Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

In your [blog] list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way! Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the “right” books or great books of literature, just something that has affected you in some way.

Yet another meme that’s been going around Facebook. Though not tagged specifically to join in, this one did strike my fancy. I’ve been a reader pretty much my whole life, and though I may not have been to the library lately that part of my identity hasn’t changed.1 I’m putting this out as a blog post, though, because simply listing the books felt unsatisfying. I want to talk about why they’ve stuck with me.

  1. Animorphs (K.A. Applegate) Let’s start off with a fun one. I got into the Animorphs books in 5th grade, and eventually became pretty invested in the series. (That’s true even literally: we ended up owning about half of them.) In retrospect I think they filled the “superhero comic” niche for me—exciting stories that occasionally touched on something serious.

    (You may also consider this cheating, since Animorphs is a series and not a single book. That’s okay; I intend to cheat on most of these.)

  2. Dealing with Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede) I first encountered Dealing with Dragons on a several-hour drive in a friend’s mom’s car for an elementary school field trip, in audiobook form. It wasn’t quite my thing at the time, or at least I didn’t think it was, but for kids’ fantasy it’s actually quite clever. It’s also all about stereotype-busting: the protagonist is a princess who runs away from an arranged marriage to become a “dragon’s princess”, despite that such a thing is “simply not done”. In retrospect I’d go as far as to call it feminist.2 For another kids’ fantasy book with a strong female protagonist, see Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine).

    The later books in this series are all right but nowhere near as awesome as the first one.

  3. Star Wars: Heir to the Empire (Timothy Zahn) Ah, Star Wars. Three movies (yes, just three) was nowhere near enough for me growing up, and I soon branched out into the books, which wove together to build the galaxy of the New Republic, i.e. What Happens After Return of the Jedi. While many of these really were just light plot-based novels, some of them actually had a fair amount of depth and even good writing. I selected Heir to the Empire from this group mainly for its historical significance: it basically started the entire world of Star Wars novels (as opposed to comics, games, etc).3 But it’s also one of the best-written, and takes a bold divergence from the original material in introducing new settings and new characters (including one of my favorites, Mara Jade).

    I feel obliged to mention Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta’s Young Jedi Knights series as well. As kids’ books (rather than adult / young adult), they were probably my gateway drug, though I don’t really remember at this point.

  4. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) Somehow this book manages to reach a lot of people as a favorite, especially if they read it in middle school rather than as adults. Card has a very good sense of human nature, and weaves together speculative sci-fi settings, clever games of strategy, and a series of growing-up experiences for the child protagonist. It’s “unfortunate” that the author is not just homophobic (via religion) but also apparently a jerk.4 I would expect someone who seems to have a good grasp of human nature to actually know how to interact with people.

    Still, Ender’s Game deserves its praise. (Mostly.) It does well enough to make you forget that the characters are so young…or maybe not. Because I think part of the reason I liked Ender is because he thought things through logically—even as a kid—and so did I…

  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) is a story of a boy named Christopher who’s a bit further into the autism spectrum than most. While Haddon is not a professional in working with autism, he nonetheless crafts a compelling and interesting story, largely by the protagonist/narrator having a different set of priorities than usual. Things we see as mundane get an entire chapter, while a fight between Christopher’s parents can happen “in the background” while he’s worried about missing his maths test.

    Again, a large part of the draw here was identity. While I doubt I have anything diagnosable, I consider myself to also be “a bit further into the autism spectrum”. I can see why Christopher thinks the way he does—it’s not some completely foreign mode of thought.5

  6. The Cuckoo’s Egg (Cliff Stoll) This is what computers in the 80s were like. (It’s also what Berkeley in the 80s was like.) This is what malicious hacking was, and largely still is (as I understand it)—with the rise of cross-country and international computer networks, we get some of the first serious hackers, and (in an epilogue) one of the first computer viruses worms. Stoll’s casual tone keeps the book fun, too.

    This entry almost ties with Hackers by Steven Levy, which tells about the other kind of hackers: the ones who can do amazing things with little resources, who grok the computer and teach it (both figuratively and literally) to sing.6 It’s divided into three main sections: “True Hackers” for the “original” software hackers at MIT in the 60s, “Hardware Hackers” for the rise of personal computers in the 70s, and “Game Hackers” starting to make software into a mass market business into the 80s. It’s a world very different from today in how little the computer provided; if you wanted it to do something, you had to build it yourself. UC Berkeley Professor Senior Lecturer Emeritus Brian Harvey makes a very brief appearance, concerned about the social issues surrounding MIT’s hacking culture even as a student.

    The Cuckoo’s Egg edges out Hackers in this list simply because I have a copy of it and I don’t have a copy of Hackers, and so in that sense The Cuckoo’s Egg has “stuck with me” a bit more.

    I already wanted to be a software developer, but The Cuckoo’s Egg and Hackers (and to a lesser extent Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine) managed to both draw me into this world of earlier computing and to give me a curious sense of wistfulness: a part of me felt that all the really cool low-level stuff was done, and everything to come would just be incremental improvements. And in some sense that is true in some parts of CS, but by no means in the entire field. Working on compilers and programming languages has helped to clear almost all of the remaining malaise here—leaving snapshots of computing in the 20th century.

  7. Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (Harold Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman with Julie Sussman) The book that provided the backbone for the intro computer science course at Berkeley, CS61A, for many years. I came into college knowing how to program; SICP and 61A and Brian Harvey gave me the structure to start turning that into knowing about computer science7 and in turn knowing how to write good programs.

    This is the only non-narrative book on the list (all three computer books in #6 have some story structure to them despite being nonfiction). Part of its spot comes from interacting with the book so much: two years after taking the course, I proceeded to TA for it for four semesters in a row. Part of it is shared with 61A for shaping a lot of my thoughts about how programming languages ought to work—and really, how programming ought to work.

    My favorite topic was (and still is) streams—my first time seeing laziness combined with data structures to represent “infinite” values. I actually still haven’t worked through Chapter 5, which is simulating a virtual machine.

  8. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (Eliezer Yudkowsky) “Everyone” likes J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—not actually true, but true enough. Methods of Rationality, however is part of that strange world known as “fanfiction”: one author writing within another author’s universe because they enjoy the characters or setting so much. The stereotype here is that some random fan slaps together a story they wish the author had told, based on their own whims or headcanon, and the result is a puerile, poorly-edited, plotless pile of…well, you get the idea.

    Methods of Rationality is not like this. Yudkowsky actually does a very good job of telling an actual story, and even though it’s flavored by being in Rowling’s world it’s still a unique and original story in its own right.8 The premise: what if Petunia Evans had married an Oxford professor, and Harry had grown up on science and science fiction? And instead of Harry/Ron/Hermione, Yudkowsky ends up with Harry/Draco/Hermione, which turns out to be really fun.

    Somewhat like Card, Yudkowsky turns out to be a bit of an unusual fellow in reality, and I’m not sure I’d want to associate with him as an actual person. Nevertheless, Methods of Rationality has been an incredibly good read, alternately fun and gripping (though there are several stretches that are neither fun nor gripping). And perhaps it’s one last bit of identity association—rational!Harry’s thoughts are sometimes not too distant from my own, and I may just be a Ravenclaw.9

  9. A Thousand Words for Stranger (Julie Czerneda) A somewhat late addition to my sci-fi canon, but it was a favorite of another friend that managed to capture my fancy. The protagonist has amnesia, and so everything she experiences is tinted through that, leading to a book that somehow manages to draw on the reader’s empathy. It’s definitely a bit awkward—it’s Czerneda’s first novel—but the story and the characters remain compelling.

    Sequels: Mostly just okay. A bit more polished, but a bit less heart.

  10. Dragon of the Lost Sea (Lawrence Yep) And finally circling back to childhood. Yep draws elements from Chinese mythology to paint a fantasy story of hardships and heroism. In some sense it’s just a fantasy story, but it’s managed to stick around.

    Sequels: Still pretty good, though a bit more contrived / plot-driven.

Ten Honorable Mentions

  1. The Prydain Chronicles (Lloyd Alexander) Elements drawn from Welsh mythology make a kids’ fantasy-adventure series that’s also about a young man growing up.

  2. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) Clever wordplay makes a humorous kids’ adventure story, with some nice messages worked in.

  3. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov) Another sci-fi classic; a collection of short-stories about robots that are quite satisfying, and again historically important to the genre.

  4. Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein) A sci-fi classic with a few interesting ideas about humanity. Need to re-read.

  5. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig) Philosophy mixed with an unreliable narrator coming to grips with mental troubles.

  6. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Douglas Hofstadter) Logic, math, computer science, and even a bit of biology woven together with interesting parallels and amusing anecdotes; a guide to some subset of the theory of computation, among other things.

  7. Object-Oriented Software Construction (Bertrand Meyer) There are a few books out there about programming languages, but most of them focus on the theoretical aspects rather than the actual experience of programming in the language. OOSC actually walks through creating a language, justifying each new feature along the way.

  8. Flatland (Edwin A. Abbot) A clever mashup of mathematics and social critique just before the dawn of the 20th century; the book to read if you don’t understand what “the fourth dimension” means other than simply “time”.

  9. Flatterland (Ian Stewart) A sequel to (fanfiction of?) Flatland; essentially the same idea, minus most of the social critique, if written at the start of the twenty-first century, which it was. Branches out into physics as well; surprisingly fun.10

  10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams) Another sci-fi classic; absurd comedy at least partly about mediocrity.

  1. Which means I’m doing a fair amount of re-reading of various books I own, mostly light sci-fi. ↩︎

  2. This whole post is a lot of “in retrospect” as I myself explore what I like about these books. ↩︎

  3. There were only seven original novels released prior to Heir to the Empire, and all of them were released around the same time as the movies. Heir to the Empire came out a decade later…and was also set a decade later. ↩︎

  4. I will not buy any work of his new—my small, ineffectual way of protesting his politics. ↩︎

  5. This is also why Xenocide is my favorite of Ender’s Game’s many sequels, despite not being the best-written. Explaining further would spoil the plot, unfortunately, but it was another case where somehow the character was not as foreign as they could have been. It’s also an earlier sequel, in terms of publication; the later ones are tinted more and more with aspects of Card’s politics and worldview that I disagree with. ↩︎

  6. This sense of “hacker” lives on in today’s “Hackathon” events. ↩︎

  7. Or “Information Technology”, if you will. ↩︎

  8. Methods of Rationality is not the only good fanfiction I’ve read, either. Just recently Yudkowsky linked to one named “Carpetbaggers” set just after the main events of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. ↩︎

  9. Or not. Still working out if Curiosity is really my strongest trait among the Hogwarts four. ↩︎

  10. My second NaNoWriMo project was something along the lines of “Structure and Interpretation in the style of Flatterland”. ↩︎