2.26.2010

on becoming a writer, the prequel

Some colleagues at my school put together an exhibit called "The First Time: The Book(s) That Turned You On To Reading". They asked students and faculty to name a book that that began their lifelong love of reading.

I didn't submit anything, mostly because I was too busy, but also because I could never choose one book. It will not surprise you to learn that I read constantly when I was a child, and preferred reading to almost anything else kids could do. I don't know what book started me reading, because I can't remember life before reading.

Here, I'm stealing appropriating re-purposing their idea, and thinking of a few books that meant the world to me as a young person, books that I loved and believed in the way only a young reader can. These books did more than make me reader: they made me want to write.

The first has to be Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, the book that opened my mind to my two greatest passions, or compulsions, or curses: writing and travel. I guess if I had chosen one book for the exhibit, this would have been it, although I was already a confirmed reader before picking it up.

Number two, which I could list first in many respects, is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, the book I spent sixth grade with, whose characters felt so real to me that I fantasized about living their lives, yet were so wonderfully foreign and exotic.

It was trying to write like S. E. Hinton that caused me to write for young adults, although I didn't understand I was writing YA until a writing teacher characterized my stories that way. I was in university when I learned S. E. Hinton was a woman. She wrote The Outsiders when she was 17 years old. That Is Not Fair.

Third on the list is A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, who I wrote about when she died a few years ago. I read this book so many times, I could practically recite it from memory. Certain mental images from the story remain in my mind to this day.

Next must be Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. "It is not often that someone comes along who is both a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." This is my pick for greatest children's book ever, and one of the greatest books in English, period.

As I think about this, I have to stop at four. I can name dozens more books that I read as a child and young adult, books I loved and would recommend to young readers. But I can't credit any of them with the kind of impact I'm thinking of here. So Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel, Eloise and the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Black Stallion and Julie of the Wolves, and so many more, I thank you and I love you all.

Your list? Doesn't have to be children's books. Maybe you discovered your love of reading as an adult, or through a magazine, or by hunting down a book after loving the movie. Name your top three, or five, or one.

26 comments:

Amy said...

Ahhhh, I love this post! You and I have discussed this already, but for the record (again), for me two of your four are on the list: Charlotte's Web, first book that made me cry and made me realize that words could create real worlds with real characters I could care about (even a pig and a spider), and A Wrinkle in Time, first book that made me really think and look at the world and people in a different way. My third would have to be A Phantom Tollbooth---first book to introduce me to humor, word play, all in a wonderful adventure story. I read Charlotte's Web and the Phantom Tollbooth in third grade, and ever since then I have never ever been without a book next time to me at night. There are others, but those three changed my life.

I can't wait to see what others have to say. I never read your other two. Hinton's book was probably "after my time" as a young adult, and I read lots of Steinbeck, but for some reason never Travels with Charley. I still can get nightmares thinking of The Pearl or The Red Pony, the first two Steinbeck books I read,
but East of Eden is probably my favorite.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Amy!

I remember our conversation about Charlotte's Web! I used it for the riff we were doing at JoS. You know, "It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs..." :)

Phantom Tollboth is a wonderful book, it easily could have been on my list at the end of the post.

L-girl said...

I can't wait to see what others have to say.

Me too!

Amy said...

"It is not often someone comes along that's a true friend and good writer. Charlotte was both."

My favorite last line of a book ever.

redsock said...

My favorite last line of a book ever.

I was surprised to see that L did not submit this comment.

Phil said...

My mom started reading to me long before I possessed the motor skills necessary to open a book and turn the pages without tearing them, so she gets all the credit for my love of reading. But, hey, I've always been a sucker for a good story, even if those first stories consisted of Nancy Drew mysteries, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Curlytops. Need I say that these are serious literature to a child whose years can be counted on the fingers of one hand--with fingers to spare?

Having read several thousands of books in my lifetime, it's hard to pin down a favorite novel, and harder still to pin down a favorite novelist. Push comes to shove, I'll have to go with Steinbeck's East of Eden, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and Stephen King's 7-book The Dark Tower series.

L-girl said...

My favorite last line of a book ever.

I was surprised to see that L did not submit this comment.


Yes!

I'm quite a fan of the end of The Great Gatsby, too. Although it doesn't affect me the way CW does.

L-girl said...

Nancy Drew mysteries, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Curlytops.

Oo, I read the first two - a lot! I never heard of the Curlytops. Is it Canadian?

Speaking of which, you'll note Anne of Green Gables isn't on my list. It's not nearly as important in the US as it is in Canada.

Having read several thousands of books in my lifetime, it's hard to pin down a favorite novel, and harder still to pin down a favorite novelist.

Ah, but the question wasn't favourite novel or novelist. It's the book or books that turned you into a reader. I love that your list includes Steinbeck, but what's the answer to the question of the post?? :)

johngoldfine said...

I loved Albert Payson Terhune's Sunnybank books--a tawny whirlwind of prize-winning collies romping with their human chums on the rolling green lawns sweeping down to the pristine blue of the Pompton Lakes (you can see who I have to thank for my prose style.)

I read those books over and over. The second dog I ever owned was a beagle mix AP Terhune would not have hesitated to call a worthless cur, nor would I have the day I returned to my apartment and saw that she had chewed the shit out of all my beloved Sunnybank editions....

deang said...

When I was a child, I was not a big reader of fiction. Hardly ever read any that wasn't part of school. But I was known as "a reader," preferring to read rather than play sports and games. That started in first grade, age six or seven for me, just after we'd been taught how to read.

Our teacher sent around a "Weekly Reader" catalog one day, from which we had the option of choosing a book to order. I misunderstood and thought we were required to choose one, so, feeling harried to make a decision, I picked an interesting-looking book about dinosaurs.

It was called All About Dinosaurs and it opened up worlds and ways of thinking that I didn't know about. The world expanded before me with that book. From then on, I was a voracious reader about all kinds of life sciences. All because I mistakenly thought I was required to choose a Weekly Reader book and didn't want to get in trouble.

(I just did a few searches on that title and found that there have been several books with that same name, but none I found looked like the one I used to have.)

Steve said...

I discovered my love of reading with my mother sitting beside me with a wooden spoon threatening me to "read the W-O-R-D". She still remembers that, and the first time she heard me laugh from reading by myself.

mogo said...

I've always been a reader, but the first book I ever obsessed over was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I discovered it in the school library in grade 3, and I don't think anyone else ever got a chance to borrow it all year. It's still one of my all-time favourites.

A close second/third: The Saturdays and Then There Were Five by Elizabeth Enright.

L-girl said...

This is great! So glad I asked.

Dean, I know you are a reader and lover of science and nature. It's incredible how early that started, and how by chance. Or maybe not by chance - maybe if you had chosen a different book, your fascination with science wouldn't have appeared until later, and that chosen book wouldn't even be memorable.

Weekly Reader is still going strong, btw. One of my many "almost" writing jobs.

I discovered my love of reading with my mother sitting beside me with a wooden spoon threatening me to "read the W-O-R-D".

You're sure you don't mean you discovered your hatred of reading then? ;)

but the first book I ever obsessed over was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I discovered it in the school library in grade 3, and I don't think anyone else ever got a chance to borrow it all year.

Excellent. I also love Harriet the Spy. An amazing children's classic.

I loved Albert Payson Terhune's Sunnybank books

I never heard of these, but they do seem perfect for you. :)

Ferdzy said...

Like others on this post I could read when I was 2, so I really don't remember not loving to read or not having a book to hand at all times.

Early books included "Chipmunk's ABC" a Golden Book that my father could recite from memory for years, so often did I make him read it to me. Also a similar Golden Book in Spanish, a cartoonish retelling for very small children of El Zorro which, laughable as it may seem, laid down my foundations of social justice as a vital virtue.

Charlotte's Web, Wrinkle in Time, Phantom Tollbooth, Harriet the Spy, all favourites. Nancy Drew - the old 1930's Nancy Drews, which I sought out at second hand stores for years, where Nancy was a real go-getter, not the namby-pamby modern ones.

I loved anything by Lucy Maud Montgomery, although as I got older The Blue Castle and A Tangled Web became my favourites. Now I reread them tinged with a little sorrow for the fact that she could have been a much better writer if she had had been less committed to the social conventions of her times - these 2 books showed what she could do when she threw them (at least somewhat) off. I read a lot of popular novels from the turn of the (19th) century through the 1920's - friends and relations cottages were full of them, and I have happy memories of many a rainy day spent with my nose in a slightly musty old book.

I remember another book that shaped me as a person, which came along when I was in high school. I don't remember the title, but it taught me to be not just a reader, but a critical reader. This was a novel about the founding of Israel, with impossibly perfect young kibbutzim who would go out and nobly and cleanly battle Palestinians in between dancing ballet and playing symphonies. Yeah, it WAS just as bad as it sounds, but I LOVED it. So, I did what I always did when I loved a book because I was such a fast reader; I read it again. This time, I could see some minor flaws in it that troubled me, so I read it again, this time in consultation with what I was seeing in the newspapers and hearing from the Palestinian refugees in my classes. I must have read that book a dozen times before I felt I had wrung it dry, but it was a complete course in propaganda all by itself.

A Conformer said...

The earliest book that I can remember reading is a horror short story collection called Socorro Diez, which loosely tranlates to Help Ten (there must have been ten short stories). I remember the title story very vividly to this day. It's about a girl called Socorro Diez, who is born with X-ray vision, which makes her see everybody around her as skeletons. When she's old enough to draw her family, they find out about it, and send her for an operation to fix it. But after the operation is a success, the 5-year old girl refuses to believe those hideous pink, fleshy, baggy creatures are her family, and spends the rest of her life in a psych ward.
Horrifying and philosophical at the same time, just the thing to shape an 8-year old's impressionable mind!
It's funny to think about it now, since I'm sure it's a fairly marginal book (I couldn't for the life of me remember the author's name just now), but I was hooked on horror stories and reading in general thereafter: during my age 11-14 years I probably spent more time with Stephen King than with anyone else in the world.

redsock said...

the old 1930's Nancy Drews, which I sought out at second hand stores for years, where Nancy was a real go-getter, not the namby-pamby modern ones

Those and the Hardy Boys books (which I read a ton of) have been heavily edited since 1959, removing things like racist descriptions of villians, etc.:

"The books have been extensively criticized for their use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and their xenophobia. ... African Americans are the targets of much racism, being depicted as unintelligent, lazy, and superstitious, "bumpkin rescuers" at best and "secretive and conspiratorial villains" at worst. ... Chinese American men are portrayed as effeminate threats both to national security and white heteromasculinity. Native Americans ... living outside the continental U.S. are "portrayed as uneducated, easily manipulated, or semi-savage." However, Hispanics are generally treated as equals; the Hardy Boys as well as their father speak Spanish, and Mexico's history and culture are treated with respect and admiration. ...

The revision project, which also encompassed the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, was sparked largely by letters that parents had been writing to Grosset & Dunlap since at least 1948, complaining about the prevalence of racial stereotypes in the books. ..."


I'm sure that all I read were the cleaned-up editions.

redsock said...

Beverly Cleary's "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" was a big one from childhood.

But as far as adult or YA novels, I'm drawing a big blank. I lugged around Moby Dick in 5th grade, but I'm assuming that the first novels I read were whatever we were assigned in middle school. Catcher in the Rye was a fave. I'd probably need to see a big list to jolt my brain cells.

The Glory of Their Times was a huge book growing up (baseball oral history).

L-girl said...

Great stories from A Conformer and Ferdzy!

I also loved The Mouse and the Motorcyle. My first Beverly Cleary book was Henry and Ribsy, and to this day I can visualize Ribsy the dog, standing between the person who rescued him and the person who abandoned him, each of them calling to him, trying to decide which "master" was truly his person. The one who abandoned the dog cheats by using the dog's new name. I can't remember what happens, but I feel the dog must have gone to Henry, or it would be heartbreaking, and those books were not heartbreaking.

I didn't have a dog then, but I dreamed of finding one like Henry did.

You know, I read Nancy Drew and the Bobsey Twins, but I can't remember caring about them at all. I read them because they were there and I was always reading, but they left no impression on me at all.

L-girl said...

Also a similar Golden Book in Spanish, a cartoonish retelling for very small children of El Zorro which, laughable as it may seem, laid down my foundations of social justice as a vital virtue.

Doesn't seem laughable to me at all. Seems wonderful, really. I saw this impulse in "my boy" when I was a nanny, and always tried to nurture it.

Phil said...

First, a little history. The Curlytops stories were written by Howard Roger Garis, an American, in the early 1900s. Garis, writing under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope (as did several other writers), had a hand in writing The Bobbsey Twins series, which was published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Sorry, L-girl, I don't recall the title of the book that first turned me into a reader, but I remember the protagonists very well. Their names were Dick, Jane, and Spot. ;-)

Stephanie said...

Very interesting post and question. I have been affected by books in various stages (in various ways at different times).

As a child I was absolutely enamoured of Charlotte's Web and the other world of the animals touched me deeply. Unfortunately this lead to great dissappointment, given a severe lack of guidance and armed with such elevated expectations I found all later reads to be a major let down.

Perhaps this explains my propensity for reading everything I can find by the same author when I have discovered a great book...later I too discovered the joys of S. E. Hinton. I read That was then this is now first and then I read everything else I could get my hands on: The Outsiders, Rumblefish and finally Tex

My high school years were filled with Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities was the first). Then I discovered Robertson Davies and to my great pleasure he wrote TRILOGIES!! Eventually, I read them all but the first I read was my favourite The Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders) and I couldn't get enough...

In my adult life, I had to rediscover my passion for reading because I had dropped out of University and had begun to work full time and didn't know how to balance reading and work. My passion was re-ignited when I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany...I read this book with a smile on my face the whole time and would often burst out laughing in public...Of course I was already reading Irvings books but this one left a mark I was equally rapt by Cider House Rules ...WOW.

My personal reading has been almost non existant since starting the doctorat but I can't wait to discover the next stage...

L-girl said...

Thanks, Stephanie! Great comment... tho I will ask that we not all follow suit and list the books that inspired us at different ages, as interesting as that may be.

* * * *

I also usually read everything I can by an author, the same way I tried to have all the LPs or CDs by an artist or band I loved. But I often find this to be counter-productive, often turning into a "should" instead of a pleasure, so I've tried to wean myself away from it.

[I discovered Robertson Davies shortly after moving to Canada, btw, and read the Deptford Trilogy. It might be in my "what I'm reading" posts. I'm also a huge Dickens enthusiast. So naturally Dickens people like John Irving, although I hated Owen Meany (and I do mean hated), but I like many of us books. And now I'll stop this...]

richard said...

Sherlock Holmes, all the novels and short stories, in French translation, in one summer when I was 12. Conan Doyle made me a voracious reader that Summer. Books have been a constant companion since then, both changing and shaping the course of my life. Thanks, Sir Arthur!

Dharma Seeker said...

Like you I don't remember a time when I didn't read. One of my earliest memories was sneaking "Mr.Men" and "Little Miss" in with me for nap time. When I heard the sitter walking down the hall I would shove the book under the pillow and pretend to be asleep. I would have been in kindergarten at the time. No naps for kids in school all day long!

Stephanie said...

OOOoooops, sorry. Since I don't get to read for pleasure (much) I got caught up in the thought of it.

Guess I got carried away.

L-girl said...

'Sokay!! It's more than ok. I just don't want us all to get carried away and lose the topic.

One of the worst things about being in school (now - not as an undergrad, when I was studying literature!) is not being able to read for pleasure. It's definitely a priority on school breaks.