What Are Your Three Books?

About two weeks ago, NPR tweeted the question:  what three books define you?

(I’m linking you to a blog post about it, because I have no idea how to take a pretty picture of a tweet the way this blogger did. *sigh*)

In other words, if a stranger glanced at your bookshelf and spotted these three books, that person would be able to understand who you are and what you’re about.

Gee, NPR, could you propose a more impossible task?

I spent a lot of mental energy on this, because… well, because. It’s what I do.

The first one is easy. It’s “A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. I have written several times on this blog about how that book changed my life in myriad ways. It opened my eyes to what fiction could be. It showed me an alternate world — a whole other universe — where I wanted to live, a family I wanted to be part of, a girl I wanted to be with and be like. And I realized that I could live there, be part of that family, be friends with Meg, every time I read the book. This was earth-shattering and mind-expanding for the seven year old child that I was. I was already a writer, but this is the book I can point to without hesitation and say it made me want to be a published author.

My first copy; late 1970s. $1.25 was paid in quarters from my allowance

My first copy; mid-1970s. $1.25 was paid with quarters from my allowance

Plus, it’s a beautiful example of well-written fantasy, and it’s a young adult novel that not only understands the teen experience but doesn’t talk down to its audience. Scan a page and see how many words teenage you would have had to look up. Go on. I’ll wait.

Okay, so one book is set. But how do I choose two out of the other thousands I’ve read?

I think I have to include the Complete Works of Shakespeare here. (Is that cheating? Is each play technically one “book”? I don’t know; you tell me in the comments.) Where would I be without Will Shakespeare? He inspires me constantly; like my favorite songs, I keep going back to him. And when I do, I always find something new.

But now what? I came up with a short list that included Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” and “A Song For Arbonne” and “The Lions of Al-Rassan” (I’d have to pick one eventually), the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf,” Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”…

And suddenly, it hit me.

I consume about 1 non-fiction book for every 2 to 3 fiction books I read. Where would I be without the books of Alison Weir? How would I get through my days without devouring everything there is to know about the Wars of the Roses, the Tudor dynasty, the Plantagenet kings, Eleanor of Aquitaine, mythology, religion, politics, American history, English language and grammar…  I want to know everything about (nearly) everything, and non-fiction books offer that like nothing else.

I should probably have a non-fiction book in my group of three.


There is no way to choose one non-fiction book to represent all of my interests, so I have to put on my hypothetical bookshelf the one that will give you insight into what stirs and moves me, what pushes me, what inspires me. So the place has to go to Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth,” which sweeps across cultures and eras to survey all the major themes of mythology and delve into all of the important questions of life. There are no answers, only lots of wonderful, beautiful ways of thinking about the questions.

So there you have my bookshelf of three:

“A Wrinkle In Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

“The Collected Works of William Shakespeare” (Riverside edition, because I own that already)

“The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell

What’s on your bookshelf?





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9 Responses to What Are Your Three Books?

  1. Jeff says:

    On my bookshelf sits just one thing… you!

  2. mirkabreen says:

    I always have a hard time with these questions, because I know I can’t give an answer I will feel comfortable with a few years from now. I’m a bookshelf in progress.
    I like your choices, though.

    • Some of the tweets I saw in the NPR thread were so current, I thought, “These people can’t mean that!” I imagine their books will change over time as well. And probably most people didn’t work as hard as I did; it’s a freakin’ tweet, after all! I wouldn’t have had “Wolf Hall” in my list a few years ago, so you never know when one of these books will drop into your life.

      I’d love to hear what you come up with. Come back and let me know.

  3. Cedric says:

    Jeff – you have her on a pedestal, not a bookshelf! Jeez!

  4. Cedric says:

    Drifters by James Michener: I read it in high school and it made me want to travel & explore at a time when my range was limited to how far I could ride my bicycle. It also showed a very young me, the importance of a community of friends.

    Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of science & technology & they’ve been a source of joy to me ever since. (and my livelihood for a long time)

    Your money or your life by Joseph Dominguez. It pushed me to make a vague dream of retiring early into a reality.

    But I feel that people I’ve known & their influences have, more than anything else, defined me.

  5. Cedric says:

    oh – and you won’t find any of those books on my bookshelf. 🙂

  6. L. Palmer says:

    1. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
    2. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
    1. Star Wars: Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole – just to keep things real.

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