Gina KolataWhen I was in grade school, reading was my guilty secret – kids were not supposed to be buried in books if they were to be popular. But one year I was unmasked when the teacher asked the class to make a list of all the books they read that summer. I knew my list would evoke ridicule because it was so long, so I only wrote down every other book. Yet even that was too much. The other kids saw my list and jeered, calling me “bookworm.”

Those kids had no idea what they were missing.

From the moment I could read, books consumed me. I loved everything from fairy tales – those  moralistic stories in which those who are cruel or vain or greedy get their just deserts– to books about mountain men. Some stories were unforgettable, like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I was stunned by the ending, I never saw it coming.  

As I grew older, my list of memorable books changed. Often what I took away from books was not actually the main theme, but it was vivid scenes and lessons that stood out for me.

I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in college. I can never forget the scene when Winston Smith was broken by what he feared most – rats. Doris Lessing’s book, The Fifth Child frightened me so much I was afraid to have a third child after having two who were, to my eyes, perfect. It involves a family that has a fifth child who turns out to be the devil himself. He rides off in the end with a motorcycle gang and every time the mother hears about a violent crime she wonders if her child did it.

Mercies in DisguiseThe Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo showed me moral ambiguities and how making excuses for inhumane behavior can destroy a person. It is about Japanese medical professionals who found ways to justify experiments on American prisoners of war during World War 2 and the how one doctor who took part was a broken after the experiments were done.

The Joke by Milan Kundera had a message about the futility of living a life consumed by thoughts of revenge.  A college student plays a joke that is misunderstood, landing him in prison. He spends his life plotting a way to get back at his enemy, a former classmate. Years later, he gets his chance, playing what he thinks is a cruel joke on his protagonist. But the joke is on him – his protagonist has no memory of the incident that so destroyed the man’s life.

And so it goes. I am never without a book. I read on the train going to work, I read at night, I even read when I knit.  I’d like to tell you some books I read recently that are on my Most Memorable list, but it takes time to know if a book really belongs there. I think Philip Roth’s America Pastoral will make it, and so might Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. It’s been a while since I read them and they still stand out.

Of course, I hope, I really do, that Mercies in Disguise will make it onto your lists. It’s a story that will stay with me. I will never be able to forget that brave family.

RebeccaThe Fifth ChildThe Sea and PoisonThe JokeThe Marriage Plot

GINA KOLATA (M.A.) is a writer and medical reporter for The New York Times. She has previously written several books, including Flu, and edited collections of popular science writing. Ms. Kolata lives with her husband in Princeton, New Jersey.