Via Lance Mannion, I have discovered the meme known as 15 Books That Will Always Stick With Me. This meme is so powerful that one needn’t be tagged directly to succumb to its awesome level of Not Lameness. In fact, I’m going to emulate Lance by dividing the books into pre-high school, high school and college categories. And once you’ve read it, don’t consider yourself tagged. Consider yourself invited to participate with a list of your own special books.
THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, Ray Bradbury: A tall decanter full of dreams. If memory serves, I got into Bradbury via the film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was on TV quite a bit for a while, and which I liked mainly for the glorious music by Bernard Herrmann. I had already devoured R Is For Rocket, The Illustrated Man, and The Golden Apples of the Sun, but this is the collection I always think of when somebody asks me about Bradbury in his prime. These stories were culled and revised from Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, and are some of the most macabre stuff he ever wrote.
WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, Bertrand Russell: The title essay is the reason I never finished confirmation classes at the church my parents were flogging me into every Sunday. Does a book’s impact get any more personal than that?
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? Philip K. Dick: My introduction to PKD came from a small library of paperbacks that lined a couple of shelves in my seventh-grade science teacher’s classroom. The back cover promised all kinds of smutty science fiction fun. What I got was a cage-rattling meditation on the nature of human identity, and an undertow of tragedy that just about knocked me sidewways at my tender age.
THE ASCENT OF MAN, Jacob Bronowski: My introduction to Bruno came via the Channel 13 broadcast of the BBC series, and as soon as it was done I got a copy of the hardcover book by joining the Literary Guild. Did I understand everything I read. Of course not, but the effort did me good.
GODS, GRAVES, AND SCHOLARS, C.W. Ceram: A great popular history of archaeology, loaded with Indiana Jones stuff as well as some excellent leads on other works of history. I learned about Cortes and the conquest of Mexico from this book, which led to a lifelong fascination with the subject.
THE HEIGHTS OF MACCHU PICCHU, Pablo Neruda: My introduction to the greatest poem by one of our greatest poets came about through a science fiction story, “Come to Me Not in Winter’s White” by Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison, which I read in Ellison’s collection of collaborative stories, Partners in Wonder. Art is where you find it.
CANNERY ROW/THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, John Steinbeck: After coming across a beat-up copy of Travels With Charley in a Sea Isle City bungalow, I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years reading every Steinbeck title I could get my hands on. For my money, these are his two best novels.
A FAREWELL TO ARMS/IN OUR TIME, Ernest Hemingway: The next summer was spent plowing through the big guy’s works, which didn’t take as long as the Steinbeck Summer, so I filled out August with a few Herman Hesse titles. (This was the mid-Seventies, when high schoolers looking for stirrings of transcendance felt obligated to read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.) Since I was also going through my Sorrows of Young Werther period, the romantic longings in A Farewell to Arms really struck a deep chord, and I continue to admire the spare music of Hemingwway’s short stories.
THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, William Manchester: Mid-20th century American history, from the arrival of the Bonus Army marchers in Washington D.C. to the eviction of Richard Nixon from the White House. Narrative history at its finest. I think it’s a tragedy Manchester never got to finish his three-part Churchill biography.
WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS, Bob Dylan: Lucky me. Not only was Blood on the Tracks my first Bob Dylan album, but 1975 was a great year to be a Dylan fan. Blood on the Tracks came out in January, The Basement Tapes was released (in water-down form) in June, and all through the fall I followed the glamorous wanderings of the Rolling Thunder Revue in the pages of Rolling Stone, and Desire came out so early in January that I have a hard time remembering it as a 1976 release. Somewhere along the way I acquired this collection of lyrics, album cover notes and poetry in a slick tan cover, which is the reason I knew most of Dylan’s other albums by reading them before I listened to them.
INTERVIEW WITH HISTORY, Oriana Fallaci: I never made good on my teen fantasy of having an affair with the diminutive hellraiser, but I did the next best thing and spent a lot of quality time with this collection of interviews, in which Fallaci made Yasir Arafat, Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran (among others) deeply and profoundly regret the day they opened their doors to her. Kissinger once said that agreeing to talk with Fallaci was “the stupidest thing I ever did.” Years later, when I found myself bumping shoulders with Kissinger at a buffet table, the only thing I could imagine saying to him was, “Damn, Henry, Oriana really pounded that one up your ass, didn’t she?” And yet I kept quiet! What demon possessed me, that I behaved so well?
RED HARVEST, Dashiell Hammett: After the farm wagon dropped me off at Livingston College, I batted some of the straw out of my hair and headed for the campus bookstore, where my very first purchase was this detective novel by a writer I’d been hearing about for some time. It has the most perfect opening of any noir book I’ve read. I think I spent the rest of the semester talking out of the side of my mouth.
MATTERS OF FACT AND OF FICTION, Gore Vidal: I’d long had a vague idea of Gore Vidal, but it took someone lending me this book while I spent several weeks recovering from a bout of mono to show me what I’d been missing. Exemplary essays and reviews that opened up a lot of new horizons for me. In fact, one of the reviews led me to . . .
THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro: When I wrote The Last Three Miles, I had in mind doing something with a bit of the same historic sweep that makes this massive biography so engrossing. Robert Moses’ heroic image as the master builder of New York City was overturned by Caro’s examination, which takes in virtually every significant trend affecting mid-20th century America and New York City, and shows how one man really can make a difference — for good and for ill. The book’s level of detail is daunting, its argument commanding, its scope breathtaking.
PATRIOTIC GORE, Edmund Wilson: My introduction to the Civil War as something more than a collection of dates and battles with odd names came through this massive collection of essays on the era’s literature. Abraham Lincoln’s ritings, William Tecumseh Sherman’s diaries, Mary Chestnut’s diaries . . . and Carl Sandburg’s cornpone myth-mongering, praised and/or debunked as the occasion demands.