The first problem with a post like this is that the original title was “The Five Books That Made Me” inspired by Scott D. Southard’s recent blog entry of the same name. But I quickly realized I couldn’t limit my own list to five books. Even keeping it to seven has been a struggle.
After reading Scott’s post, I decided every writer should make such a list. So here’s mine. What’s yours?
One day my father knocked on my ever-closed bedroom door and gave me two books, The Hobbit and The Catcher in the Rye. We’ll get to J.D. Salinger in a moment, but being a young Dungeons and Dragons nut at the time, The Hobbit clearly held the most immediate appeal for me. I read it first.
And it was awesome.
Despite pages upon pages of dwarves singing incomprehensible songs and confusing, unnecessarily long lists of similar-sounding names – Bifur and Bombur and Oin and Gloin and Fili and Kili – the fact is I’d never before found myself so deeply immersed in a book. I’d read many things before that, of course, but The Hobbit opened a whole new level of literature to me. I could read and enjoy it as a kid, er, young adult in today’s terms, I guess, yet it was somehow…adult. Perhaps the first “adult” book, if it can be called that, I’d ever read to that point.
I so completely visualized the scene in the Misty Mountains where Bilbo and Gollum had their riddle game for the one ring, that I was prepared to be disappointed it wouldn’t match my internal image when the movie came out last year. Maybe my memory is fading, but to my utter joy that one scene at least appeared in the film exactly as I remembered it. It gave me chills to be able to see it “live” like that.
I suspect The Hobbit would find its way onto a great many people’s lists.
On the other hand, my second entry is probably on precious few lists but my own. In fact, it’s not even a single book, but a series. I couldn’t pick one of the five books to list because it was really the experience of reading the entire series that was so significant for me.
After The Hobbit, I was thirsty, as most boys my age in the mid-’80s were, for fantasy books. Swords. Sorcery. Dragons. Warriors. Magicians. Yes, even scantily-clad women being rescued by said Warriors and Magicians. There were lots of such books to read. Lots of bad ones, if I’m honest, but several really amazing series, too. The Shannara books by Terry Brooks. The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist. The Dragonlance books by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. And of course, The Lord of the Rings, again by Tolkien, which I read shortly after The Hobbit.
But it was The Belgariad by David Eddings that I made my own. When my friends were talking about the others, I’d bring up Garion and Polgara and Belgarath from Eddings’ work and hold them up as the very best of the bunch. I’m not sure that’s really true, now, looking back, but back then, those books were mine.
The Belgariad showed me that it was okay to sit in a quiet room and just read hundreds of pages for hours on end, to become completely lost in a series and characters and action on the page.
In researching the series for this post to remind myself of it, since it’s been a very long time, I ran across a fan trailer on YouTube where a fellow fan of the series, lamenting a movie was never made, created a fake trailer. I’m not going to link it here because, honestly, it was a little bit awful, but what amused me most was that he set the background music as an old song from the rock group Yes. It made me smile to think there was some other geek in his bedroom reading fantasy books while listening to the high voice of the Yes lead singer in the background. Exactly!
3. The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner
Jump forward to tenth grade English class. My teacher did something I’d never heard before and haven’t heard of a lot of people since having the same experience. Until then, all the students in English class read classics at the same time. Hemingway, Twain and Thomas Hardy. Hawthorne, Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf.
But at some point in the tenth grade, my English teacher decided to assign each student a different book to read and report on. And I got….The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner.
My memory is the books were assigned by “level.” In other words, she gave the more difficult works to the students with the better grades. Earlier in the year, when we were studying poetry, I had written a depressing one and turned it in. Okay, extremely depressing. I thought that was what poems were supposed to be – since all the writers we were studying had written depressing poems, I wrote one too.
After reading it, this same teacher kept me after class and asked me if everything was all right. I think she thought maybe I was suicidal. Which was a joyful moment for me, as it was the first time I realized I could write convincingly.
Maybe she thought the same thing, I don’t know. I only know that, later in the year, when she assigned these classics according to each of our levels, I somehow got The Sound And The Fury. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.
If you’re not familiar, Faulkner’s book is separated into four sections, each told from a different point of view. Often the same events are described, but from different perspectives. And the first point of view is a mentally deficient character. Some of the POVs are first person, but the last one is third person omniscient.
In tenth grade, I could not understand this book. I wondered…who was this William Faulkner and what drugs was he on when he wrote this? And was everyone in the South deranged?
(Hushed voice for Northerners: I live here now. They are.) Haha. No, Southerners, I’m just kidding. (Hushed voice for Northerners again: Actually, no. Not kidding.)
I don’t think I ever did understand the book then. But I was determined to try. And I refused to fall back on the Cliff’s notes. I read it and re-read it. Struggled through the passages until my vision was blurry.
So it was that English teacher and The Sound And The Fury that taught me reading was more than mere enjoyment. It was sometimes work. But a sort of glorious, spectacular work that widened the mind. Which brings me to…
It had stared at me for years. A sullen, plain maroon cover sitting on my shelf next to my adored copy of The Hobbit. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled it down, gazed at the nondescript cover a while, then opened it and read the famous first line:
‘‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Then I’d read a bit more, get a little lost, and put it back on the shelf.
But after the challenge of trying to understand The Sound And The Fury, I decided I was ready to finally tackle The Catcher in the Rye. So I took it down and read it.
The Catcher in the Rye was definitely one of the books that made me. Apart from that, I can’t discuss it much. Honestly, it’s too personal, even for a very personal blog post like this one.
What I can say is, sometimes, when I think about it and remember the little signature my Dad left in the opening pages, I think I understand my father, long gone now, just a little bit better. Sometimes.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a comic book in this post. I’ve read so very many. And as much as I admired Neil Gaiman’s work on Sandman, I narrowed this choice down to two Alan Moore works from the late ’80’s: Swamp Thing and Watchmen. As Watchmen is more universally appreciated and understood, it gets the nod here.
As most already know, Watchmen, despite being a graphic novel (a “comic book”) made Time Magazine’s list of All-Time, Top 100 novels. There’s something to be said for that.
It’s a brilliant story. In twelve short issues, Alan Moore created a set of characters with histories stretching backward in time similar to what it took the rest of the comics world decades to impose upon its readers. He told a main story in the pages illustrated by Dave Gibbons, but also another, completely separate, but linked tale at the back of each issue: “The Tales of the Black Freighter.”
This work, along with the aforementioned Swamp Thing and Sandman, brought me to the world of “adult” comics and graphic novels, and taught me how that medium could deliver stories just as complex as novels like The Sound And the Fury. This opened my eyes to the fact that all genres of writing and publishing could deliver amazing work.
Please, forget about politics. I don’t want to know yours, and I’m betting you could care less about mine. Believe me, though she’s become known for it, I don’t list an Ayn Rand book here because of conservatism. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
No, this book is on this list for one reason: the protagonist, Howard Roark.
I came to The Fountainhead late. I read it shortly after I opened my own business as a consultant. It was a stressful time. I had a vision and standards for the type of work I’d take and do. I wasn’t sure if it would work. In those first few, somewhat lean months, I listened to The Fountainhead on audio, sitting in my home office working on the only project I had at the time.
And in Roark, here was perhaps the most extraordinary single character I’d ever experienced in a novel. An individualistic, uncompromising, stubborn idealist who would sacrifice his vision or standards for nothing. And I mean nothing. You could offer him all the money in the world, but if the project didn’t fit with his world view, he wouldn’t take it. It was impressive, to see such strength of character. To imagine there were really people in the world like him. To hope I might be one of them.
I loved it, and think it served me well in those early days of owning my own business. Whenever a difficult choice lay before me, I thought “What would Howard Roark do right now?”
Harry Potter? In this list? Really?
The reason this particular book is in the list is it was the first Harry Potter book I read. Many believe it was the best written of the bunch. It was the last of the relatively short Potter books, before Rowling had license to write really huge books that sometimes meandered.
And it’s on my list for one simple reason: my niece.
She used to visit in the summer, during the time when the Harry Potter books were at the height of their popularity. Then she got her driver’s license and never came back. Ah, youth. At least we still Skype.
It seems in my memory that at least twice she was here when Harry Potter books were released, and we’d always go to the midnight release party at Borders (when it existed…sigh) to wait along with hundreds of other parents and kids for midnight to come and the book to be released.
Waiting at midnight. For a book. With hundreds of people, many of them kids. There was a camaraderie in it.
It may have been Harry Potter that finally brought me back to my lifetime dream to write, the dream I had pretty much since I read those first few pages of The Hobbit, one I’d dropped from my bucket list as something that would never happen, something I’d never have the time for. It’s hard to say for sure with such things.
I do know that seeing the excitement in those eyes, watching my then teenaged niece bond with other kids her age she’d never met over a shared love of invented characters and brilliant stories, brought my always present love of writing crashing back to me.
Not long after, I started to write again myself.
And I’ve been doing it ever since.