind of lazy or shiftless. Why weren't they at work? Why were they just standing around while all these other people were on their way to work? Not until I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and took New Testament with Louise Schottroff did I realize that these men were waiting to be hired for the day by employers in trucks. In retrospect, it is so obvious as to be painful to admit my own racism and ignorance.
I also believe that the Harry Potter series reflects a rather orthodox and faithful Christian witness, with lots of good morals besides. But you already knew I was a fan, right?
I'm sure I'll be adding to this list, but why don't you post a couple of your favorite books in the comments section? I LOVE talking about books!