Monday, January 6, 2014


A recent email from a young seminarian in Missouri:

"Every writer is a writer in part because of the influence of other writers. For my own edification could you share the five most influential writers that you have read, and maybe a book/story/essay of theirs that has been particularly enriching. I am winding through my personal library and I am looking to spruce it up. Thank you for your prophetic witness. It deepens me in my ability to commit to real discipleship."

As a kid, The Diary of Anne Frank was a major influence. Even now I can hardly believe they killed her. 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (who had a beloved, tormented son nicknamed Mouse who killed himself by throwing himself on a set of railroad tracks) I responded to deeply. The cozy underground burrow of The Badger, the resurrectional springtime, the lovable blowhard of an out-of-control drunk Toad. I always got a book for my birthday and Christmas, and the version we had featured a shiny gold-edged cover that I held to my pre-pubescent breast many a cold winter night.  

Whistle Down the Wind by Mary Hayley Bell. Jesus comes to the English countryside in the form of an escaped, chain-smoking convict. The children rescue and shelter; the adults hunt him down..

When I was in the process of converting, Msgr. Romano Guardini's The Lord was an influence. The PERSON of Christ. The humanity of Christ. The strangeness of Christ. Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanons and don't miss the Bresson movie). 

I have always loved Catherine de Hueck Doherty's Strannik, and keep a dog-eared copy by my bed, . Therese of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul.  

Books I read, and was bowled over by, last year: Domenica Ruta's With our Without You, a memoir about growing up with a junkie mother in working-class Danvers, Massachusetts. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo who richly deserves her Pulitzer. 

Japanese writer Kenzaburo OeA Personal Matter. Here's his interview with The Paris Review. If I ever get around to writing an essay on all the writers who are more Catholic than many Catholics. Oe will lead the list. 

Iconic short stories: "Good Country People," by Flannery O'Connor. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Tolstoy (that may be a novella). "Roman Fever" by Edith Wharton. "The End of FIRPO In the World," by George Saunders.

Essays: E.B. White's "Once More to the Lake." "Late Victorians," by Richard Rodriguez. "A Good Appetite" by A.J. Liebling. I keep M.F.K. Fisher by my bed, too. I disagree with many of her food preferences and often dislike her personality, yet she's endlessly compelling. 

On my bedside table right now: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, Nazareth Family Spirituality, by Catherine Doherty, Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia, Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky, I Live Now Not I, by Fr. Pat McNulty, The Awakened Heart by Gerald G. May, Lost Souls by Allan Gurganus, Robert Walser's The Walk, A Guidebook to the Camino de Santiago, by John Brierley, and Streams of Grace by the Abbe de Tourville. 

Finally, this passage from The Habit of Being: The Collected Letters of Flannery O'Connor literally changed the course of my life: "We are not judged by what we are are basically," she wrote to a friend. "We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness." 

Those two lines gave me permission to write. 


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  2. Thanks for writing about books, my favorite topic! I remember when my now thirty one year old son was four years old and we were visiting Sea World. He picked up "The Wind in the Willows" in one of the gift shops and wanted me to buy it. I have always been a sucker for books so I bought it. I began reading it to him when we got home that evening and every evening after that until it was finished. He loved the book so much that he began carrying it around with him, taking it everywhere we went and although he could nary read a word he would run his little index finger under every single line, page by page until he finished the book! It was his favorite book until he came upon "Black Ships Before Troy" at about twelve. Just a few months ago he retrieved "Wind in the Willows" from my shelf and took it home so that he could read it to his son someday. :) My favorite from your list is Fr Walter Ciszek's "He Leadeth Me" and although not on this list I just finished Brenda Ueland's book on writing that I think you talked about somewhere, LIFE CHANGER (well I can hope, right?)! On my nightstand in the "to read" stack is "A Suitable Boy", "Interior Castle Study Edition" (since St Teresa is my patron saint this year) and "Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures of the Appalachian Trail".
    Peace, brenda

    1. There ya go, I like that eclectic range! And oh yes, Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write is a classic--that helped give me permission to write, too--that list was just random off-the-top-of-my-head...I could do about ten more posts like that and still barely scratch the surface of BOOKS I HAVE LOVED.

    2. Looking forward to your ten more posts because to me a good book is a person revealed and as human beings each encounter with one another has the potential to grow us if we are open. I need to grow. Thanks for your revelations. :)

    3. Ha ha, I said I could write ten more posts, not that I WOULD...though I just might! Bless you, Brenda...

  3. Thanks Heather. Your blog affected me deeply today. I was especially affected by St. Therese of Liseux: Abandon yourself completely to Christ. And Accept that Jesus is our only Friend. I don't really understand Jesus being our only friend, but the idea is very moving.

    I ordered a bunch of books!

  4. Yes, thanks Heather, I now have my reading list sorted for the next few years !

  5. Thanks so much, folks, glad you got some reading tips--so much to read, so little time...

  6. Happily I already own some of those books, some of which I have read and love but oh the pain this causes me because there are others I do not have and having been reminded, I recall I want to read them - pain? Yes. I have committed, for a few reasons, to not buying a book in 2014. Dear, Heather, you read too many good books. Stop it. ;-)

  7. Heather, echoing those who appreciate your list here. I'd read half of Flannery's "Habit" before being pulled away, and had just rediscovered it this weekend, and was so delighted to be back in her beautiful head. I can see why it's something like a Bible to you. I have been drawn to "The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur" in that same way. I am moving through it slowly because it's so rich and meaningful and I don't want it to end!

  8. I read most of Flannery's stories as a "kid," but not her letters. And it's her letters, read in my 30s, that have had the greatest affect on me as a Catholic and a person. I regret I didn't read them at 18.


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