An American Editor

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?


  1. The three books that had the most effect on me had to be;

    Catch 22 for letting me know while I was in high school that it was okay to think some of the stuff I was being told might just be wrong.

    Lord of the Rings for getting me through Engineering Mechanics III while in college. Sometimes you just have to be able to go somewhere else for awhile.

    The Glass Bead Game by Hesse for keeping my sanity while I was in the corporate world. I found it was required reading every 8 – 10 years.


    Comment by Joe J. — May 17, 2010 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  2. The single most important novel I have ever read is a very easy pick, but the reason is purely personal, and had almost nothing to do with the book itself.

    The book was HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, by Robert Heinlein, and I was twelve years old. The protagonist, Kip, has been captured by alien creatures. Actually, he’s been captured by human traitors working for the aliens, but at any rate, he’s being held in a cell with no exits except a hole in the ceiling. There’s a drain in the floor with a continuously running faucet above it, and he decides to plug the drain and float out. A long scene follows, with Kip measuring the room with a dollar bill and calculating the time it will take it to flood, complete with teenage angst about whether or not he can tread water that long without sleeping, etc.

    Not a particularly fascinating passage, perhaps, but somewhere in the middle of all that, it occurred to me in a flash that someone had written this. Some person, here on Earth, had written this. It had not existed, and then it had. Mundane? Of course. I “knew” the book was fiction, I “knew” it had been made up, I even knew the author’s name, but somewhere in the minutes it took to read that passage, it really dawned on me that this was something that someone had done.

    And that I could do that, too.

    That’s the moment that changed my life, although I allowed a million things to obscure that truth for a long, long time.



    Comment by levimontgomery — May 17, 2010 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

  3. I can’t possibly pick one! So many books have been so important, at different times of my life. More important to me are the worlds that certain authors create. Once I’ve found an author I like, I read their entire ouvre. I favor any combination of writer and world wherein the people share my beliefs, act in a manner that inspires me, triumph over adversity, and bring alive places both alien and familiar.

    Best I can do is narrow it down to two YA novels: The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley; and A Girl and Five Brave Horses, by Sonora Carver. These are the only books I can remember 40+ years after I first read them — so I guess they changed my life! But in what way? Probably they’re what made me a devoted reader and led me to my life’s work in publishing.


    Comment by Carolyn — May 17, 2010 @ 7:50 pm | Reply

  4. This question is an easy one for me. By far the novel that has made the most difference in my life is Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. I’m not an Objectivist by a long shot, but Rand’s novels (and I probably read all of them that one summer) opened my mind to ways of thinking beyond the Judeo-Christian dogma that I had grown up with. Rand’s were the first sound arguments for atheism that I had ever read. Here was also the first time I realized that religion wasn’t just a choice between one religious sect or another, but also between faith and reason.

    Politically, by comparing Rand’s philosophy with that of some Beat authors (which I was also reading at the time), legislators, pundits, and my own, I came to the conclusion that it’s dangerous to accept someone else’s ideas or platform (or religion) whole hog, that there is merit somewhere at every point in the political spectrum, from Michael Moore to Glenn Beck, and that there are also flaws at every point on the spectrum, too. Ultimately, we all have to think for ourselves, and we can’t rely on knee-jerk answers based on whether we fall on the left or right.

    It isn’t all great stuff, though. If I hadn’t read Atlas Shrugged et al., TEA Party protests today might not piss me off so much.


    Comment by 4ndyman — May 19, 2010 @ 11:24 am | Reply

  5. Nice read, i was talking to a friend the other day about the same subject and gave her this url to visit.


    Comment by Ueb keygen — January 27, 2011 @ 1:46 am | Reply

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