Friday, April 22, 2011

6 Books in the Life of the Author

In 2 weeks I get my bachelor's degree in Literature. I've been reading books for 18 years of my life. Soon I'll have the piece of paper that says I can do it (and I'll use that piece of paper to apply for barely-above-minimum-wage jobs! America, Fuck Yeah!)

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading both the first book in this list (for fun) and the last book on this list (for class). And that inspired me-- to look back at where I've come from, to look at the six most important books in my life up until I went to college. From early early childhood to adolescence, these are the six that most impacted how I connect to literature. Six books that pushed me to where I am today. The six  that made me the hip, cool guy that everyone wants to be like.
The Triumph is a pretty cool guy, eh fights popular views of literature and doesn't afraid of anything.

#1: The Neverending Story, Michael Ende (age 7)

Let me say, as a 22-year-old revisiting this one, that  there's a lot beyond childhood nostalgia behind this one:  The Neverending Story is one hell of a book. It's a really great adventure story, but it's also a great commentary on the way we engage with stories-- the joy that comes when you can approach a work as a child, the responsibility of the storyteller, the way that narrative can create a sense of rightness and order in the world.

The edition I read when I was a kid--checking it out of the UNC Wilmington Library over and over again--was a giant first-edition one, and remains one of the most beautiful books I've ever read (tied with my ancient illustrated copy of Crime and Punishment and Alasdair Gray's Unlikely Stories, Mostly). Every chapter begins with a giant calligraphic illustration, and it uses purple/red ink to tell the frame story and green ink to tell the story-within-a-story (and when the characters in that one, at one point, read The Neverending Story-- the book that you, the reader, are reading, not the one that the main character is reading that they are characters in --it mentions the light shifting colors between red and green as they move through the layers of stories).
And then, inside Cillian Murphy's head, there are luckdragons.
(A word on the film version-- is it a great film? Hell yes, and it's one of the few kid's films that doesn't treat children like idiots. Nooooot a good adaptation though. It covers about 2/3rds of the first half of the book. The climax of the film is the beginning of an entirely new story in the book).

Anyway, this was the first book that was really mine--everything else I'd read had been for school or a gift from my parents or a staple of childhood. I read it over and over again when I was a little kid. It was the first time that I felt like a book was taking me into a different world, the first time I formed a real personal connection with a work. It's not single-handedly responsible for making me fall in love with reading--as a fat pasty kid it was either that or anime--but it certainly did a lot in that direction.

Seriously though-- like 80% of my memories of second grade are of this book. And considering I didn't start drinking bourbon until I was 8, that says a lot about how much I was reading it and how much it stuck with me. (Granted, most of what I remember of my sophomore year in college is Bioshock and the Mountain Goats show I went to, but again...bourbon).
Pretty hazy on the third decimal of Pi, but he played "The Day the Aliens Came" and "For TG&Y"!!
#2: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick (age 11)
When I was first getting interested in writing my own stories, I was mostly reading cheap, nearly-universally bad sci-fi paperbacks that I could buy giant crates of for 5 bucks. I was not the discerning gentleman I am today (coincidentally, I'm gonna be watching the Street Fighter movie for the 6th time tonight if anyone wants to come over). So the guide to writing I picked up was Orson Scott Card's guide to writing science fiction.

Now, Card's written some damn fine science fiction in his own right (written, past tense), but he and I...I'm not on good terms with the guy. At all. Ever. Ender's Game was a book that kicks a fair bit of ass and was pretty big reading for me in middle school, but nope. We're gonna talk about someone else.
Hey, doucheface-- writing a great book about asshole middle-schoolers doesn't give you a right to act like one.
Anyway, one of the books that Card kept returning to as an example of everything good science fiction should be was Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And wooo Jesus, I was not prepared to handle that book at eleven. I'm not sure anyone is ever ready to handle it.

Dick asks a lot of hard (haha, dick hard) questions in it-- what makes an experience real? What defines humanity? Where do we draw the line between a real thing and an imitation? Did the Catholic alien hivemind replace my brain with a robotic ant colony again?
Oh great. Now there's a robot of him. No, it's okay, I wasn't terrified enough of robots already.
 They're important questions though--the one which are actually philosophical, not the ones produced by schizophrenia --and they stuck with me. Androids engendered a serious mistrust of "Truth" in me, and is a pretty big contributor to my postmodernist bent. It's the novel that started steering me toward more legitimately intellectual books (by which I mean trippy as balls), and got me asking questions about literature and its trustworthiness.

It was also the first really great science fiction I ever read, for which I owe it a ton. It was the jumping-off point that got me reading stuff like Ellison and Butler, and the other titans of the genre who can hold their own against most mainstream authors.

#3: American Gods, Neil Gaiman (age 13)
This is less to do with the book itself and more to do with when it came along. I think any book that was good enough and different enough could have accomplished what Gaiman did for me-- dude was in the right place at the right time. Which is no way a judgment against the book itself-- despite being probably the weakest on this list it is still an absolutely phenomenal work.
Holy shit, how did the Spanish beat us on the cover for this book?
When I was 13 I had no idea what my plans in life were. I was good at science and though I could do something with that, I was starting to realize I had no passion for math, I thought I was a pretty good writer for my age and I had churned out some of your basic 13-year-old's stories.

American Gods was what ended up tipping the balance in favor of me being a writer. It was the perfect combination of the book having some important things to say and me being mature enough and smart enough to get them, and, like %90 of everything Gaiman's done, was very much a commentary on stories and their power. Tearing through that book--and having that intellectual joy at a narrative that requires piecing together and catching reference that I've come to love so much since then--really helped get me excited enough about literature to go ahead and take all those AP Lit and creative writing courses in high school.
It almost makes up for having a fanbase that manages to unite Livejournal goths, middle-aged Comicon geeks, Hot Topic, and people who think having watched Donnie Darko 28 times makes them philosophers.
(In all seriousness-- there are a lot of great Neil Gaiman fans. There is also one incredibly homogeneous section of geek culture-- the section that half hates Twilight because that's what they're supposed to and half hates it because they're mad their own self-insert vampire romance didn't get published instead --and they all love Neil Gaiman. I guess it's in part because, when your main competition in comics is sex-magicking warlock Alan Moore and acid-tripping Glaswegian Grant Morrison, you're pretty much guaranteed fangirls)
Seeeriously wondering about some of my choices in life.
#4:  Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg (age 15)

I borrowed Howl from my good friend who, at that point, I'd just met a little while ago (through, in, a nice segue that makes me wonder if writing chronological lists was what I was made for, loaning him the first couple books of Sandman). From the start it looked important-- this slim little volume with that beautifully simple cover. That cover man; you're fifteen, you're just getting into 20th-century poetry, and that title in giant against the stark white looks as simple, important, and dangerous as a loaded gun.
Pictorial representation courtesy of John Darnielle's "Dan."
Pretty much everyone has their story about first reading Howl, and I doubt there's much in mine that doesn't apply to anyone else's. There's that incredibly brilliant and beautiful first line, the way everything in it seems full to bursting with meaning and passion and blood, the incredibly open sexuality, the rage and lust and joy. I did read it in the back room of church, though. That's gotta count for something. (It doesn't-- all the conservative churches hated ours because we had a lesbian priest and were pretty much the de facto church for gay people who got fed up with Catholicism).

There's also the other poems in there, which don't get as much press. "America" really hit a nerve with me. I'd started getting involved in politics since starting High School, and, like a lot of people of my generation, my first really formative political experience was the brutal fight over the 2000 election results--leaving me feeling like I'd been born on the losing side for the first six years of my political existence--and Ginsberg seemed to be able to put into words a huge amount of the frustration and exhaustion with my country that I was starting to realize would be a fairly regular part of  my life. There's also "Footnote to Howl," the absolutely beautiful poem-- especially in Ginsberg's reading of it --of finding the sacred in everything and rejecting the moral compass of others.
"No, Jack-- Bill and I are going to go America all over their asses."
If you ask me, as a writer (of this blog, of my poetry, of academic papers, of sexts, whatever) what my intention is, the phrase "take a hammer to [x]" will usually come up (in the sexts less often, but hey, you never know). This is Ginsberg's doing-- the other writers on this list taught me how to love, Ginsberg taught me how to hate.

#5: All My Pretty Ones, Anne Sexton (age 16)

Clarification: Taught me how to hate things other than myself. That one's on you Anne.
My sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth years were not good to me (more on that in the #6 spot, though). I was generally just feeling alone, and like an all-around fuckup. There were probably better things for my mental health for me to discovering than Anne Sexton (like Goethe, or sex). But hey, you make do with what you have.

I'm pretty sure the story behind the copy of All My Pretty Ones that I found on my parents' bookshelf was as follows: my uncle bought it to pick up chicks. It had his name stamped on the inside of the cover, and there is absolutely no way that I can picture that guy curling up with some ultra-feminine confessional poetry. Seriously, I asked my dad and he said "yeah, my brother liked to look intellectual so he could steal people's girlfriends."
My family, man. One time my girlfriend and my mother bonded by discussing the effectiveness of their hypomania medication.
Sexton--who, let's get this out of the way, was chronically depressed and eventually killed herself --really spoke to me in a way that I don't think she would have been able to at any point before or since. Unlike Ginsberg, whose work is so big that you never feel like you can approach it as an individual, Sexton's is so personal, so delicate, that when you read it it's hard to picture anyone else in the world doing so at the same time.Ginsberg comes at you swinging a chainsaw (which is strapped to his penis), Sexton slides a kitchen knife between your ribs. And as someone who will always choose Michael Myers over Jason Voorhees, that subtlety made a huge impact on me. Out of all the poets I'd read up to that point, she's the only one whose voice is still very clearly present in my own writing.

There's an incredible personal power in Sexton that's lacking in, say, Plath (I have always, always, been proud of being a Sexton-reading depressed high schooler instead of a Plath-reading depressed high schooler). You read testimonials sometimes from really religious people about how they become a void when they pray and then God speaks to them in their silence-- that's what it felt like to read Sexton for the first time. Like she just emptied me out and put something new and beautiful and strange inside my skin for a few hours.
Also, she was breath-takingly pretty. (Get it?)
#6: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (age 17-18)

This is the other book that inspired this list-- we just finished reading it in my Contemporary Lit and Literary Theory  course. I read it once in November when I was seventeen and once in February when I was eighteen and each time it had a pretty big effect on me. Winterson's interesting to talk about here, because she doesn't tend to come up nearly as much as other writers I adore-- Faulkner, Eliot, Yeats, Gray, or Vollmann --but she's one of a very small few who have really shaken me to my core.
Oh my God, she looks like an adorable lesbian Timelord
Oranges is the story of a young girl growing up under a powerful, Evangelical mother, realizing that she loves other women and trying to restructure the world into one where she belongs through the power of stories. I picked it up because I had a... okay, let's be honest here, I'm gonna use the word "friend" because there's not a word for "girl I had really serious emotions for, she knew it, and there were a couple years of emotionally unhealthy history regarding this that I was desperately trying to bring to some sort of resolution." Well, not a word in English. Probably in German.
Thomas Mann would know. Or said word would  be "Eine Thomazmann."
Anyway, I picked up Oranges because this girl was going through a sexual identity panic and I was trying to find something that could help her through it. And I think Oranges did a lot more for me than for her, but hey, as we'll discuss below, who gives a shit about her anyway?

I'd been accepted to college and was planning on going into Creative Writing but didn't know what I wanted to write. I'd done some poetry, tried prose, but I had no idea what I wanted my prose to sound like (I hadn't yet realized that "a Libertines album" was a valid choice). Then I read Winterson, and I did. The wit, emotion, and weird magical touches that make up that slender, equally gentle and brutal novel hit me the same way that, if you've ever read Eliot's opinions on the matter, John Donne hit him (that's right I compared myself to Eliot death with it)-- I knew that this book was, if not what I wanted to be exactly, a guide that I'd been missing for years.
Seriously, just imagine that fireplace in the corner of the Tardis, Jeanette all flirting with Amy Pond.
Fast-forward a few months and said friend has moved a thousand miles away without telling me--until two weeks later, when she says she doesn't give a shit how screwed-up that makes me because she doesn't give a shit about me--and I'm desperately trying to keep myself together in my last semester of high school. It is not happy days, except in the Beckett sense (said sense is from his play Happy Days, and would imply that I am being swallowed up by the earth). Like I said in the Sexton entry. High school was not good to me.

Throughout all this I was desperate for any form of art that could keep me emotionally stable (especially as my friends were all dealing with their own problems and, understandably, sick of trying to deal with mine as well). I played a lot Resident Evil 4. I listened to a lot of the Stooges. And I reread Oranges, and was struck by some of the incredible powerful things in it. One of the key elements of the book is the way that Jeanette (its main character-- there's a lot of autobiography in the text) has to grapple with her spirituality. Not, unlike so many other coming-out texts, by rejecting it, but by trying to separate it from the culture that gave it to her. It's something that John Darnielle, who grew up under an abusive stepfather, talked about in a recent interview:
"And the thing is, when a person teaches you those values and also abuses your family, it's a hard thing. It's weird, and it's hard to explain, in song or elsewhere. The best way to explain it is families are extraordinarily complex units, and everyone in a family is probably going to be a hero and a villain at the same time."
Seriously, the man is probably the coolest guy in American pop culture today.
 That message-- taking what good you can from the people who've hurt you the most --haunted me. And then, on the advice of my totally awesome AP Lit teacher (can I get a holla for AP Lit teachers who save their students' lives on a regular basis), I checked out Written on the Body, and immediately read The Passion and Lighthousekeeping over the span of about 4 months. I'm not sure I've ever mainlined an author that hard before or since. And Jesus almighty, I really needed to.

ConclusionSo, those are them. Six books that, between the ages of 7 and 18-- my whole pre-college life --shaped the way I look at literature and are responsible for where I am today.

What are yours?


  1. Hey, I got here by following a link JD re-tweeted. Good stuff, I'll be going through your archives in the next few days. It seems we have similar tastes so i'm looking forward to anything new you can point me toward. Have you read Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin? I'd be interested in hearing what someone with your faculty for language has to say about it. The closest I can come to describing reading it is that it's not poetry, but the words sung themselves of the page into my head.

  2. I've been working back through your blog all morning, and I'm really enjoying it. Your recommendations are really persuasive! My to-read list is gaining some serious weight.

    Thanks for sharing so much of yourself.