Formative

The material in this post was adapted from a September 8, 2005, post to my previous site.

An online acquaintance once observed that there is nothing less revealing than a “ten books list” that contains nothing but classics. Truth. So, what if we talked about ten books that reveal something about ourselves, instead? That’s a challenge. What books tell (part of) the stories of our lives? Which books say something about where we’ve been or where we’re headed? Which books helped shape and define our sense of ourselves? Of our world?

An annotated list:

1. Children’s Guide to Knowledge (1971 edition)

I’ve written about this treasure before. It is, as I have said, partially responsible for preventing my young mind from atrophying in my parents’ blue-collar, book-barren home. Published by Parents’ Magazine Press, the subtitle is Wonders of Nature, Marvels of Science and Man. Fifty years ago, an aunt inscribed it, “This book will help you with your 4th grade reports!” And it did. Children’s Guide to Knowledge delivered a compelling world of animals, plants, history, geography, and scientific achievement (through early space exploration, anyway). The spine of my original copy is crumbling, and the book has a damp, forgotten smell, but, like my tiny collection of “How and Why” books, it still beguiles.

2. Blubber (Judy Blume; 1974)

My closest friend in fifth grade, Mary Ann, pressed this book on me. “It is just like this class,” she said. “It’s true.”

Mary Ann and I formed a two-student workshop led by our newly minted teacher. Miss T. had identified us as “advanced” readers and writers (“Well, no kidding,” Mary Ann muttered), but we suspected that the “workshop” was about isolating us from the other students while she was teaching. She certainly didn’t do well under our scrutiny: “But Miss T.,” coming from Mary Ann or me was capable of reducing her to tears. (Unsurprisingly, my preoccupation with exposing mediocrity began around this time.)

In workshop, Mary Ann and I read books like The Red Badge of Courage and collections of O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe stories (most of which I reread in adulthood and realized, “Man, I never appreciated these until now”) and (over)wrote and illustrated wildly creative stories about our secret lives as witches.

We didn’t spend much time trying to play well with the other girls in our class.

And our inexperienced fifth-grade teacher watched us carefully.

Anyway, the ease and truthfulness with which Blubber unfolded resonated with me in a way that the Little House books or even A Wrinkle in Time hadn’t. I knew I was a writer by the time I was in third grade, but with Blubber, I became fascinated with writing “the truth.”

Mary Ann and I didn’t write many more stories about witches after that.

3. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh; 1964)

I popped the lenses from my sunglasses, donned an old hooded sweatshirt, and took to carrying a composition notebook wherever I went. My classmates never read the notebooks, but my mother did. Let’s leave it at “That wasn’t the best day of my childhood.”

4. Ronnie and Rosey (Judy Angell; 1977)

By any standard, this book is, if not ridiculous, then overwrought, as many “problem novels” are. But when I first read it, its truth electrified me. Ronnie and Rosey helped me realize, “Someday, perhaps someday soon, I will feel strong enough as a person to act and think without worrying about what Mom will say and do.” So, yeah, I credit this sometimes silly book with helping me grow up (which means, of course, that at the time, it wasn’t silly to me, at all).

5. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White; 1952)

Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.

E.B. White died when I was an undergraduate. To mark his passing, I reread Charlotte’s Web.

And cried.

Just as I had when Mrs. S. read it aloud to our third-grade class.

I have, since then, reread it several times. And cried each time.

Rereading Charlotte’s Web as a first-generation college student hovering between childhood and adulthood reawakened in me the desire to arrive at essential truths through clear, measured writing.

6. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley; 1983)

Through this now-cancelled book, I met Arthur, which sent me on a quest that filled several shelves and many of my mind’s rooms and chambers, so it is important to me. A belated thank-you to Ines, who recommended it as I headed home for the summer before my junior year of college.

7. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut; 1969)

I read this during my final semester as an undergraduate. Mr. R., my mentor, insisted. It is heresy, I know, to mention these two books in the same entry, let alone the same sentence, but, like The Mists of Avalon, Slaughterhouse-Five sent me on a journey of discovery that, again, filled several shelves and many of my mind’s rooms and chambers.

Years later, while in grad school, I spent the day with Vonnegut. I was a grad assistant at a small liberal arts school where he offered two workshops for the English department and a ninety-minute address followed by a book-signing for the general college population. By then, I had read everything of his that was in print. My assignment that day was to help usher him from here to there. Trust me, faculty members vied for his attention, and my services proved non-critical.

But I sat beside him for both workshops. “And this is enough,” I thought. “To know that he is a real person who grows impatient and smells old and loses his train of thought sometimes. This writer is real.”

Perhaps that is the essence of my reading and writing life: discerning what is real and true for me and recommitting to it periodically.

8. (Wo)Man Writer: Occasions and Opportunities (Joyce Carol Oates; 1988)

The work of Joyce Carol Oates was partially responsible for my success in graduate school: One of two scholarly essays of mine to capture honors in my second year of study concerned JCO, and part of my oral defense concerned Oates and the Burkean pentad. In many ways, she is to me what Joan Didion was to other women readers and writers — both writer and subject, an icon, an impossible ideal.

9. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, 10. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Harold Bloom; 1998), and 11. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970)

(Yes, I’m aware that I have listed more than ten books.)

I’ve amassed a collection of thousands of volumes, but if it were all lost tomorrow, the only books I would need to replace immediately are these three. Nothing has reworked the geography of my imagination like my (re)discovery of Shakespeare. (Except maybe parenting, but that’s an altogether different subject, isn’t it?)

Shakespeare. Talk about a recommitment to what is real and true.

Postscript: Nearly eighteen years have passed since I first assembled this annotated list. I must now add Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Herman Melville; 1851). Enough said. 

3 thoughts on “Formative

  1. What a wonderful and insightful question. Books that immediately come to mind for me are Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Encyclopedia Britannica (I spent hours with my parents’ set), and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

    Liked by 1 person

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