My 10 Most Influential Books I Read in College

I graduated from college with a degree in English Writing almost a year ago (May 2007) and have been living in Greenville, South Carolina since.  Being an English major (albeit with a writing option) and a Philosophy minor I read a hell of a lot books during my college career which is okay because I like books . . . books are good.  Yesterday I posted about April 2nd birthdays and discovered that a favorite author of mine, Camille Paglia, was born on that day in 1947.  After taking out her most recent work in the library (Break, Blow, Burn) I wrote a post a little bit about her on MadLord Innovations (note the continuing theme of shameless cross blog self promotion.  Though I haven’t even linked to I Wish I Was a Scientist yet — haha, there we go). 

Anyhow . . . At lunch yesterday I began reading Break, Blow, Burn and was immediately reminded of why I had fallen in love with reading Paglia’s writing way back in my freshman year of college.  That year I read Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson which is still to date one of the best books I’ve ever read (it was also probably the most difficult book I read freshman year, and one of the most difficult throughout my whole college career).  Thinking about Sexual Personae got me to thinking about all the other books that I read in college (which was a damn lot) and how they had changed my way of thinking.  So sitting at lunch I wrote down what I think are my 10 most influential books I read during my years of undergraduate education.  Note that not all these books were required readings for classes, some I had just chosen to read for my own pleasure or interest.  I will list them here in as best order as I can remember reading them (from first to last).

  1. The Night Abraham Called the Stars: Poems by Robert Bly (Freshman): Plymouth State University had a really good poets series and every year had a number of noteworthy poets come and read on campus.  The first Poet I saw read at school was the amazing Robert Bly.  The venerable poet had a charisma and passion to his reading and writing of which I don’t think I have yet encountered an equal.  He read the title poem of this book and I was captivated, I think it was then and there that I knew I wanted to be a poet more than anything.  After the reading I bought this book of poems (his most recent collection at the time) and got his signature.  I can’t say how many times I’ve read this book since it’s purchase but the current state of its cover suggests that the number is many many times.  Utterly amazing and beautiful.  Not only did it change my perspective on reading poetry but it has also greatly influenced my own poetry writing.  I so love the title poem of this book that I think it would be nice if somebody would read it at my funeral or memorial service after I die (sorry for the grimness but its just the way I feel).
  2. Zoo Story and American Dream by Edward Albee (Freshman and again as a Senior): This is actually two plays by Albee and so some may not consider it a book but I will anyways.  I read these two plays in my Contemporary American Literature Class and absolutely loved them.  I think I read them both in about three hours one afternoon after getting out of class, I hadn’t intended on reading them that fast, in fact I hadn’t even been all that interested in reading them in the first place, but once I started the reading I couldn’t put it down.  Albee is well know for his absurdest style and satirical humor (often being quite critical and biting of society).  Both plays fit this description well.  Something about both the dry humor and the dark sarcasm of the plays really appealed to me at the time and I would say they have somewhat helped formulate my perspective of the world especially concerning American culture.  I picked up Zoo Story and American Dream again my senior year and used the two plays to help write a paper on Existential Theatre (along with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit).
  3. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia (Freshman):  If I remember correctly Sexual Personae was the first book I read in Literary Criticism with Professor Robert Garlitz (a professor who is involved in a way with two of the other books on this list and who has likely read everything I am writing about).  Sexual Personae is a big book.  No, that is an understatement, it is fucking huge (no pun intended for those who know what the book is about).  Not only are there a lot of pages but there is just a lot going on in it in general.  For a freshman it was a very intimidating book to suddenly find oneself reading.  But I did read it (albeit slowly so as not to miss anything) and I found it changing the way that I looked at everything in art and sex and culture and, hell, just about anything I could imagine.  The biggest challenge of Sexual Personae for me, as a freshman, was that, at the time, I was severely lacking in my literary and cultural knowledge.  Thus I have picked the book up many times since my initial reading as I feel that it is an incredibly valuable piece of writing to help think about the world as a whole. 
  4. Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias (Sophomore): This is the second book the Bob Garlitz played a role in.  Sophomore year I took Contemporary World Literature with Garlitz and at one point in the semester he gave every student a different book to read and do a quick presentation on.  I got Dark Back of Time.  To date Marias may be one of the strangest and most enigmatic authors I have read.  I find it hard to even explain what Dark Back of Time is about.  It comes across as partially auto-biographical, part fiction, part roman-a-clef, and then a whole bunch of other things.  The novel (if it can even really be classified as a novel) is still to date possibly the most challenging book I’ve read because of the chaos that it seems to present and yet the comforting order and simplicity that slips in between all the apparent discord.  I list Dark back of Time as one of my most influential books of my college years because it, like The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, had a profound impact on my writing and also my perspective of narrative and novels.  I have since read two other novels by Javier Marias (both given to me by Garlitz right before graduation) and found them to follow suit with Dark Back of Time.
  5. The Brothers Karamazovby Fyodor Dostoevsky (Sophomore and again in an independent study as a Senior): I didn’t realize the three Bob Garlitz involved books would appear on this list one after another but they have.  I did not originally read The Brothers Karamazov for any class, in fact I had never really intended on reading it at all, but during my winter break happened to come upon it in a box of books in my Grandmother’s basement.  I didn’t have anything to read at the time and seeing as my winter breaks were really long I thought to myself, “Why the hell not?”  I am glad that I did choose to read The Brothers Karamazov as I now think that it is probably my favorite book of all time.  I realize this is a big bold statement but to be perfectly honest I cannot think of a better book that I have read (Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Stranger in a Strange Land have all come close but something about The Brothers Karamazovmakes it stand out more than these three).  I love this book, even though it is huge and difficult and not necessarily the most accessible piece of literature (I don’t think of it as a book that one would want to pick up for just a casual read).  Senior year I set up an independent study with Bob Garlitz that was meant to be focused on the novel.  The class ended up being more focused on discussion and contemplation of literature as a whole but I still used it as an opportunity to reread The Brothers Karamazov and further affirm my love of Dostoevsky’s writing.  Besides being a poet I think another occupation that would be high up on my list of ideals would be to become a Dostoevsky Scholar.  Perhaps what surprises me most about The Brothers Karamazov is that even after 120 plus years it still seems to convey a relevance and understanding of human ideology and action; it reads as almost timeless.  No other book has ever quite struck me to the degree in which The Brothers Karamazov has.
  6. Theory of Religion by Georges Bataille (Junior): Junior year I took a class called Comparing World Religions which was taught by Phil Hart.  As students we had two big text books assigned for the class (I can’t recall what they were titled) and then this thin little book.  Though I had not read any Bataille prior to Comparing World Religions I was familiar with his name because my roommate at the time had taken another class with Hart and read a Bataille book entitled Erotism: Death and Sensuality.  Of all the philosophical texts I’ve read (quite a few as a philosophy minor) I think that Theory of Religionhas had the most lasting effect on many of my own ideas.  The basic idea in the book is that of humankind’s lost intimacy with being; that we have fractured our existences through the process of “thingness.”  Bataille says that we as people desire a return of that lost intimacy and immanence of “the animal” which passes through the world “like water through water” and as such we create ritual and violence to release that inner part of us that yearns for the unbroken being.  This book is heavy cerebral stuff and Bataille’s writing style is, at best, damn hard to read and yet sticking with it I found myself thinking about a lot of things I had never considered before.  In many ways this book did for my philosophical thinking what Sexual Personaedid for my artistic and cultural thinking.  I would later read another Bataille book (in another Hart class no less) titled The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty which was also very good but not quite to the same level as Theory of Religion.
  7. The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things by J.T. Leroy (Junior and again in class Senior):  Nearing the end of the semester in Comparing World Religion, Phil Hart handed me this paperback book and said I would probably like it.  I think I looked at it and kind of shrugged and told him I’d take a loot at it if I got a chance.  I believe Hart laughed and said I’d probably have it read within a week.  He was right about that.  If I remember correctly I had been kind of sick (actually the sickness eventually led to my having pneumonia and getting to spend a good part of a Saturday in the hospital) and so one afternoon I sat on my bed by my big window and picked The Heard is Deceitful Above all Things up.  It only took me about a day to read the whole thing.  The story is fascinating in a certain cathartic, voyeuristic, and vicarious way.  In its simplest it is about child abuse but when one really sits down and considers it, the book becomes a real examination of masochism, religion, poverty, and many other societal topics.   All this made for a great read but alone it isn’t enough for this book to make my top ten list.  What elevated it to this level was the revelations on the nature of the author.  A lot of people had had questions about the author J. T. Leroy(whose life the book was suppose to be loosely based upon) because he was a shadowy character himself, rarely making any public appearances and reluctant to hold interviews.  First semester of my senior year I took another Hart class called Sexual Ethics and The Heart is Deceitful above all Thingswas one of the required readings (as was Bataille’s The Accursed Share, Vols. 2 and 3: The History of Eroticism and Sovereignty).  During that semester the Paris Review interviewed Laura Albert who turned out to be the creator of the identity of J. T. Leroy (some other publications had made claims that Albert was really Leroy prior to the Paris Review but the prominent literary publication pretty much settled the matter once and for all).  A lot of people (literary critics, reviewers, the general public) considered the revelation of the reality of Leroy a hoax in the least and a downright scandal at worst.  I found it fascinating because suddenly there was a whole new degree of fiction and narrative that we were looking at beyond what Leroy had written in The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things and his other novel Sarah.  Leroy himself was a work of fiction!  The whole matter with Leroy and Albert and the novels brings up so many questions about authenticity and authorship and reality that I just love.  If it had not been for the Leroy revelation, The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things probably would have just gone on my list of enjoyable reads, but because of how things turned out and all the wonderful thinking it provokes this book cannot be ignored as far as its influences on me during my college years.
  8. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (Junior): Durning the long break between Fall and Spring semester of junior year (the whole month of January 2006) I lived on campus and worked some twenty plus hours a week at the Lamson Library.  Because there was not a lot to do at the library during the long break I ended up just reading a ton (just counting in my head I think I read about eight books in one month).  One thing I decided to pick up and read was Stephen Hawking’s well known A Brief History of Time which I had skimmed through a couple times in the past but never really sat down and read.  What a wonderful and educational book!  I really think that anybody who has even the slightest of interest in science in general should pick up this book.  Sure Hawking is a big famous theoretical physicist but his book is amazingly accessible and written in with an intended audience of common everyday people.  Some of it is still a bit confusing and beyond my grasp, but all around I learned more about space and time and physics from this book than from any other source.  I actually read the illustrated version which was wonderful because it had great pictures to demonstrate a lot of the ideas being discussed.  I have always loved science but A Brief History of Time further developed my fascination and I would say it is a pivotal work that lead to my creation of I Wish I Was a Scientist (twice in one post!  This is absurd.  Mr. Lordisimo have you no dignity? — Answer: No).
  9. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (junior in high school and junior in college):  What?!  How can you put this on your list if you originally read it in high school?  Here’s how.  I had to read The Sun Also Rises in my junior English class of high school and I hated it.  Honestly I think I may have loathed it more than any other book I read in my four years of high school.  I thought it was the biggest most boring load of crap I had ever read (Ethan Frome was right up there as well).  I am pretty certain that I swore upon finishing The Sun Also Rises, in high school, never to pick up Hemingway again.  Now jump forward almost four years to that same long winter break when I read A Brief History of Time. Lamson Library had a display of the Time Magazine list of 100 best English-Language Novels from 1923 to Present (many of which I read during the long break.  Special favorites from that list that don’t quite make this list but are awesome nevertheless are Catch-22 and Watchmen).  One day one of my professors, a fellow named Joseph Monninger, came into the library and was looking at the display, then he walked over to me holding one of the books.  “Have you ever read this?” He asked.  I took a look at it and cringed.  It was, as you have probably guessed, The Sun Also Rises.  I looked at Monninger and responded, “Yeah, I’ve read it and I hated it.”  He looked shocked.  “Really?  When did you read it?” “Junior year of high school, ” I said.  Monninger laughed at this and handed me the book.  “Read it again, I dare you.”  I think at the time I was fully intending on putting The Sun Also Rises back up on the display as soon as Monninger left but for some reason or another I opened it up and read the first page.  Then I read the second.  And Third. And then the whole damn thing.  And when I was finished it a couple of days later I put it down and sat there thinking to myself, “My God how could I have ever hated this book?”  This is why The Sun Also Rises is on this list.  I talked to Monninger about it after I had finished it and he told me that he knew I would like it now but he also could understand why I hadn’t liked it that much in high school.  For me, in many ways, The Sun Also Rises represents how much I came to appreciate good literature and writing during my college years.  I loved reading and writing in high school, but it was in college that I really got down to studying the arts and loving them for their uniqueness and skilled creation.  It had taken me nearly four years to get to the point where I could pick up a book I had thought I hated, reread it, and then see why it was a classic of literature.  For that The Sun Also Rises will probably always hold a special place in my heart.
  10. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard (Senior):  In some ways Simulacra and Simulation is a book of regret for me 1). because the class it was taught in, The Real World (not the reality TV show though we did talk quite a bit about reality TV) was the second of only two classes I had with the awesome professor Robin DeRosa and 2). the same semester I read this book in The Real World I had had an opportunity to take another DeRosa class on Critical Theory but I had chosen not to which, in hindsight, I now believe was a big mistake.  Still even though regrets arise when I think of Simulacra and Simulation I cannot regret the actual fact that I did read it, as it, like all these books on this list, is absolutely amazing.  Baurdillard’s book is about post-modernism and hyperreality and more or less says that the real world is gone and has been replaced by layers of simulacra or mirrored representations of that lost real.  In a lot of ways I can compare the ideas found in this book to the concepts of lost intimacy in Theory of Religion.  Not only did this book further expand upon my already diverse knowledge of philosophy and theory but it has remained a big part of how I still look at the world to this day.  I think a lot of my critical (not necessarily bad critical, just critical thinking critical) views of the world today are in direct correlation to what I read in Simulacra and Simulation.  Like all these books on this list this one was very difficult, I remember in class a lot of my classmates struggled with the work (as did I) but once we got down to discussing it and applying it to other ideas in the class it ended up being hugely significant and beneficial.

 Holy crap, the list is done!  This is a really big blog post!  I started this post yesterday afternoon (I’ve done some editing since then) and now I am wrapping it up.  It has felt wonderful to recollect and write it down.  Very autobiographical really.  Also makes me miss all the awesomeness that was college.  Boy I had some damn good times.  Not to mention some awesome professors and friends. Oh yeah, and the books, so so many great wondrous amazing spectacular genius books! 

~ by Nathaniel on April 3, 2008.

3 Responses to “My 10 Most Influential Books I Read in College”

  1. hi, can I email you about this post? thanks!

  2. Sure. Anyone is welcome to email me at

  3. How do you do it,

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