The Bookmark: The most influential books in my life thus far

Jen Frantz, Editor in Chief

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“Siddhartha” 

by Hermann Hesse

 God exists for some people, but He does not exist for me. Somehow, in my mind, these are not mutually exclusive—truths are different for everyone, and for some, God is true, and for others, like myself, God is not. 

     I am not an angry atheist, though. I don’t preach that the world would be “better off” without God or religion. I do, however, believe one can be spiritual without the “big man upstairs.” 

     “Siddhartha” was the book that provided me with that revelation. Siddhartha Gautama, the namesake of the novel, wants to gain “true” enlightenment, so he leaves his family and becomes an ascetic, someone who lives as simply as possible, renouncing all worldly luxuries. When that doesn’t work, Siddhartha tries to immerse himself in pleasure with casual sex, drinking and needless spending. However, it is only by striking the middle path—which is a major tenet of Buddhism—that Siddhartha finally attains wisdom. 

     At one point, Siddhartha picks up a rock and says, “This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.” 

     Siddhartha’s point can be explained scientifically as well: everything is composed of atoms, and those atoms are constantly cycling through the environment. Some of the chemicals that currently constitute me could have been part of a dinosaur toe, and they might be, in the future, part of the engine in a Hovercraft (assuming those will happen sometime soon). 

 

     Perhaps we—the Buddhists and Christians and Muslims—are all just using different words for the same fundamental ideas, the same feelings of something larger than ourselves. But nonetheless, Siddhartha’s words inform my spirituality the most. Perhaps I’ll start my own religion, one in which we’re all former dinosaur toes on our way to becoming Hovercrafts.

“Writing Down the Bones” 

by Natalie Goldberg

When I was in third grade, I kept a diary for both myself and my American girl doll, Angela. She had best friends and bullies—all of whom I created—but, at the end of the day, her story just wasn’t all that interesting. Neither was mine. 

As I grew older—and my mom stored Angela away with the Hot Wheels cars and Polly Pockets—my story was still lacking. It read like a grocery list: “Today I went to the store and bought a blueberry muffin. It was a great muffin.” The writing was not satiating at all—to read or to write.

“Writing Down the Bones” changed everything. Goldberg gave me permission to write outside the margins, both literally and figuratively.

“We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand,” Goldberg writes. “A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter.”

Goldberg advises me—and all writers, really—to write as big or small as we please, ignoring the blue and red lines on notebook paper. She treats writing as meditation, catharsis, freedom

 

By the end of the book, though, perhaps her most important advice is simply: “Keep your hand moving.”

“Cat’s Cradle” (or anything)

by Kurt Vonnegut

 “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved,” Kurt Vonnegut writes in his novel “The Sirens of Titan.”

 

      Vonnegut’s novels are always a little wacky—from the richest man in the world raising an army on Mars to humans evolving into seals, Vonnegut deals almost primarily in the absurd. And yet, Vonnegut still fills his stories with gems like the quotation above. He is, in equal measure, both hilarious and true—as all the best comedians are. 

“Jane Eyre” 

by Charlotte Bronte

Confession: when I was in eighth grade, I read the “Twilight” series. And liked it. 

However, as I read more books—and witnessed the same love story over and over—I realized how few books offer a love story beyond the common plotline, which is, more or less: boy and girl want to kiss, but can’t. Sometimes there are vampires. 

 

While “Jane Eyre” follows a similar tale of “forbidden love,” it seems new and refreshing—even though it was published more than 150 years ago. Jane Eyre, the namesake of the novel, is the new governess of Thornfield Hall, where she slowly falls in love with her employer Edward Rochester, who is 20 years her senior. The novel was groundbreaking in the late 1840s for its social commentary and feminist undertones. But it was groundbreaking for me in 2012 because the characters were so flawed and real. Not only that, but “Jane Eyre” showed me that I could read 19th century British literature with relative ease—and if I could read that, I could read Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen. In many ways, “Jane Eyre” acted as my gateway to literature. So if you’re looking for an easy way to delve into ye olde literary canon, “Jane Eyre” might be the best place to start. 

“Letters to a Young Poet” 

by Rainer Maria Rilke

 When I was younger, I had pen pals all over the country: California, New York, Connecticut. I even had one in Australia, who once sent me a photo album full of the Great Barrier Reef and kangaroos. However, I’ve never been pen pals with a poet, especially not a dead poet like Rilke. “Letters to a Young Poet” allowed me to talk to a master, even when he was no longer around to share. 

     “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it,” Rilke writes. “Blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.” There is poetry, and art, in everything—we just need to see it, feel it and hopefully, capture it.

     His advice is inspirational for me, as a young writer. But I believe “Letters to a Young Poet” could apply to any creative person—be their medium sculpture, theater, painting, singing, pottery… 

 

     In the back of all creative minds, there is a small voice saying that we will never be true artists, that “art” isn’t a real profession anyway. Rilke says, in a way: No, this is real. You are real. Now, go make art.

“Cosmos” 

by Carl Sagan

 Several thousand years ago, the Babylonians thought comets were celestial beards. Nowadays, of course, we know that comets are frozen gases mixed with rock and dust—not intergalactic facial hair. 

      But I would not have known this if not for Carl Sagan, who, in his signature red turtleneck, offers such stories about space in “Cosmos,” both the book and the television show. 

 

     Before I read “Cosmos,” I thought the sciences and humanities were opposite poles on a sliding scale of human inquiry. But Sagan shows how they can be one and the same—he details humanity’s past interactions with the stars (hence, Babylonians) while also describing more modern scientific developments with awe. Unlike most nonfiction writers, Sagan strikes a balance between information and poetry. By the end of the book, one cannot help but feel wonderment at the sheer vastness of space, all that is left to explore, all that is left to know. 

The Collected Works of 

William Shakespeare

  In Japanese restaurants, sushi masters design rolls that not only look and taste wonderful—they also have a texture and consistency engineered for your palette. The sushi, if done well, should go beyond simply tasting good; it should also feel good in your mouth.   

     William Shakespeare is the sushi master of late 16th century England. His collected works are not only fresh and new and exciting to our 21st century ears, but his meticulous meter and rhythm feel good on the tongue. He is a culinary genius of the English language, adjusting syllables to find whatever feels best on the lips. Throughout his plays, you can find all the flavors of the human psyche rendered in elegant verse. 

 

     As a freshman and sophomore, I read “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Macbeth,” “The Merchant of Venice,” and several others—all while pacing my room in big purple slippers and listening to Pink Floyd. He is the only author I must read while moving. For his beauty, his rhyme, his iambic pentameter, I respect him. But it is his ability to make me move that garners my love (and a place on this list).

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2015-05-19 08:34:03

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