Landmark Books from My Early Life

I initially wanted to title this post “Books that Changed My Life,” but soon realized it would probably be more accurate to speak about them as the books that have shaped my life as a keen reader and meant the most to me as the years have passed.

In making this list I was inspired by a book I recently finished, Kate Gross’s memoir Late Fragments, which finishes with a bibliography of books that influenced her during different periods of her life. Gross, who died of colon cancer at age 36 in 2014, divides her reading life into five distinct, whimsically named eras: “With my back to the radiator” (childhood), “The grub years” (adolescence), “Emerging from the cocoon” (early adulthood), “The woman in the arena” (career life) and “End of life book club.”

I’ll do a follow-up post on the key books from my twenties next month, but for now I want to focus on the books that defined my growing-up and teen years.


What Bewick’s Birds was for Jane Eyre, my parents’ book on flower arranging was for me. I couldn’t tell you the title or author, but I think this green fabric covered tome with its glossy pages and lush full-color photographs was the origin of my love of books as physical objects. I must have spent hours paging through the illustrations and breathing in the new-book aroma. I’ve been a book sniffer ever since.

rumphiusI can’t recall many of the individual picture books my mother read with me when I was little, but one that does stand out in my memory is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, about an eccentric woman who goes about planting lupines. Again, it’s a gorgeous book filled with flowers – you’d think I might have become a botanist!

chroniclesC.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books I ever read by myself, starting at age five. It took me years to get to the allegory-heavy The Last Battle, but I read the other volumes over and over, even after the PBS television movies came out. The Silver Chair was always my favorite, but I’m sure I must have read the first three books 10 or 20 times each.

watershipRichard Adams’s Watership Down was the first book I ever borrowed from the adult section of the public library, at age nine. Crossing the big open lobby of the Silver Spring, Maryland library from the children’s room to the imposing stacks of Adult Fiction was like a rite of passage; when I emerged clutching the fat plastic-covered hardback I felt a little bit like a rebel but mostly just pretty darn proud of myself. I inhaled the several hundred pages of this bunny epic and for years afterwards considered it my favorite book.

anne-seriesNowadays I don’t like to commit to series, but as a kid I couldn’t get enough of them: after Narnia, I devoured the Babysitter’s Club and Saddle Club books, the Anastasia Krupnik books, and so on. Whenever I found an author I loved I dutifully read everything they’d written. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, in particular, accompanied me through my early teen years. I think I saw the CBC/PBS television miniseries starring Megan Follows first and read the books afterwards. Bereft once the eight-book cycle was over, I read the much darker Emily trilogy, but it just couldn’t live up to the Anne books.

david-copperfieldMy first foray into the realm of heavy-duty classics was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield at age 14. I bought a battered secondhand paperback from a library sale and was immediately entranced, from the first line onwards: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” No doubt the idea of discovering my own potential heroism was what drew me in, but I loved everything about this novel: the rich panorama of nineteenth-century life, the vibrant secondary characters, the under-the-surface humor you had to work a little bit to understand, and the sweet second-chance romance. This was the start of my love affair with Victorian literature. I’ve read it three times since then. If ever asked for my favorite book, this is what I name.

tessIt wasn’t my first Hardy novel (that was Far from the Madding Crowd, another all-time favorite), but Tess of the D’Urbervilles is most memorable for the circumstances in which I read it. At age 19 I accompanied my sister, who’d won a singing contest on local radio, to the Season 2 finale of American Idol in Hollywood. If you were a loyal viewer, you might recall that this was the showdown between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, on whom I had a hopeless crush – it later emerged that he’s gay. I read Tess on the flight to Los Angeles. Stranger pairings have been known, I’m sure, but I’ll never forget that disconnect between bleak England (where I hadn’t yet been at that point) and the sunny entertainment capital.


What are some of the books that meant the most to you in your early years?

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27 thoughts on “Landmark Books from My Early Life

  1. These are fantastic, Rebecca. Miss Rumphius! I remember reading it too – it’s so gentle and lovely. Watership Down is also amazing (I wouldn’t read it for a few years because the title had convinced me it was about rabbits IN A SUBMARINE, and I was afraid they would drown.) And a million yeses to David Copperfield (which I only read last year; much funnier than I’d anticipated!) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (which I always mentally set in the downlands around my grandparents’ home on the Hampshire/West Sussex border).

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    1. Miss Rumphius! One of my all time favorites–I read it to my son all the time, and I’ve given it as a present at more than one baby shower (four, I think). The original art is held at Bowdoin in Maine, where my cousin studies, so one of these days I have to get up there to see it.

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  2. I always come back to Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman as the most memorable and best loved book of my early years, although I may do a post of others. [with attribution, of course 😉 ]

    I found Mrs. Mike in our grade-eight-room “library” (a small bookshelf that hung next to my desk) and read it four times that first year, as well as dozens of time since. I love it to this day, 50 years later.

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  3. Unfortunately, I did not read much in my youth. I felt too busy playing with dolls, playing outside with my siblings, doing schoolwork and housework. But I do remember several Christmases when Mom got me books “from Santa.” I was disappointed, actually. I didn’t want books. But I recall reading “Black Beauty. ” Like many girls, I dreamed of having my own horse. Then there were the biographies of famous women — Madame Curie, Amelia Earhart. It was a gift book-of-the-month club. . I was impressed enough to decide that I, too, wanted to be famous. I wanted to do something great in my life. I have not, but I still aspire. High school assignments, leadership, band, cheerleading, after-school job all kept me so busy I only read required books. None stood out. I recall reading Shakespeare for English class. I’m sorry; I did not like him. (Never understood the language)

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    1. I didn’t realize you weren’t a reader as a child. You certainly instilled a love of reading in me! It must have been your time as a teacher that made the change.

      Appreciating Shakespeare requires very good commentary (e.g. the notes in the Riverhead edition) and an enthusiastic teacher. It’s a shame that you never had a good experience of the Bard. I had a great Hood professor who really opened up several of the plays for me. I’ve still only read maybe 10 in total, and none since my college days.

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  4. I loved the Arthur Ransome books most of all especially the Swallows and Amazons series. I longed to have sailing adventures.
    I’d love to see the new film that’s based on the books.

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  5. A few years ago my Bookgroup revisited and reread our childhood favourites. Interesting evening but lots of disappointment for many of us in that the ‘magic’ had gone!

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  6. I love this topic, and am happy to see that Anne is included in your memorable books of childhood! Obviously, that’s a big one for me, too, but I would also have to include almost all her books – I went on to read and love them all.
    Miss Rumphius was also a favourite, and at around the same age I loved The Story of Ferdinand. Whenever I stop and smell the flowers, I think of that book.
    I read Tess when I was 18, and have strong memories of it. I was in first year University as a science student, but I was reading Tess for my English course. I remember not being able to put it down but feeling so guilty for reading instead of doing my calculus homework. I had to keep reminding myself that Tess was also for school!
    Looking forward to your next installment!

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  7. I loved my pony books when I was a child to young teen, and still do. I was reading ahead of my age and was given The Hobbit aged 7 – HATED it and it took me a while to get back into it. I also loved my Frances Hodgson Burnetts and my Arthur Ransomes as a child. As an early teen, it was all about series – Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, some sci fi and fantasy, and the James Bond books (eh??). And The Hobbit and Lord of the rings.

    I go back to a lot of the classics – the Alcotts, the pony books, and do plan a Ransome re-read as I loved them so much (and they’re so detailed that when I did eventually sail, I kind of knew how to do it!).

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    1. I read The Hobbit, maybe at age 12 or 13, but it never led me on to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (though of course I’ve seen the films).

      You’ve reminded me that Little Women was important to me — a few of us read it as a mini book club in sixth grade and then went to see the film with our teacher.

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  8. I loved the Anne books as a child, still do actually. Now my daughter is reading them. I always read and reread Little Women and all the Little House books. The Secret Garden was another favorite. I still remember the thrill of being allowed to check out books from the adult section in the library. Whole worlds were open to me then.

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  9. Another major book for me, but one that I’m rather embarrassed to admit to, was Jurassic Park at age nine: for years I said I was going to become a paleontologist! Again, it was one of the first “adult” books I borrowed from the library.

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