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The books of our lives

Posted by on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 in Editor's Column, July 2011.

What books influenced your life? What have been your most meaningful experiences as a reader?

Since this is the Summer Reading Issue of House Organ, I thought it would be fun for some of us to compare notes. I’ll go first.

My parents still sometimes talk about what a pain I was to read to as a preschooler. I had a stack of storybooks, and I insisted that every one of them be read to me, every night.

Quite naturally, sometimes they would try to speed this along by hiding one or two of the books. I would immediately notice that some books were missing, would find them—funny how they would keep slipping into the couch cushions—and settle in to have the formerly missing books read to me.

As I say, I was a pain, but even early on, I was a kid who loved books and stories.

My fourth-grade teacher had an after-lunch storytime, in which she would read to us for a few minutes before getting to the afternoon’s lessons. I don’t remember most of the books and stories she read, but I sure remember this: she read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” out loud to us.

And I was captivated. Completely. Mark Twain named the books correctly—they are adventures. Boys, about my age then, with a secret island hideout, getting lost in a cave while chased by a murderer, and, of course, Huck and Jim and the freedom of that raft.

Most—who am I kidding?—all of the subtlety, social commentary, and satire Twain wrote into the stories was over my head, but the exuberance of life that he packed into those books was obvious to me, even then.

I read a lot of junk growing up, of course. People who value great literature and wish to shape the minds of children have no use for the formula plots and cardboard adventure of assembly-line books that I loved, such as the Hardy Boys and Brains Benton series.

My basic feeling is that those people should devote themselves to shouting at children to get off their lawn, and leave kids who want to read peppy pulp fiction alone.

Writer Keith Robertson cast a spell on me, too. His books aimed at 12- to 15-year-olds about the character Henry Reed, a laconic kid who got tangled up in all kinds of adventures (that word again) while spending summers with his aunt and uncle in rural New Jersey struck a chord in me—I read them over and over. As an adult, I bought used copies, read and enjoyed them all again, and then bought and enjoyed long-out-of-print used copies of all the adult pulp mysteries that Keith Robertson wrote under the name Carlton Keith.

This may seem a little too black-turtleneck-and-Turkish-coffee, but as a senior in high school I read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” and, again, felt like I was having something of the world revealed in the words on the pages. Both were stories of people trapped in a world they didn’t understand and who were fighting hostile bureaucracies, and in my 17-year-old way, I could relate. Still can, especially when I’m trying to get an AT&T billing error corrected.

William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty wrote stories of my home region which people all over the world respond to. After I’d traveled a little in some underdeveloped parts of the world, the voice of Graham Greene illuminated some of what I’d seen and heard in his fiction, and to me he’s one of the giants.

And I still love the popular and the pulpy: Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen, Bill Bryson. Baseball writer Bill James writes about life while pretending to be writing about baseball, and he summed up an experience that I have had over and over in my life and never seen properly put into words. In dismissing some viewpoint or another (I don’t even remember this issue under discussion), he said something like, “This is not an argument between people who have studied the issue and come to different conclusions. This is an argument between people on one side who have studied the issue, and people on the other side who have not.”

What books and writers have opened your eyes, made you laugh or cry or stay up all night to see how it comes out?