“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled, ‘This could change your life.’”
Before a writer can pen a book that inspires or enlightens, the writer needs a spark of his or her own. To find out more about how authors who live in the Panhandle or have ties to our area found their start, we invited a handful to share the titles that most made a difference in their lives.
What a range of answers we heard, and what surprises! Some thought back to books they loved as kids. Shepherdstown native Charles Wilson – the co-author of a New York Times best-seller with another on the way, like the first an insightful examination of some of our most modern problems – described a George Eliot novel begun back in 1869. For a thoroughly upbeat nature writer, the answer to “What book influenced you most?” was the darkest of true-crime tales.
Everyone’s list was unique.
As you read about what got these readers writing, we hope you’ll get inspired to add to your own to-read list. There are ideas here to keep your bedside book table filled and vibrant for years to come.
– Christine Miller Ford
Middlemarch / George Eliot
The book that impacted me the most is George Eliot’s great 19th-century novel Middlemarch. The main character, Dorothea Brooke, is idealistic and has the capacity for a lot of good. She marries poorly, though, and her life becomes something far different than she hoped.
The lesson I took from Dorothea’s story is that it is not so important that we never mess up. Rather, the book celebrates the will to endure even in the face of hardship and doubt: the courage of showing up every day. Dorothea’s example also demonstrates how the quiet, cumulative impact of our everyday actions — a kind word, a thoughtful act of compassion at the right moment — can have distant effects that are difficult to measure.
It is very hard as a writer to tease out the way that a single life impacts a community. Frank Capra’s film “It’s A Wonderful Life” captured George Bailey’s effect on Bedford Falls in a masterful way. George Eliot does a similarly impressive job here.
“The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive,” Eliot writes of Dorothea at the novel’s end, “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Charles Wilson, a native of Shepherdstown, is a Manhattan-based journalist who frequently writes for New York Times Magazine. His latest work is The Good Food Revolution, which will be released May 10.
Co-written with Will Allen, the book chronicles Allen’s life, from growing up as a sharecropper’s son, playing professional basketball and then working as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble. He cashed in his retirement fund for a two-acre garden plot near the largest public housing project in Milwaukee. There he began a grassroots effort to transform the food culture. In 2006, Wilson coauthored with Eric Schlosser Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food, a best-selling children’s book that draws on Martinsburg to illustrate how pervasive fast food has become in the United States.
The Bobbsey Twins: The Secret at the Seashore / Laura Lee Hope
Asked about the book that influenced me most, my first thought was the author Earl Stanley Gardner. I fell in love with mysteries when my mother read his Perry Mason books to me at bedtime. She was not into Dick and Jane. But then, when you ask about what book I’ve read that influenced me, I would have to say The Bobbsey Twins: The Secret at the Seashore. Don’t laugh. This is the first full-length novel I remember reading on my own that opened up the world of mystery novels to me. I remember reading that book over and over again until the cover was ragged.
By the time I was in the third grade I had read all of the Bobbsey Twins books. From there it was onto Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner, and on and so on. But it all started with the Bobbsey Twins on the seashore.
Lauren Carr grew up in Chester in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle and now lives in Harpers Ferry. She is the author of the Mac Farady detective series. Her fifth novel, Shades of Murder, will be out later this spring. Find out more at www.mysterylady.net.
John C. Allen Jr.
The Mansions of Virginia / Thomas Tileston Waterman
No matter what your field, you build on the work of those who came before you. Many published books and essays influence my writing about the historic architecture of the Eastern Panhandle. One book, however, has had a more dramatic effect on my work.
Written by architect Thomas Tileston Waterman in 1946, The Mansions of Virginia was one of the first scholarly histories written about American architecture. Waterman was an expert in colonial buildings, especially those in Virginia. He pioneered the field of architectural history.
During his research for the book, Waterman searched the rural countryside for architecturally significant houses. He found loads of wonderful early buildings in the Eastern Panhandle and included several in his book.
It was Waterman’s landmark work that inspired me to write Uncommon Vernacular. After seeing our architecture alongside the great Tidewater houses and famed works of Jefferson in Waterman’s book, I understood we have something special here in the Panhandle, something unique.
In many ways, I followed in Waterman’s footsteps as I surveyed the area for early houses to include in my book. Not only did The Mansions of Virginia influence by writing, it inspired a deeper appreciation of this place that I call home.
John C. Allen Jr., who grew up in north-central West Virginia, lives near Shepherdstown and serves as the president of the Jefferson County Historical Society. He is the author of Uncommon Vernacular: The Early Houses of Jefferson County, West Virginia, 1735-1835. It’s for sale at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown as well as online.
House of Niccolo / Dorothy Dunning (and other works)
As I wander around my house and fondle countless books on countless shelves, I wonder which I can cite as influences.
Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History introduced me to patterns underlying the rise and fall of civilizations, a concept of cycles I continue to use in my annual astrology-based trends lectures. Two other books written at the same time (immediately after World War II) reinforced this idea of evolutionary civilization. One was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy; the other was The Lord of the Rings.
Gone With the Wind was a book of my mother’s that I devoured not once but probably five or six times over the years starting when I was about 12. It began my devotion to historical fiction. My favorite of this genre remains Dorothy Dunning’s eight-volume House of Niccolo, set in the 15th-century Renaissance world, a marathon I’ve indulged in several times.
Mostly I read science fiction/fantasy and the most influential is whatever book I just finished. Doris Lessing, one of the greatest of living authors, talked about how liberated she felt when in her old age she began writing “space fiction.” The resultant series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, shows what the genre can become in the hands of a Nobel Prize winner in literature.
I seldom read non-fiction because I end up spending all my time taking notes. A recent exception was the new biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow. George has an intimate connection with Berkeley Springs and I occasionally do tours as his favorite barmaid. After completing this biography, I understood even more how much the United States owes this singular man, and what a better country it would be if contemporary leaders followed his unselfish lead.
Last but certainly not least are my own books – great influences because they generate cash. I must admit, however, the kind of books I write are not the kind I read. The exception to this is my still-unpublished novel, Exposed!
Based on a political campaign in which I worked in 1990, it is filled sex, magic, politics, food and endearing characters, one of whom reflected her psychological attitude by the color of her underwear. Maybe when I am famous enough someone will want to publish it, and countless young women will be influenced to run for the U.S. Senate.
Jeanne Mozier of Berkeley Springs is the author of Way Out in West Virginia: A Must-have Guide to the Oddities and Wonders of the Mountain State. Fans can order online at www.starwv.com.
I Will Not Die an Unlived Life / Dawna Markova
Growing up, I was that kid who hid under the covers after bedtime, equipped with a flashlight and the latest book from the local library. Books provided me with opportunities to let my dreams soar and live vicariously in an imaginary world with no limits.
I loved Pippi Longstocking! We shared a common look – skinny, freckled, with a flamboyant head of orange-red hair. She taught me that looking different simply gave me permission to let my true personality speak and that redhead was an attitude!
Author Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi was strong, spirited, irreverent and audacious! I loved the fact that she was adventurous and lived by her own rules. What kid wouldn’t love that fantasy? She had a gift for spinning the most hilarious tall tales out of any situation and I found that to be truly captivating! Little did I know at the time that these same qualities would serve me well today as a professional speaker, storyteller and author!
My love for reading continued into my adult life and has served as a strong foundation for building my training business. The bookcases in my office cover the length of the entire wall and contain a plethora of readings on leadership, management and motivation.
However, the one book which has influenced me most is I Will Not Die an Unlived Life by Dawna Markova. My copy is rife with underlining and personal notations in the columns. Many pages have been folded for easy access and recall. It has become my adult-version of how to live a Pippi Longstocking-kind of life!
The opening begins with a poem bearing the title of this truly inspiring, life-changing book. “I will not die an unlived life,” it begins. “I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me to make me less afraid, more accessible ….”
The book is not one to read cover-to-cover for simple enjoyment as you might a work of fiction. I Will Not Die an Unlived Life is a manual for living life fully and can only truly be appreciated if you mosey along the pages, pausing for reflection, analysis and continued periods of “soul work” and introspection.
The author shares many great quotes from the work of Parker Palmer, Pema Chodron, Gandhi, and even Albert Einstein, but it is during her moments of personal transparency and authenticity that I find the book most compelling and meaningful.
Take the time to do the homework, to mull her questions over in your mind and answer the difficult questions we are often too busy to give credence to. Doing so changed my life and not only influenced my career choice but continues to define the kind of person I’m becoming.
Near the conclusion of her book, Markova tells of a scientific experiment where baby fish were raised in a small fish tank which, in turn, was placed inside a much larger fish tank. The babies could see the larger world and the fish who swam in it but were confined to the boundaries of their smaller tank. Eventually their barrier was removed and the fish were allowed to swim among the others in the much larger tank. As you might imagine, they continued to swim in the exact same, limited pattern in which they were raised. It was as if the barrier still existed.
There have been many occasions in my recent life when I have recalled that analogy. It served as inspiration for me to pursue my expanded world with increase fervor and courage.
Writing and publishing two books in my new series Must Love Shoes was one of the many ways I met her challenge to remove the invisible barrier of fear and doubt so that I, too, will not die an “unlived life.”
I think Pippi would be proud.
Julie Gaver lives in Middletown, Md., and has been a keynote speaker at several Women’s Network business workshops in the Panhandle. She is the author of Must Love Shoes and Must Love Shoes 2: The Adventure Continues. Find out more at www.mustloveshoesthebook.com.
My First Summer in the Sierra / John Muir
Early in my career as a National Park Ranger, I read several books that made a strong impact upon me and greatly influenced by life and career, including Desert Solitaire by Edward Abby and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but the one which made the greatest impact upon me was My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir.
At the time, I had just graduated from college and I was spending my first summer in the Sierra Nevada range, in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park in California. It was a magnificent place, which included the largest living things on earth, the giant Sequoia trees. I devoured the experience, trying learn from the older rangers, the ones I so greatly admired, and read every pioneer conservationist book I could find. But Muir’s book was different.
It spoke of the spirit of the mountains, its community of living things, and helped me generate a deep emotional connection with the land. It influenced me to become a part of this greater community of life, changing my perspective. I found a greater sensitivity to all that was around me. I became more of a naturalist at my core. I sought out the wilds and back country of the park, and became an ardent protector of these special places. Ultimately, the book became by credo, guiding my ranger style for the rest of my career.
In Rob Danno’s just-published first book, Worth Fighting For: A Park Ranger’s Unexpected Battle, he details the fallout after he bucked his park system supervisors over a 2004 incident in which dozens of trees were removed from federally protected land at the request of Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, whose estate along the C&O Canal now has a clearer view of the Potomac. Danno, a native of Concord, Calif., who studied at Humboldt State University, is a resident of Shepherdstown.
The Camera, The Negative, The Print / all by Ansel Adams
The book that influenced me the most is actually a series of three books by Ansel Adams: The Camera, The Negative and The Print. The last two are my favorites, and I still refer to them.
This series was designed as a technical guide for black-and-white photographers who take their craft seriously. Adams did much of the original work that created a systematic approach to taking photos, developing the negatives and making an expressive black and white print.
Adams once made a wonderful statement: “The negative is like a music score but the print is the performance.”
Frank Robbins, a photographer based in Harpers Ferry, has published two books of his work, Transformations on the River and Nineteen and a Half Portraits. To find out more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Cold Blood / Truman Capote
I first read it during the summer after my junior year in college on a recommendation from a professor. The book sealed the deal for me on two fronts: it made me sure that I wanted to be a journalist and doubly sure I wanted to be a writer. In Cold Blood centers on the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in the small Kansas town of Holcomb. Capote got to the deep, dark heart of the story through pure, relentless reporter curiosity. He compiled 8,000 pages of notes and — in the end — produced one of the greatest nonfiction books ever written. The book influenced me both as a journalistic feat and as a shining example of the power of great storytelling.
Initially, I was hesitant to name In Cold Blood. There was a time I felt disenchanted with the book – this was after I learned that Capote had invented a few scenes and played fast and loose with some of the facts. But I came back to admiring the work again because it was he as the author bringing a dramatized version of murders that really happened. I like that for that reason many people refer to it as a “nonfiction novel.” Capote did what a lot of “based on a true story” movies do, only in literary form. Also, I measure the impact of a book by how many times it gives me goose bumps. That one was off the charts!
The 2005 movie was a big hit with me – better than the biography it’s based on, which I wasn’t as into. I think the story behind the story is nearly as interesting as the book itself. You have this diminutive gay guy showing up in small-town Kansas in the 1950s asking around about the murders. And who else but Harper Lee is along for the ride? Then you have whatever happened with the interviews with murderer Perry Smith and how that went down. It’s all very intriguing.
Seth Muller, a former Shepherdstown resident who now is a magazine editor in Arizona. His latest book is The Day of Storms: Book Two of Keepers of the Windclaw Chronicles. It is a middle-reader novel that follows the story of a Navajo girl who learns to speak to birds and sets out on a mission to unite the human and animal worlds. Learn more at www.salinabookshelf.com.
Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy / Sarah Ban Breathnach
I’ve been though some challenging times since I moved to the Eastern Panhandle in 2004. One of the things I focus on is gratitude for everything I have. I learned this from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, and it’s a book I re-read every year.
Through it, I’ve learned that I’m responsible for my life and to create my own happily-ever-after! Each page is full of words of advice and inspiration to keep me going. Without it, I think I would’ve given up. Instead I write five things I’m grateful for every night before I go to bed and I try to focus on gratitude throughout the day.
Just like me, Sarah Ban Breathnach is from Takoma Park, Md. She is a great, prolific writer, and that’s exactly what I aspire to be. My first book is for sale now and I am working on two others.
I just added Charmbook, a membership forum, to my website and I hope to connect people through friendship and online dating. It’s an ambitious undertaking but I’m up to the task! And it’s my oh-so-casual way of looking for my own Prince Charming while helping others.
April Cline, who makes her home in Hedgesville, is the author of Manifesting Princess – Live UP to the Reputation! Fans can connect with her on Facebook or at her site, www.ManifestingPrincess.com.
Count of Monte Cristo / Alexandre Dumas
All writers are readers first. Words are like Flintstone vitamins; the more you take in, the stronger you are. Books are a pharmacopeia.
I can’t remember a time that I was not reading, beginning with the Bobbsey Twins books and then Nancy Drew. And I can’t remember a time that I was not putting one word after another on a piece of paper from the time I learned that words could be “drawn” and follow each other like ducklings across the page. Of course, I loved the Alcott books, Little Women and Little Men, and Phyllis Whitney’s Step to the Music had to be read several times. I remember a scene in a book whose name I no longer recall but had something to do with a four-story house with a cupola where the heroine throws her arms above her head and falls asleep. Some things just stay with you.
But the novel that blew off the top of my head was Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. I was 15 when I found that book in the library and five chapters in I called my best friend Anne and practically wept telling her how wonderful it was. It was the first time I had fallen in love with a book, and understood the power that books have to transport us to times and worlds far different from our own. In poetry, it was Emily Dickinson who stole my heart. I am still faithful to her, although I have occasional brief liaisons with William Carlos Williams and Lucille Clifton.
After Dumas came a Henry James phase, a Nabokov phase, a Joyce Carol Oates phase, an Anne Tyler phase just like a fickle young woman falling in and out of love and discarding each lover for the next. I may be the only person on earth who read War and Peace twice, as well as anything else by Tolstoy translated into English. All of their words, their turns of phrase, the way the writer sometimes seems to look back over her shoulder and wink at you, are like a flirtation with the reader. How could you not love them?
A former D.C. media director and newspaper editor and now an author, Ginny Fite of Harpers Ferry also serves as president of the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative Gallery at 235 W. Washington St. in Charles Town. Her first book, “I Should Be Dead by Now (And Other Postmenopausal Lamentations),” is a humor-filled collection of essays. Her latest offering is a book of poems entitled, “The Pearl Fisher.” Her books are available on Amazon.com; her email is email@example.com.
Peyton Place / Grace Metalious
My favorite book of all time, by a landslide, is Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. When I was a little kid I heard a lot about the book being banned in so many libraries because it included a number of taboo subjects. I didn’t read it until I was in college, but have probably read it at least 20 more times since then. What an absolutely wonderful book!
It’s not fast-paced, but is an easy read that makes you want to keep turning the pages. What strikes me most about the book is the brilliant characterization of the different people and places in the book. In my mind I can clearly picture every person and place she writes about, and all the characters seem so real.
Without a doubt this was the book that influenced me to be a writer, to try and write something half as good as this story. It has always been my “role model” book to follow, because the author didn’t take any shortcuts in writing the story, but rather used her imagination to deftly portray some incredibly intriguing characters and plots.
Malcolm Ater is a long-time special education reading teacher in Harpers Ferry and the author of an award-winning novel for young adults, Tyler’s Magic Mountain. It’s based on the true story of a boy with cystic fibrosis who leads his Harpers Ferry team to a 40-0 record, the only West Virginia public school ever to win that many games in a season in any sport. “But the climax of the novel is not the team reaching an unprecedented goal,” Ater said, “but rather on the human effect of this one boy on his small town and the people around him.” For more on Ater’s work, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob O’ Connor
Killer Angels / Michael Shaara
Killer Angels was the first book I ever read about the Civil War that presented the people rather than the battles. It was a primer for those interested in reading about the times, but didn’t care to get caught up in the minutiae of the structure of the regiments or the endless descriptions of the battles.
It brought the conflict home through real people who felt and
experienced the emotions of the war.
My books are much more like Killer Angels than like most other Civil War books. My readers are more interested in what the individual characters are experiencing than in finding out how many casualties there were or what units were present and who commanded them.
Bob O’Connor, who lives in Charles Town, has written seven books, including historical fiction novels that elaborate on real-life Civil War situations and characters (his latest, A House Divided Against Itself tells the story of a Shepherdstown man and his brother who fight on opposing sides in two battles), a history of Ranson and The Life of Abraham Lincoln as President, a book built on a previously unpublished autobiography of Ward Hill Lamon, the Panhandle native who was Lincoln’s closest confidant in the White House. For details, see www.boboconnorbooks.com.
We, the Animals / Justin Torres
The books that I enjoy the most are the ones that allow me to understand more about my fellow human beings – the way they behave and what in their lives has caused them to behave thus.
Most recently, I read We, the Animals by Justin Torres. It’s a sometimes delightful, sometimes tough glimpse into the boyhood lives of three Puerto Rican-American boys, narrated by the unnamed youngest. His reflections on the actions of his siblings and parents are brutally honest, with the innocence that only a child can bring to these descriptions of the sometimes magical, always chaotic events and behavior he witnesses.
As children, we assume that the world of our childhood is universal and unchanging, but as we move towards adulthood, this perception is eroded, as innocence is mercilessly peeled away, layer by layer, and understanding and recognition are allowed to take its place.
Hali Taylor, the director of the Shepherdstown Public Library, is the photographer behind On the Wall, the new book with dozens of thoughtful black-and-white portraits of locals. Created to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Shepherdstown’s founding, the book is for sale at Four Seasons in downtown Shepherdstown.