Onward and upward!
7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. My friend Rob introduced me to this one as part of a series of books that he had adopted as a sort of “canon” of his life. There are other books to which he introduced me that probably could have made this list as well, but Stranger in a Strange Land is the one that has cast the longest shadow on my life, for some odd reason, though I’ve never been able to enjoy anything else Heinlein has written. Perhaps it’s that it represents that era of transition in my life so well – when I truly began to understand the meaning of what it was to love outside of the popular definition, and how that sometimes made a person an outsider. It came along at a time in my life where I was questioning every assumption that had been put into my mind, somewhere in there with my Beat period, and since then has shown me that it’s okay to present some points of view that are less-than-conventional. In short, no Stranger, no Matty in Corridors.
8. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Okay, this book probably would be one of the top two or three if this was really ranked. This may be the defining book of my discovery of writing. For some background, my high school English teachers sort of “discovered” me. I had been writing since I was…God, I guess six or seven, I have no real frame of reference, but had been discouraged by pretty much everyone that I came across, so I had gotten the idea that I was a terrible writer. So much so that I just gave up on trying in English classes. I started out high school in Remedial English and figured I belonged there. It was only when I wrote our first essay, on what we did over the Summer, that they realized that I might have been misplaced and got bumped up to the advanced class. From there, I had a series of teachers that nurtured my writing outside of classes, entering me in contests and giving me summer reading assignments to help shape my writing. The first of these was the Prince of Tides – the teacher said that my writing bore a resemblance to Conroy, so I was intrigued. Given that I had only been reading fantasy, horror, and sci-fi to that point, I was completely blown away by the depth of the characters in the novel, as well as how closely it corresponded to the people I saw in everyday life. It was the first time that I realized the potential of a novel to be more than just a story and more a transformative experience. Just writing about it is making me want to re-read it, in fact.
Let’s not talk about the movie adaptation, however. The less said about that festering turd, the better. I only chose that cover because it was the cover of the book that I read.
9. Light in August by William Faulkner. Light in August was another summer reading assignment, along with a few other Faulkner novels. In retrospect, giving Faulkner to a high school Sophomore seems like lunacy, but boy did his writing grab me and refuse to let go. His work represents a lost world of literature to me; there is just no way that someone with his level of artistry could achieve popularity these days. Every sentence is so dense and loaded with meaning that it’s almost exhausting to read, but if Conroy introduced me to the transformative power of the character, then Faulkner introduced me to the sheer power of the sentence. Here’s a particularly good passage from The Reivers:
When grown people speak of the innocence of children, they dont really know what they mean. Pressed, they will go a step further and say, Well, ignorance then. The child is neither. There is no crime which a boy of eleven had not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is, he may not be old enough to desire the fruits of it, which is not innocence but appetite; his ignorance is, he does not know how to commit it, which is not ignorance but size. But Boon didn’t know this. He must seduce me. And he had so little time: only from the time the train left until dark.
Just amazing stuff. And finally…
10. The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. Yes, this would truly be #1, so I saved it for last. Okay, and I’ve also been trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what it means to me. I guess the best way to explain it is to say that there is a “pre-Talisman” era and a “post-Talisman” era when it comes to my writing. Granted, I was only nine when I stumbled across this in a used book store and picked it up based on the cover description, but it was that much of a defining factor in my life. I’ve spoken at length about the ideas in this novel that grabbed me in my part about The Waste Lands, so I’ll talk instead about what it means on a personal level.
Yes, it’s essentially the Hero Quest again, but given that I was pretty close to Jack’s age when I first read it, it connected with me on a level that very few works have ever managed. I had stopped writing for a few years before I discovered this, and it inspired me to start up again, writing a fanfic sequel that was probably pretty awful but has been lost to the winds, mercifully. I would go so far as to say that this was the novel that made me want to be a writer as a child. I began to realize that there might just be an outlet for getting all of the ideas in my head out into the world (given that I had already realized art wasn’t going to work out for me). It laid the groundwork for the writer that my teachers would later nurture into existence.
And that’s that. Looking back, it’s a bit of a bizarre list, ranging from the heavily literary to mainstream fiction and into horror and sci-fi, but I’d say that sort of sums up my preferences to this day; my fiance long ago gave up on understanding what makes my story preferences tick, and I think I see why. This was a great exercise though, and thanks for the inspiration, guys! Maybe I should revisit this in about ten years’ time and see where I am then…