My Ideal Bookshelf – Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss

I’ve been putting off writing about my Ideal Bookshelf, and it’s mostly because of this book.

I didn’t want to think about why this book meant so much to me.

I didn’t want to remember sitting on my grandfather’s lap, dressed in an oversized Purdue Boilermaker t-shirt, and following along as he turned each well-worn page.

I didn’t want to because I have not seen my grandfather in over a year.

And, I miss him.

I miss who I thought he was as the facade shattered when he proudly pinned his MAGA pin to his sweater vest the last Christmas I visited Oklahoma.

I miss who I thought all my family was and who I need them to be.

But, this post is about Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, not them.

Yet, my memories and love for this book cannot divorced from memories of visiting my grandparents in their ranch style home on the plains of Enid, Oklahoma. Days spent fishing. Days spent building scrap forts. Days spent swimming. Followed by nights of a bowl of vanilla ice cream, topped with Hershey’s chocolate syrup and book after book read by my grandpa.

My brother and I would squirm in for the best spot on his lap, bringing with us a large stack of books. One, two, three . . . were never enough, and we would always beg for another book before bed.

But, always, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! was my favorite.

I felt that as he read the book he truly believed that I could be whoever I wanted to be and do anything I wanted to do.

Realities and convictions certainly change a glimpse into nostalgia.

Still, the book remains a treasure.

At the end of the school year, I would read the book to my students.

It was always my final activity to close out the school year, and it is an activity that I miss now that I am no longer directly teaching in the classroom.

I miss a lot of things.


My Ideal Bookshelf – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling

As my brother and I wandered a now defunct toy store in Tulsa, we waited impatiently by the front of the store as our mom was checking out. What was being purchased or why we were there, I could not say, but as we were waiting, we came across a glass case with a hardback of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on proud display.

Harry Potter? I thought to myself. What kind of a ridiculous name is Harry Potter for a wizard?

Unable to keep my mockery to myself, I began on my anti-Potter rant.

“Look at me, I am Harry, a wizard.”

“My name is Harry. I fly on a broom.”

“I have a lightning bolt on my head.”

I can still hear my tiny human self’s tone as I continued bashing the, in my estimate, poorly named book about a boy wizard.

As we exited the store, I remember thinking to myself that the book would never be popular, and it would be one that I would never read.

Fast forward to that Christmas with my grandparents in Enid, Oklahoma, I would open a box containing the first two Harry Potter novels and the newly released third entry. I smiled and thanked them, but I was clearly more interested in the Lego set I had received.

Yet, as the endless hours of football played across the two television sets and I grew bored with my new Lego masterpiece, I finally made my way to England, Diagon Alley, and the halls of Hogwarts.

I blocked out my mockery of Harry Potter and became a Potterhead, which marked the first time I was ever wrong about anything . . .


My Ideal Bookshelf – Ishmael

Ishmael, Daniel Quinn

I remember spotting all three books in my father’s recycling bin, Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael.

It must have been during my time in high school because of where he and my stepmom were living, but I can’t remember the reason for the books being in the recycling bin. Perhaps, my father had simply moved on from the books’ ideas. Or, was just cleaning house.

Regardless, I asked if I could have them and reread Ishmael and read The Story of B and My Ishmael for the first time.

Perhaps, if my father knew that Quinn’s book would lead me down the path of atheism, he never would have given me the first one of the trilogy.

In all likelihood, he would have burned them for blasphemy.

Perhaps, that’s why they were being recycled.

(I plan to one day cover the hypocrisy of the Republican agenda to that of my dad and family’s lifelong recycling, but now this post is not that time or place.)

Ishmael and the third of the series have a strange fantasy premise of learning from a talking gorilla, which is probably why the loosely adapted film version, Instinct, lacked the anthropomorphized ape.

Yet, the books, particularly the first and last opened up history in a new and interesting way. It challenged the worldview that I had been shown all my life, and it turned it completely around.

I questioned everything from that point forward.






I once tried to have a friend read Ishmael, but she was never able to get into it. In her view, she already knew what the book was trying to say. I guess as you educate yourself and grow, you naturally begin to look at the world differently.

But, as a teenager trying to figure out my place in the world in small town Oklahoma, it was another chance to discover and to question.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Hatchet

Hatchet, Gary Paulsen

There are a lot of books on my Ideal Bookshelf, which I consider to be gateway books. Neil Gaiman’s 1602 led to Ultimate Spider-Man and the New Avengers and Invincible and more. Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World led to A Wizard’s First Rule and A Game of Thrones and The Way of Kings and more. Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival narrative is another one of those gateways. A gateway to escapism, to isolation, to freedom from society’s norms and expectations.

Hatchet is one of those novels that launched me into the world of rigorous reading. Prior to Hatchet, I’d read, but not in the same way. I’d read Hank the Cowdog or The Hardy Boys or Animorphs, but while impactful, these literary works are more “literature” and less “Literature,” a biased distinction I would learn about in college.

Yet, with Hatchet, I would devour more and more wilderness survival novels from Paulsen and others. These stories, while primarily about a male survivor, explored a protagonist that didn’t fit in with the world, a protagonist that escaped. While sometimes these escapes into the world of the wild was voluntary, like in Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain or Paulsen’s The Island, sometimes they were less than voluntary, as in Hatchet. Yet, always, the escape into the wilderness is transformative, life changing.

Perhaps, that’s why I dreamed of my own wilderness escape, developed a fascination with sustainable living.

Or, perhaps, it was something else.

After all, Hatchet was just a story about a kid realizing their place in the world, a place unexpected but a place they belonged.

My Ideal Bookshelf – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

In a darkened theater, waiting for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to start, the trailer for the latest Guillermo del Toro macabre fairy tale, The Shape of Water, plays, and I nudge the elbow of my friend, whispering, “I want to see that.”

After the heartbreaking feature film ends, a discussion follows, which leads to a journey down the Wikipedia rabbit hole until I reach director J.A. Bayona, director of The Orphanage, which was produced by del Toro. Bayona, also, directed the adaptation of the most recent read on my Ideal Bookshelf, A Monster Calls.

I’d been chronicling my thoughts about each book on the figurative shelf until I reached this one.

This one had me stuck and unable to move forward.

And, I am not sure why exactly.

I guess this book has just stayed with me, as did the movie.

How do you tell the story of a child trying to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis?

How do you make that story matter?

How do you make that story linger?

The beautiful illustrations, the core narrative, and the tales within the tale reveal truths about who we are and how we cope with our realities.

When originally read, now, and throughout the course of that time in between, I have dwelled on those truths.

And, as I cope with my own reality and all of its intricacies, I know that I will still keep A Monster Calls in my thoughts.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, Christopher Moore

It’s always nice finding an author that you can dive into almost any book of theirs and enjoy. Throughout my reading journeys, I have found several of these authors.

In middle school, it was Gary Paulsen, on journeys into into the wilderness to survive in isolation.

In high school, it was Robert A. Heinlein, on journeys into space to rethink the human condition.

These authors would be followed by others: Jasper Fforde, Jon Krakauer, Rick Riordan, Brandon Sanderson, and David Sedaris, to name a few.

And, during my college years, one of those authors was Christopher Moore.

With an insane and inane sense of humor, Christopher Moore’s novels take on everything from the Grim Reaper to Santa Claus to vampires to Shakespeare and pretty much everything in between, including the story of Jesus H. Christ.

Lamb follows Biff, Christ’s childhood pal, as a host of angels commission the inept and misguided Biff to write the untold story of Christ, essentially filling in the years that the good book leaves out. While a hilarious parody in its own right, chronicling debaucherous sex, drug use, and other Bible-worthy shenanigans, Biff’s story relates the shift from the teachings of the Old Testament to the teachings of Christ as he discovers the beliefs of “eastern” religions.

The story is filled with ridiculous magics and other supernatural forces of fiction. And as I read through this highly entertaining fictional account of a religion’s savior, my last shreds agnostic beliefs drifted away on the wings of angels, which according to the world of Night Vale are all named Erica.

My nonreligious convictions have always been a sore spot with living in Oklahoma, surrounded by the devout. When I had tried to express my thoughts, I was told I would grow out of it. Or, I was met with shock that I didn’t believe.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

I don’t really know what to say about this book.

Or, rather, I don’t know how to say what I want to say about this book.

I keep trying to write about why I read it and why it made it to this list, but my thoughts on it never seem to do it justice.

Like Stranger in a Strange Land, I read this one out of an attempt to read the best of science fiction and fantasy by diving through the Hugo and Nebula award winning novels.

My quest ended with The Left Hand of Darkness.

I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers because I had read Have Space Suit – Will Travel in middle school.

On appreciating these two award winning books, I definitely preferred Stranger to Starship. I could never get into Starship and viewed the movie adaptation as a much less pleasant experience than the book.

Being fifty/fifty on my Hugo and Nebula appreciation/enjoyment mission, I moved onto The Left Hand of Darkness.

At least, I think I did.

I think this was the order.

The two by Heinlein, followed by Ursula K. Le Guin, but maybe, I have the order wrong. Maybe, Darkness came before Stranger.

Or, maybe, it doesn’t matter.

Order and continuity usually matters.

But, does it here?

I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness because I had read through and enjoyed the world of Earthsea in middle school.

And, here is where my memory of of this novel becomes fuzzy and skewed. Because, I remember sitting on a chair at a university, waiting for my mom’s class to finish. But, when was this on the timeline of my childhood? Where exactly was I? When was I?

But, I remember reading about an alien world allowing genderless humans to shift into and out of male and female characteristics.

I remember discomfort and unease.

I remember trying to forget it.

But, I remember.

And, I ended my Hugo and Nebula personal reading challenge quest.

And, in ending that quest, another, unbeknownst to me then, began.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

School literature textbooks are packed with stories about all kinds of adventures and civil rights issues and other interesting tidbits. Yet, very few of the excerpts in a literature textbook ever led me to seek out more content from the author.

To my recollection, I can only think of three authors’ works.

Ray Bradbury.

Ursula K. Le Guin.

And, Norton Juster.

In middle school, our class read “All Summer in a Day”, a text that I would later teach both in Oklahoma and in New Mexico. A fantastic read, but it was not the story that led me to seek out more of his work. That story is one whose title escapes me. I believe it was a story set on Mars, and it dealt with time and a robbery. Even searching through Google, I am unable to find the name, but my interest in wanting to reread the story led me to picking up The Martian Chronicles, an excellent bundle of science fiction yarns, but one that ultimately lacked the story I had been searching for. And, thus, my quest continues.

Another read in middle school, this one by Ursula K. Le Guin, would lead me to seek out further adventures of within the watery wizarding world of Earthsea. While, again, the exact title of the short story from the textbook escapes me, it told a story of Earthsea’s protagonist and the power of one’s true name. A Wizard of Earthsea was barely nudged off my ideal bookshelf by other epic fantasies and another of Le Guin’s tales, The Left Hand of Darkness.

I can place the time period of reading a textbook excerpt from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth in either my 4th or 5th grade year. I think I read about the adventures of Milo during my 4th grade year, but I am uncertain. And, googling seems to suggest that the excerpt may have been included in a 5th grade textbook. Regardless, I remember picking up the book and enjoying it soon after reading the excerpt in class. But, I soon forgot about the book. I never thought back to it. That is until it was time to fill my classroom library, and I picked up a copy at a Scholastic Warehouse sale.

I reread it.

And, it was like being reacquainted with an old friend.

My Ideal Bookshelf – The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, 1), Robert Jordan

In high school, I found my genre of choice when it comes to reading, fantasy, but not just fantasy, epic fantasy. For my middle school years, I had focused on Accelerated Reader to take home top prizes, like an air hockey table or, the finally replaced, sleeping bag.

Looking back now, I can’t seem to remember which series I launched into first, but it was during my high school years that I devoured the likes of A Song of Ice and Fire, Sword of Truth, and The Wheel of Time.

All three books were discovered via recommendations.

A Game of Thrones, the first of A Song of Ice and Fire, was recommended by my former teacher, who was an author herself and had managed to get its author to attend a local science fiction and fantasy convention, the now defunct Conestoga. Having no idea of the future cultural impact of A Game of Thrones, I wish I could remember the conversation I had with George R.R. Martin, but alas, it was 2005. I never would have foreseen the books being made into Tits with a Chance of Dragons, er, I mean, Game of Thrones. Whether the book was recommended because of her horror that I was reading Terry Goodkind or she was simply plugging the con’s guest of honor’s book, I couldn’t say, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first three books in the series and would soon become accustomed to the long, long (and, at times, disappointing) wait as authors refused to finish books at my demands.

A Wizard’s First Rule, authored by Terry Goodkind and which has already been written about on a previous entry, was recommended by an older cousin, the one who introduced me to anime, which could very well explain a lot . . . Anyway, the first of the Sword of Truth series was great, but as a whole, the series was very hit or miss, and due to an unexpected continuation, still unfinished. So while fun and escapism, it is not the series I have come back to or the one that led me to my favorite author, Brandon Sanderson.

That epic fantasy series would be The Wheel of Time, and the book that started it all, being The Eye of the World. Recommended by the former high school librarian turned FBI analyst, it was a series first read throughout my high school years. I would be ready to drive the Silver Fox to Borders to pick up the next book in the series, which would lead my mom to go retrieve my early Christmas present from her closet. I read three of the series in the car on the way to Colorado to go skiing with my dad and stepmom and found more time to read during that trip after coming down with the flu, cutting my skiing short. I read Lord of Chaos, book six during, either, my freshman or junior year because I distinctly remember drawing the map of the series’s world as an assignment, assigned by the teacher and parent of my junior year’s date for prom, the one who, likely due to karma, went home with her mom midway through prom. I remember Crossroads of Twilight, book ten, being my first hardcover purchase of the series.

My second read through of the series would be after the author’s death and the announcement that Brandon Sanderson would be completing Jordan’s fourteen volume magnum opus. I spent a lot of time rereading the series on European trains. During my college summer abroad at Oxford, I would shove the thick books into the pockets of my khaki shorts I’d worn since middle school and explore history. Long lost digital photos of long lost acquaintances snapping a picture of me lost in the series as the train rattled to Florence.

My third read through of the series began with twenty-five minute commutes from a duplex in Norman, OK to my school in Oklahoma City. Read by two extremely talented individuals who would later go on to bring auditory life to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive series. I would refinish book fourteen in mid-August of 2015, months before, through my own actions, my life changed forever. For a lot of reasons, I think of those commutes often. Very often.

I think on this series often and where I was when I was reading it and who I was when I was reading it.

My Ideal Bookshelf – Job: A Comedy of Justice

Job: A Comedy of Justice, Robert A. Heinlein

Oh, religion.

I’d call you quaint and adorable, but you are used to embolden bigots and racists. You are used to subjugate women. You are used to justify wars and murder. You are . . . Okay, this post is about another Heinlein novel, not my many bones to pick with religion . . . This is going to go well.

During my ninth grade year of high school, once a week, I made the mile or so trek up the hill from my high school to my grandparents’ diner where I met with an elder of the church to discuss the weekly readings from The New Testament. Honestly, I don’t remember which gospel it was. Perhaps, Mark, Luke, John, or Ringo. But, it was required reading in order to be confirmed in the Methodist Church.

I don’t remember what prompted this confirmation quest.

Was this my final attempt at connecting with the omnipotent bearded man in the sky?

Or, was this another attempt by family forces to get me to accept the three-faced god into my heart?

My previous attempts to find some meaning in “the good book” resulted in memories of being bullied, feeling isolated, and being a confidant for my youth minister as she described the suicidal tendencies of her husband.

And while those were only my direct associations with “the good book”, I know how it can be used to help cope with and justify an affair or to help wash away other “sins” of one’s past.

The words of The Bible just never sat right with me. It all seemed like a poorly written version of Tolkien’s Simarillion, which wasn’t that well written either.

But, the moral ambiguity was there.

The life lessons were there.

The plot holes were there.

And, at the end of this book study, I was confirmed in the church and the man I had been meeting with to study the word of a god was soon diagnosed with cancer.

After being confirmed in the church, my church goings almost completely ceased. Perhaps, it had something to do with working at my grandparents’ diner on Wednesdays and Sundays, or how my high school peers referred to those two days as the days in which a woman can’t get pregnant because, you know, they are God’s days.

And, it was immediately following my Methodist confirmation that I came across Job: A Comedy of Justice. A fictional book highlighting the hypocrisies of Christianity and religion in general, and it confirmed that Texas was in fact Hell on Earth.

This book is another case of the right book at the right time because after rereading it in the course of the last few years, this book didn’t make it onto my Ideal Bookshelf for its writing quality.

It was another book that helped me to see things differently and come to terms with my, at the time, agnostic outlook, or as Stephen Colbert would say, my atheist without balls outlook.