I apparently missed this tweetmeme the first time it came around, but when I saw it yesterday, I knew I’d wind up writing about it, just because books have always, it seems, been an important part of my life. Important really undersells the effect–they’ve been integral to my life. I used to walk into walls and trip over things because I had my nose in a book. (Probably the only reason I don’t do that as often today is because I’m usually walking with someone, and reading while walking would be rude.)

But which books actually changed my world?

Junior year of high school, American Lit, second semester, Ms. Nancy McKee introduces our class to E. E. Cummings, and I flip my shit over it. That’s the first book of poetry I ever bought with my own money–not allowance money, either. Money I’d earned frying chicken part-time. It’s the book I’ve owned around the longest. The pages are yellowed and crumbling a bit, the cover is dog-eared from being shoved into bags or boxes, and the pages are dog-eared from marking the poems I loved the most over the years. When I first started writing poetry, I wanted to be Cummings. I got over it, fortunately, but if there’s a book that set me on the path to writing poetry as more than just a hobby, that’s the one.

I’ve never owned number 2 on my list, but fast-forward roughly ten years and you find me as a freshman in college (I started late). In fact, it’s my first semester. My knowledge of the physical universe had always been colored by my faith, which is a nice way of saying I was a creationist, and a fairly arrogant one at that. But then I found myself in a college Zoology class with a no-bullshit professor (Professor Danny Acosta, a college friend reminds me), one who had a reputation as being a brutal lecturer and grader. It was well-deserved. He required outside research for a study question on each exam, and in the course of that research, I checked out The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It wasn’t all that related to what I was researching for the exam, but it gave me an actual understanding of the mechanisms behind evolution, and it paved the way for my move away from the church. I only read it once, and I wouldn’t return to any of Dawkins’ other writing until The God Delusion but that was enough to change my world.

I could go on to list tens, maybe hundreds of books which I love, and which affected my life in some way, but the more I think about it, those really are the two biggest for me. One set me on the path to discovering my art, my passion, my bliss, and the other set me on the path away from superstition and ignorance about the natural world. Neither became my world. Both opened up new worlds for me to discover.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →