Friday, April 07, 2006

Books that Built My World

Some people are raised by wolves. I was raised by books. This list of essential books is incomplete, of course, but it's a good start; it goes up to about 1980. I’ve chosen books that were turning points—that led me into new worlds, clarified or altered my vision, changed the ways I thought and wrote, or spoke for me when I could not yet find my own words. Not just books I loved; you’ll find no Faulkner here, for example, nor Willa Cather.

The King James Bible. In the beginning was the KJV. I learned to read from it. No book has shaped me more profoundly than that one. I know all the arguments against it, scholarly and otherwise. But still my sense of the Divine is shaped by the stubborn grandeur and simplicity of its language.

Geography, a Little Golden Book. Call it 1963; I was 3 or 4. My mother bought me this 29-cent book at the grocery store. Its picture of an erupting volcano sparked my lifelong interest in geology.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. When I was about 6, my mother gave me this book, saying, “This is a book about four little girls just like you and your sisters.” (Yes, I was the second of the four, and I already wanted to be a writer.) It’s also both truthful and well-written. I can still see traces of Louisa in my writing style.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. That pale, plain girl’s resolute integrity through abuse, hunger, and temptation was an early model for me. And her passion—her avowal of love to Rochester, her courage, her strong feelings for nature and other people—oh, these were an example and a role-model for me.

Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis. My sister Lisa gave it to me for my seventh birthday. The first Lewis I ever read, and the direct link to my reading such formative books as The Screwtape Letters, which is one of the great structural books of my life.

Poems for Young People, Edna St. Vincent Millay. A gift from my mother when I was about ten. Started my lifelong interest in Millay.

Modern British and American Poetry, ed. Louis Untermeyer. I found this book, scrounging around in the attic of a house we rented. I still have it. It opened so many doors for me. So many names—Pound, Graves, Sassoon, Chesterton—became familiar to me from that anthology, and when I saw them elsewhere I pounced on them.

Ammie, Come Home, Barbara Michaels. First read around Easter of 1968 at my paternal grandparents’ house in Chevy Chase, not far from where the book is set. They had the Reader’s Digest condensed version. (Most of the condensing was done by eliminating profanity.) This elegant, terrifying ghost story expressed one facet of the pain I was going through.

Moreover, the book introduced me to Barbara Michaels, who in turn sent me on to read Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey. I was and am deeply grateful that she referenced other books. So much of my reading was random; I chose books that looked interesting or authors mentioned by someone else I liked. I didn't have anyone to help me choose my reading. I scrambled and scrounged and searched for connections. Was there anybody else like me out there? Maybe the next book would hold a clue.

Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas. I picked this up in my school library in the spring of 1972. I drank it straight, and the effect was very much like chugging a bottle of straight whiskey.

The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden. A book of essays I discovered in my school library when I was 13 or so. Auden was as passionately, playfully addicted to categorization as I am, and I still enjoy his lucid perceptions on poetry, society, psychology.

“When It Changed,” Joanna Russ, in Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. In the summer of 1973, I was about to turn 14 and about to get braces. After a preliminary examination at my orthodontist’s office in Scranton, I went across the street to a combination gun/junk store, which had a few books for sale on a back shelf. I’ve told the story in this space before—how I found the anthology and knelt there to read the whole story, tears pouring down my face. The book cost a quarter; I still have it. From then on, I read anything I could find by Joanna Russ; The Female Man in particular became a touchstone, a book I reread, annotated, quoted, absorbed—a book that structured my thinking.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. I didn’t read Austen until I was 16, and then I realized that being a great writer required only that you see clearly and speak honestly. I’m still working on them both.

The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter Thompson. Probably in my sophomore year of college (1977), I was taking the Greyhound back from visiting my family. The bus was crowded that day, and we got stuck behind two funerals and a wedding. But my seatmate was a Penn student reading this, and he kept laughing aloud—and soon he was reading bits of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” out loud to me. I loved—and love—Thompson’s outrage, his politics, his crazily inflated language rigorously tied to precise, telling detail.

Small Changes, Marge Piercy. Look, people who were living the way I was living! These days I grow easily frustrated with Piercy, who can be mean-spirited and predictable, but in 1979 there weren’t many books that reflected my kind of life.

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen. She spoke of grief and exile when I was new to them both. I still reread this book in times of loss, and her short stories are always a delight to me. I marvel at the clarity of her prose.

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’d read Earthsea and felt cheated; the writing was good, but the world felt sexist to me. Somehow Malafrena worked for me, bringing together my lifelong fascinations with revolutions and with Eastern Europe (an unsurprising one, given where I grew up). I confess I fell in love with Itale Sorde. I went on to read all the rest of Le Guin, to find great power in her work, and to marry someone of Eastern European extraction, partly because he reminded me of Itale.

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