Let me get ths out of the way first, to the dismay of some of you: I just don't have it in me for American Idol anymore. Not that I was ever a faithful, constant consumer of this sizable chunk of brain candy–but I would at least tune in the past several seasons for the opening episodes. This week, as the most popular show of the Bush era reignites even as the era itself is deep in twilight, I chose to stick with my usual evening routines of social networking and reading.

Last night, in particular, I selected an item that has been on my bookshelf for years but one I have–surprisingly, considering it is by one of my most favorite authors–never read. It is Frederick Buechner's Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say, an examination of the four works of literature that have influenced him the most and the themes of sadness present in the authors' lives while they composed them. I look forward to blogging more about Buechner's thoughts here, but for now will simply mention that the works and authors he interacts with include:

The poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
King Lear by William Shakespeare (which includes a verse that inspired the title of Buechner's book)

Buechner stirred me (as he often does) to contemplate what might be four particular works of literature that have had the greatest impact on me as a person and a writer across my lifetime. Here's my immediate conclusions:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I first read this in 10th grade when my English teacher highly recommmended it, easily picking up on my teenage angst and wanting to nurture my blossoming creative writing. I fully identified with Holden Caulfield's sense of alienation and his scoffing at the phoniness of the culture and customs around him. I return to this book every several years or so for a fresh read, and it continues to help me to think critically and own my inescapable identity as a person who follows a different beat. Thankfully, it's never been made into a movie!

The Stand by Stephen King: King is often thought of as popular fiction more than literature, but this intense masterpiece holds its own against any work produced during the past several decades. The character and plot development of this epic emotional, spiritual and physical struggle of a band of survivors in the midst of a horrific plague blew my mind even as a 16-year-old. It has served as a model for me on how to create interesting heroes and villians who offer complexity and interact in unexpected and profound ways.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Far more expansive and introspective than the film vesion, Steinbeck's work is a massive dive into the human condition and the need for grace amid our seemingly unlimited appetite for depravity. His story of Aaron and Caleb Trask and the characters they encounter is so profound that one of my homiletics professors in seminary, Ellsworth Kalas, assigned it as required reading. It is hard to read twice, but “once will do,” as Cosette sang of seeing and falling in love with Marius in Les Miserables.

1984 by George Orswell: This is a classic I have not re-read since college, but reading it 20 years ago was enought to mpact me for a lifetime. It is chilling how conformist and identity-stripping our corporate culture can require us to be, even without our realizing it at the time. Protagonist Winston Smith finally surrenders his heart, mind and soul at the end to the totalitarian “Big Brother,” even willing to betray his lover in order to “win the victory over himself.” What are the little surrenders that we make each day to the collective pressures that govern our society–especially now, in this age of fear and reactivity?

There are many more titles I could list that have impacted me, but Buechner picked four and that will have to suffice for now.