So much is posted these days about music — albums, artists/bands, songs — that have shaped people’s lives. My feed in Facebook and Instagram (most recently U2’s Bono posting letters to his favorite singers/bands) is inundated with such postings. I even started my own list on FB only to stop at one (U2’s Actung Baby). While music had roll in my upbringing and I have a list of artists/songs/albums that have influenced me, it’s books (you, know the printed word) that have had the biggest impact on my life.
In my home, we have a large collection of books occupying several spaces around the house. Some of the books are old (my grandfather’s books from grade school) and others are brand new, ready to be read at the moment I find the time. Our library is full of everything — fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, how-to or DIY, zen, religion, social commentary, etc. We’ve even pared down our collection and donated or sold books and yet, we are still left with a great deal of the printed word decorating our house. (Btw, those articles about decorating bookshelves — grouping books together by color or whatever else interior designers think would look great — are for people who don’t read).
Where music can change the temperature of a room, books educate and expand our minds. This is probably why I cringe whenever I watch a WWII movie that has a scene of book burning. All that knowledge … lost to an ash pile. Breaks my heart every time.
Because I find books so important, I’ve decided to compile a list of books that have shaped who I am today. Some of these have educated me, while others provided a great deal of entertainment. As a chef and culinary instructor, my list may seem predictable. Of course it contains books on food and cooking but I have an undergraduate degree in English Literature, so I would be remiss if I didn’t list any works of literature. I’ve often joked that my undergraduate degree taught me how to read and write. And now that I look back at it, it isn’t much of a joke, but rather the truth. My literature classes taught me to think, read critically, and write well.
The Book List
Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic - Shel Silverstein. I devoured these books of poems when I was a child. The sheer imagination behind the poems opened my mind.
Monster at the End of This Book. My lasting memory of this book is my mom reading this to me — trying to sound like Grover and telling it in an animated way.
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl. I can’t tell you how many times I read this book. In fact, I didn’t even know they made a movie about it in the 70s (with Gene Wilder) until I was in college. I hated the movie. But… when Johnny Depp and Tim Burton made the movie a few years ago, I felt it captured the spirit of the book.
Betty Crocker Cookbook. This may seem sacrilege for a chef to mention this book but it taught some basics on cooking that I didn’t get anywhere else. And I still use the pancake, biscuit, and brownie recipes. Tried and true.
The Way to Cook - Julia Child. My mom bought this book for me when I was a young teenager. Initially, I just flipped through it, intimated by the instructions and recipes. But then I decided to start making some of the recipes. Learned a lot through cooking failures and got over the intimidation factor.
Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads. This was one my first bread books and it cemented a love of baking from the first loaf I made.
Essentials of Italian Cooking - Marcella Hazan. Forget Giada or any other Italian chef, Marcella Hazan has the quintessential cookbook on Italian food.
Omnivore’s Dilemma - Michael Pollan. I was always curious about the food system and sustainability issues. This book provided encouragement for me to explore Sustainable Food Systems at Montana State University.
Devil the White City - Erik Larson. I’ve read all of Erik Larson’s books, but this was the first. He writes historical non-fiction in a very accessible way. When I read this book, we were living on the Southside of Chicago in the neighborhood of Hyde Park, just blocks away from where the events in the book happen. It made it so real.
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman. I received a copy of this book from my HS English teacher. Oh captain, my captain. Thank you, Mr. Wheeler.
Blindness - Jose Saramago. Saramago writes without much punctuation but with such description. I could not put this book down.
The Alchemist - Paul Coelho. I’ve read most of Coelho’s works. He writes with such care brining you into a world of mysticism.
And a bonus … the movie and song that bring me much joy: The Muppet Movie and "The Rainbow Connection." I don’t think I need to really explain how much Kermit and the gang (and all of Jim Hensen’s muppets) impacted the lives of Gen-Xers everywhere.