Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What books did you discover earliest in life that are still on your favorites list?
I’ve already talked about the big ones in previous AVQ&As on children’s entertainment we still love today, and art our parents passed down to us. So I’ll skip getting into C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion Of The World, Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody, and Richard Adams’ Watership Down yet again. They’re all longtime favorites that are still on my shelves, and I still return to each of them at long intervals. But here are a couple of oddball favorites that don’t get enough love: George Selden’s The Genie Of Sutton Place and Elizabeth Starr Hill’s Pardon My Fangs. These were the books I read over and over and over as a child, and that informed my love of fantasy stories, largely because of the combination of ruthlessly exact internal logic and a sense that absolutely anything could happen. Both of them are effectively about supernatural creatures under contract, living colorful, bizarre lives while dealing with geases that control their actions. Selden is best known for A Cricket In Times Square and the sequels, and Hill is barely known at all these days in spite of her lengthy back catalog, but I owe both of them for early experience with falling in love with books, and with the endless possibilities of stories.
I’m not sure if this is definitely the right answer (I did a lot of reading as a kid, and I still love most of the books I read back then), but I’ll go with the novel that’s been in my top five list for the longest: Misery by Stephen King. I first read it when I was in junior high, right when I started getting into King’s writing in a big way; I have a habit of finding an author, falling hard, and then devouring everything I can find by them, and after my dad let me read The Stand, I was hooked. But while The Stand hasn’t aged so well for me, I still consider Misery to be almost untouchable, a story that still grabs me every time I read it, and one whose deeper meanings never fail to resonate. There’s little to no fat on the story, which follows Paul Sheldon, a romance novelist who hates his own work, as he suffers kidnapping and minor to major torture at the hands of Annie Wilkes, a psychopathic ex-nurse who considers herself to be Sheldon’s No. 1 fan. It’s a potentially goofball scenario, one which plenty of TV shows and movies have made hay of over the years, but the original novel is dark almost to the point of grimness; it’s saved from being a downer by great characterization (Sheldon is better filled-in than most of King’s heroes, and Annie is one of his best monsters—an abusive, occasionally cartoonish figure who nonetheless remains terrifyingly real, and, at times, even sympathetic), and a pure love of the power of storytelling. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to spend the rest of my life telling people that Misery is what made me want to be a writer. If I’m not, well, it’s still a great novel.
The book I’ve loved the longest would have to be E.B. White’s Stuart Little. The book is a masterpiece, not only of children’s fiction, but of literature. Yes, it’s about a talking mouse who has a wind-up car, but the story underneath, one of longing, first love, and atypical families, still resonates with me today. I’ll never forget the ending, with Stuart not having found Margalo, looking out at the road ahead of him. It’s an odd place to end a children’s book, but epitomizes how White never pandered to his younger audience. Sometimes stories go on, even if the books that tell them finish. The books I’ve loved the longest as an adult reader would have to be The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Imagine if Dickens and Edward Gorey had a child, and you’d have a sense of Peake’s brilliant, macabre series. The books are so long and dense it’s hard to point to one reason why I’ve loved them so long, but they do share a similarity to the ending of Stuart Little. Titus Groan, the titular hero of the first novel, is only a baby by the time the book ends. Like White’s classic, Titus Groan suggests that stories continue long after books do.
Dune isn’t the first science-fiction book I read as a kid. Or even the hundredth. By the age of 12, I’d devoured untold dozens of futuristic novels by everyone from Fred Saberhagen to John Varley to Piers Anthony (no, really, his pre-Xanth science fiction is pretty good). But when I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, it was like seeing the real thing instead of the shadows on the wall. The scope, the imagery, the richness... I’m not sure I knew the word “archetypal” back then, but I knew Dune nailed it. Since then I’ve read the book at least 10 times, and it never fails to reveal some new facet each time around. If anything, its allegorical depiction of East vs. West, ecopolitics, and theocracy rings my bell more now that I’m a dread-fraught adult. Also: motherfucking Shai Hulud.
I have no idea what the real answer to this question is for me. The first book I loved that I could still name today is probably something by Dr. Seuss, but I started reading at an early age, and what I processed before the third grade or so is all a jumble now, in terms of the chronological order with which it went in the hopper. But I do remember when my third-grade teacher, Miss Willis, read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to the class, in installments. That sucker blew me away. And the first grown-up book I read that’s on my permanent shelf is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which I stumbled across when I was 12, and started reading because I had somehow heard that it was funny. The sex stuff went right over my head on the first reading, but it got its hooks into me with the opening pages about the hero’s fucked-up feelings toward his stereotypical Jewish parents. I’m not Jewish, but some things are universal.
Apologies in advance as this answer will seem incredibly, annoyingly precocious, but it’s also true. In fourth grade, I picked up my mom’s copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, and though I’m quite certain I didn’t fully understand everything about the book, I know I really loved it. (It’s not like Vonnegut is a difficult writer to parse, I guess.) I have a distinct memory of my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Hecht, walking up to me incredulously and asking me what I was reading—and reminding me that the book I was reading the day before was part of the Encyclopedia Brown series. But to her credit—and she was one of those formative, excellent teachers who encouraged reading and thinking—she just laughed and told me to enjoy it. I assume she knew that it was about genius identical twins who are also hideously ugly and have an incestuous relationship, and that the book’s repeated exhortations to “take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut” were like catnip for a 10-year-old with a buddingly filthy mind. And even though Vonnegut all but disowned the book, I still go back to it every couple of years. Lonesome no more!
I keep answering these “first love” questions by talking about things I enjoyed with my brother when we were kids, but what can I say? We moved a lot when we were little, and because my brother and I were each other’s most reliable companions for a good long time, we shared a lot of the same interests. One of those interests was hockey, born of living in Atlanta around the time that the NHL expanded and the Flames were founded. After we moved away from Atlanta, it was harder to find hockey fans, but whenever we visited our grandmother in Tennessee, we checked out the only book about the sport in the tiny local library: Hockey Wingman, a fairly conventional “ordinary boy works hard, makes good choices, and becomes a star athlete” young-adult novel, written by Canadian sports writer Andy O’Brien. Years later, while trying to find out more about the book, I learned that O’Brien (now dead) is in Canada’s Sports Hall Of Fame, so he had quite the pedigree. My brother and I had no idea about any of that back then; we read the book over and over because we liked all the insider details about skating and stick-handling, as well as the way O’Brien’s narrative steadily progresses through junior hockey to the NHL. It’s like a really well-written magazine article, only fictional. I know this because about 10 years ago, when I discovered some good sites for buying used books online, I bought copies of Hockey Wingman for both my brother and me, and I reread mine recently. It’s still gripping and inspiring. It’s corny, sure; but it’s a fine example of what I’d call the “how to be a boy” juvenile-fiction genre.
This nostalgia train is getting really intense for me, guys. The book I’ve loved the longest is undoubtedly Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch Of Blackbird Pond, a young-adult novel about a teenager girl named Kit Tyler who descends upon Puritan and pre-revolutionary Wethersfield, Connecticut. I have read this book countless times since I was 9 years old, and what amazes me is how well the prose holds up to the adult eye. It’s probably suffered a bit in the modern era because witchcraft is not the focus of the story at all. Instead it is an unexpectedly romantic story of love and acceptance across cultures. It’s sturdy and plain, much like New England itself, but it yields a beautiful story that manages to be both very personal and specific but at the same time draws broad political implications. Speare is very well versed in colonial history, drawing a line between the Barbados sugar and slave trades and Puritan New England in the background, and connecting the suspicion we have toward any sort of strangers with the idea that anyone, anywhere, could be an agent of evil. I still think of this book often, because I am often driving through the Connecticut River Valley, and I drive through the locations of the book—Saybrook and Wethersfield, in particular. I once made a mini-pilgrimage to Wethersfield, now an expensive suburb of Hartford, and was surprised to see the meeting house, harbor, and town square near-intact, as if Kit and Nat had just been there a few hours earlier. And for anyone who knows me, they might be interested to learn that this is the first book in which I unabashedly ’shipped two characters—the first book where romance wasn’t something totally gross but instead really exciting and beautiful. Twenty years later, I’m still going strong. Kit and Nat are my original OTP, so there.
My answer is based entirely on ritual: From my middle-school years on through my mid-20s, I capped every Christmas Eve by putting on my best Boris Karloff voice and reading Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! to my younger brother. Before we established this tradition, Seuss was a major part of childhood in the Adams house, but The Cat In The Hat and Oh, The Places You’ll Go! just don’t come with a calendar-based reason to come down from the bookshelf. (Maybe the latter does, but only because of its second life as a go-to graduation gift.) My perennial Grinch readings could be recited from memory, but that would remove Ted Geisel’s simple-yet-expressive illustrations from the equation, a suggestion I can’t stand in the least. Like the Grinch and his oft-cited ribbons-and-tags epiphany, I recognize that How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is about more than its nifty packaging. There’s a life in those drawings, something to look forward to as much as Geisel’s playful neologisms and seesaw meter. This past Christmas was the first I spent away from my brother in 23 years, but my wife was just as good an audience for my terrible Karloff impression—as I imagine she’ll be for all my Yuletide Whoville visits to come.
I think I was in third grade when we read George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl in class (sometime before/after Superfudge), and roughly 30 years later, I still have my original copy on my bookshelf. It’s the story of a nice kid whose mean, sickly grandmother lives with his family. One day, she pushes him too far, so he gathers a bunch of ingredients from around the house to make a new kind of medicine for her, which causes the old bag to grow into a giant (and then, later, a different batch makes her shrink). Maybe it appealed to my budding inner sociopath, but I loved watching George make the concoction—an undoubtedly highly toxic one, in retrospect—and I probably empathized. I had a mean, infirmed grandmother myself, though she thankfully lived all the way in Connecticut. At the end of her life, when she’d boss my poor grandfather around and ask me to make her Manhattans (long story), don’t think it didn’t cross my mind to make her a very special cocktail.
The best candidate I could find on my bookshelf is Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which probably has the distinction of being the only unillustrated book I’ve read in one sitting. But I also didn’t read that until I was in college. Eventually I dug out James Gurney’s Dinotopia, but that was more about the illustrations, which range from Renaissance-festival-with-dinosaurs to Star Trek-planet-with-dinosaurs. And then I remembered Mossflower. Apparently I have a thing for uncommonly well-behaved communities. The first prequel to Brian Jacques’ Redwall series started as a fourth-grade assignment and became a habit through junior high. It’s all the feel-good liberalism and species essentialism of Star Trek but with British animals! I loved the daring otters, the tribal toads, the golden-headed badger, and his kestrel, uh, companion. I was obsessed, and my copy of The Bellmaker has the dinner stains to prove it. And it all started with Mossflower.
As was the case for a lot of Americans, Art Spiegelman’s Maus was probably my first exposure to a comic book that explored real trauma and tragedy. Although I’d obsessed over superhero comics and comic strips from as far back as I can remember, when I first read Maus in the early ’90s, it allowed me to connect with history in a way that my other elementary-school reading didn’t, and it opened my mind to the kinds of stories comics were capable of telling. It wasn’t long before I was exploring old issues of Raw—the anthology magazine in which Spiegelman initially published Maus—in all its bizarre genius, leading me further down the rabbit hole to a world of “alternative” comics that I’ve never left. When the making-of book MetaMaus was released in 2011, I was able to see with fresh eyes just how great an impact Maus had had on me growing up.
I know I’ve written about it before (for our favorite YA novels AVQ&A), but I’m going to have to go with Daniel Pinkwater’s Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars as my longest surviving favorite novel. I first read it when I was about 10 years old, making me a few years younger than its barely teenaged protagonists, and it instantly made Pinkwater one of my favorite authors. The tale of an uncool kid who moves to a new school just in time for the cool/uncool division to really matter (i.e., seventh grade) really resonated with me, a decidedly uncool kid who moved around a lot (I averaged almost a school a year by the time I graduated). That warm, human heart was wrapped in an absurd and wonderful science-fiction story about alternate dimensions, Martian teenagers, and mind-control powers that took just about everything I loved as a precocious, über-nerdy kid and served it up as an awesome sundae. Plus it was pretty damn funny. I still pick it up and read it every once in a while, and I never miss an opportunity to loan or give a copy away to every gawky, awkward pre-teen nerd I meet. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t love it almost as much as I do.
I was a voracious reader throughout my childhood, visiting the public library on a weekly basis and devouring books like a freaking fiend, so I’ve got a fiction and a non-fiction answer to this question. For the former, I’m going with Judy Blume’s Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing, which—appropriately enough—was read to my fourth-grade class by our long-term substitute teacher when our regular teacher was out on maternity leave; I revisited it recently under the excuse of being sure it would be okay to read to my 7-year-old daughter, and, yep, it’s still just as hilarious now as it was then. On the non-fiction front, I have no idea how I came to possess a copy of Fred L. Worth’s The Encyclopedia Of Trivia, but I was definitely still in single digits, which puts it sometime in the 1970s, and it hipped me to a huge world of pop culture, including film, television, and even radio, that helped transform me into the writer I am today… for better or worse.
When I think about the types of books I love, I don’t think about their place in the canon of great literature so much as how they engage me while reading it. For instance, many would say Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River represents the apex of his career, but I’d take Darkness, Take My Hand any day in terms of pure literary pleasure. But the book that instilled a love of getting lost in the pages of a book has to be Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s probably the first “big” book I read, by which I mean the physical object that held King’s tale intimidated me upon first glance. Yet, once I got into the tale of Captain Trips and the society that built up in its wake, I was enthralled. More than anything, I just couldn’t believe a world this detailed, this vast, this scary, and this funny could all be inside a single tome. After that, I almost exclusively consumed novels with high word counts, just so there would be more with which to possibly fall in love. I’ve never quite recaptured that initial experience, but just like it is in so many King novels, it’s all about the journey rather than the ultimate destination. I wouldn’t say The Stand is my favorite book of all time. But it’s responsible for me reading those that ultimately rank higher on my shelf.
When I was in fourth grade, I had a particularly terrific teacher who I can credit in part for my creative development. I can still vividly picture her classroom, and the one item that sticks in my brain is an oversized version of Jules Feiffer’s illustration of the Mathemagician from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. As a kid who enjoyed playing nearly all sports as well as reading, I never really sympathized with Milo, the initially lethargic protagonist. I remember feeling supremely annoyed with his disinterest in pretty much anything. But once the tollbooth arrived, and Milo transitioned into an elaborate fantasy world full of realized puns, idioms, and extensive wordplay, I was hooked. I can still remember the first time I read the sequence of tasting letters, and it’s one of the most beautiful appreciations of learning that I can think of. The Phantom Tollbooth is the best kind of children’s book: It doesn’t trick anyone into learning, instead throwing them headfirst into an engrossing plot that celebrates knowledge and encourages readers to do the same or else be left out of all the fun.