I am going to do a meme.
I follow a good number of writerly folks on the Twitters and the Facebooks. Many of these folks have succumb to this particular meme of which I’m about to partake because it involves listing ten books that have had a great influence on you or have stuck with you in some way. Writerly folks are suckers for this sort of thing.
I am a sucker for it.
So Helena tagged me (I’ve always secretly hoped she would) and so I’m going to do a meme.
Furthermore, I am going to make a blog post out of it.
So here are ten books that have had a big influence on me, in roughly the order that they came into my life.
These are the Digging-est Dogs.
The Digging-est Dog
It kills me that this is the one book I couldn’t manage to find. I know I have it somewhere. I think a while back I found it after digging (ahem) through a bunch of boxes I had brought to New Jersey from my mom’s house in Dallas.
I think that as I was digging (sorry) I found this book and I took it out and put it in a “safe place.” I knew at the time that this would probably be a mistake. It turned out to be so. I should have kept it with all the other books.
Anyway, I am the digging-est digger through boxes. I am the digging-est memory-delver through forgotten orbs and talismans. I have a well-lit mineshaft in a spare bedroom in my house. And so I will find it eventually.
Okay, listen to me: I love this book. It is irrational and weird how much I love this book. I still get sad and a little frightened when I think about how the owner of the dog gets mad at the digging-est dog at the crisis point in the story. I love that the digging-est dog just loved to dig and dig and was single-minded in this digging passion.
I love digging-est dogs, you guys.
I want to be a digging-est dog.
The Secret of Terror Castle
For a long period of my life, my mom read “The Three Investigators” to me every night before bed. There is maybe no better memory I have of my mom than this. I could never do the memory credit. I could only look at the covers of all of these YA books I have now in a box and think about my head on her shoulder, how she smelled like lotion, her voice, this closeness. There was a cliff-hanger at nearly every chapter. And neither one of us liked putting the book down.
I don’t specifically remember what happened in this title. I just know that it was the first in the series. And so it’s a good representation of the thirty or forty “Three-Investigator” books my mom and I read together.
Where the Red Fern Grows
My mom read this to me the first time. And then I read it again by myself. It is the story of two coon hounds named Big Dan and Little Ann. If you haven’t read it, I’ll just say that Ol’ Yeller has nothing on these two. I don’t think I’d be giving anything away to any of you grown adults if I told you that when you or your children read this, you will cry ginormous tears. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that this book is the only book that has ever made me physically cry, not because I have not read any other sad books since then, but because I’ve simply lost the ability to be so immersed in a text that I would lose myself to tears. Which is sad in it’s own special way. And something to cry over, for sure.
I wound up naming my first dog “Little Ann” after one of the dogs in the book. Little Ann ran away because she was a complete spaz and my mom and I were ill-equipped for dog ownership. And so she jumped over our ten-foot fence to more stimulating dog experiences.
In other words, there is a very good chance Little Ann was killed by a car.
By the way, I cried when Little Ann ran away, too. (There was an awful lot of crying during this period of my life.)
MAD Books (Various)
Two comic books shaped my sense of humor and my sense of the world: Peanuts (which I’ve already discussed in a previous post) and MAD. Maybe MAD is part of what gave all of us Gen-Xers our love of irony. Could this be? I used to like reading “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” which really should have been called, “How to be a Sarcastic Asshole.”
Dragons of Autumn Twilight
The Dragonlance Chronicles were the longest books I’d ever read at the time I read them. And they were probably also the most “grown up” books I’d ever read. I devoured them. Autumn Twilight was the first book in the series, and it changed everything about what reading was for me. I did not read it self-consciously, the way I read books today. I did not yet feel like I wanted to be a writer. So I did not read it as a writer reads things. I did not read it with an awareness of the specific language or with a mind for how the sentences were constructed. I simply read it and let it consume me. I would love to be able to do that again.
A Prayer for Owen Meany
This novel was the first book I read where I thought, “I want to do this.” Irving’s themes have always appealed to me: orphanhood (or a character with an unknown or estranged parent), sex, prostitution, and unusual, non-traditional sexual situations and proclivities, the struggle between religion and the secular, particularly around hot-button issues like abortion, the sense that everybody has a purpose that is bigger than themselves. Irving was everything I needed in junior high and high school.
I find it difficult to read Irving now. I still admire the way he crafts a story. I still like the things he chooses to write about, I just find his prose overdone now. Too many words. Too dense. I need more wit. More air and space. Less seriousness. But I still have a soft-spot for Irving’s entire canon, especially Meany.
Still Life with Woodpecker
Tom Robbins was my next big love after Irving. If Irving was high-seriousness, Robbins, was the opposite, to the point of being nonsensical, and I really liked that. And yet, at the same time, there was that same sense in Robbins’ novels (as in Irving’s) of something big and important happening in the background. Something cosmic and powerful and mystical. There were shaman and gurus. There was metaphysical philosophy. There were sexy cowgirls who got the blues. And sometimes everything came down to a box of matches.
In a world without the Internet, Robbins was all I needed for an education in weird.
My copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” on grief is underlined and marked up and there is faded pencil writing in the margins. Same goes for “The Transcendentalist.” Same goes for “The Poet.” Same goes for “Self-Reliance.” Same goes for “Circles.” I have absorbed Emerson into my overall consciousness. I am thankful that he put his words down and I’m thankful to have read them.
If Irving was all about realizing what a person could do with plot, Nabokov was (for me) all about what you could do with language. That it was not just the story you were telling, but the way you were telling it that mattered. That’s all I have to say about this one except that it’s what brings me to the last one…
This book is sort of a perfect storm for me of great language and great narrative and plot. There are certain passages I have re-read over and over again just for the sake of hearing the words, like a poem. But it’s also a book that I admire for the story, which is delightfully dark, and for the characters, who are at their best when they are very, very bad. This book will always be a sort of benchmark for me as to what a novel can (and maybe should) be. It’s good to have benchmarks. It’s taken me some time to realize that I won’t ever hit that benchmark and that the fact that I won’t hit it might not be such a bad thing. Because, after all, I am not Martin Amis. He’s one of the heroes I need to metaphorically kill if I’m ever going to get at anything true…
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