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You might think that, as a father of two teenagers, I’d have a good handle on the books that have influenced these vibrant young women, and I could simply list those here. They are both voracious readers, after all, and my wife and I read aloud to them nightly for years. But making any kind of assumptions about teenagers can be tricky, alas, and so (with one or two exceptions) the books I list below are instead the ones that most influenced me as a young adult, predominantly in high school and college.
Early on, two books helped define what I call my environmental ethic: the sense of who I am in the context of landscape, and the passionate pursuit of preserving natural places (and, subsequently, building responsibly in places). The first was assigned the summer before I attended college by an honors biology professor, the second in my first college course on wildlife biology:
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
No other single book of prose or poetry has activated my passion for saving wilderness, not to mention my devious inner nature, as desert curmudgeon Edward Abbey’s 1966 memoir about spending a year at Utah’s Arches National Monument. I return to this book regularly, much to my wife’s chagrin, as it makes me want to head off to the Canyonlands, call with the coyotes, share ghost stories with a night circle of lizards.
A Sand County Almanac, with Essays on Conservation from Round River, by Aldo Leopold
Originally published in 1949 (Round River in 1953), Leopold’s classic book put together, for the first time for me, a narrative defining the environmental ethic that was (and still is) forming for me. Where Desert Solitaire is rowdy and urgent, A Sand County Almanac is elegant, sensible, right.
The Selected Poems (Expanded Edition), by A. R. Ammons
Speaking of a “night circle of lizards,” the poems included in this essential collection—standalone pieces and earlier work, mostly—ignited in me a passion for poetry that could only be quenched by reading more poetry. One of my favorites. Here's a short excerpt:
Coming to cottonwoods, an
and in the gully
an edging of stream willows...
(To read more of the poem, click here).
American Primitive, by Mary Oliver
I was late in discovering Mary Oliver, at least in relation to the poetry taught to me in high school and college. I remember the day I stumbled upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Primitive on a bookshelf of Boulder Bookstore, the alder shelves of the poetry stacks drinking in the late afternoon light, the truer light that emanated from the pages as I opened the book to find the first poem “August.” I have been in love with Mary Oliver ever since.
Poetry from The Amicus Journal, edited by Brian Swann and Peter Borrelli
Sometimes the most influential books are not by a single author, but by many. That’s the case with my first anthology of nature poems, which I found in a university bookstore. Though I wasn’t familiar with The Amicus Journal (now OnEarth, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council), I soon became delightfully familiar with many of its poets: Wendell Berry, Philip Booth, Jane Hirschfield, and more.
Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat
In addition to Desert Solitaire, my honors biology professor assigned Canadian biologist and writer Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf. To a young man interested since early high school in field biology work, this book started a journey that I still find myself on. It begins, “It is a long way in time and space from the bathroom of my Grandmother Mowat’s house in Oakville, Ontario, to the bottom of a wolf den in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin….”
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
From one kind of journey to another…. As a kid (as well as an adult) I was never much of a fan of newspaper comics, with the exception of Calvin and Hobbes, which is witty, wise, and applicable regardless of your age. Essential reading, I’d say.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi’s childhood graphic memoir of growing up in and then fleeing Iran during the Islamic Revolution is not unlike Calvin and Hobbes in its wit and wisdom, though it’s certainly more heartbreaking and stunningly illustrated. This book is particularly important, I think, for young adult women—which I suspect means that it’s just as important for young adult men.
100 Selected Poems, by E. E. Cummings
Witty and wise are also apt descriptions for the poems of E. E. Cummings. As eclectic as the language and forms of these poems are, I find them to be immediately accessible for young adults, particularly poems such as “she being Brand” and “may i feel said he,” which speak so authentically, yet still whimsically, to the drive (if you will) of young adults of a certain age.
The Harry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling
Limited to ten books in this blog entry, I didn’t want to use seven of my slots on the individual books of J. K. Rowling’s delightful, thrilling, and lovable Harry Potter books, though I easily could. What speaks to me and young adults most in this series, I think, is not just the intricate details of Rowling’s magical world and its believable characters, but the sense of wonder, risk, friendship, and ultimately the battle of good versus evil in a world, like ours, where black and white do not exist so much as varying shades of gray.
These are ten, but of course there are countless runners-up I wouldn’t argue against, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems by William Stafford, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 anthology, to name but a few.
Simmons B. Buntin is the author of two books of poetry: Bloom (2010, Salmon Poetry) and Riverfall (2005, Salmon Poetry). His book of community case studies, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, will be published at the end of January 2013. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, publishing online since 1998. With his wife and two daughters, he has lived in the community of Civano in southeast Tucson since 2000, where he still makes time to converse among a night circle of lizards every now and then.