Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A reader’s family tree

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

When we think of our favorite books, we tend to picture a tidy shelf or a ranked list, but they’re really more like a family tree, with authors sprouting haphazardly from those who came before. In my case, the first books I remember loving with a fanboy’s passion were the works of Charles Schulz. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with vintage Peanuts paperbacks, which meant that even as the strip was starting its long daily decline, I was reading one of the great extended works of art of the twentieth century. What caught me was its tone: it was immediately appealing to kids, but written for adults, with storylines that were a complicated mix of psychology, whimsy, and despair. (I remember surprising my mother when I complained, at the age of nine, that I was suffering from a post-Christmas letdown.) In some ways, Peanuts set the stage for all that followed: it taught me that even as you’re caught up in the lives of fictional but maddeningly persuasive human beings, you can feel your mind expanding. The best years of the strip still make me feel that way, which is why I plan on introducing them to my own daughter as soon as she’s old enough to read on her own.

The next big branch consisted of a handful of authors who would be shelved these days in the young adult section: Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Ellen Raskin, E.L. Konigsburg, and others, most of them women. L’Engle caught my attention first, and looking back, I think it’s because A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels were my introduction to serious science fiction, with astrophysics and relativity interwoven with ethics, theology, and family drama. I moved from there to fantasy—I don’t think any book has ever moved me as much as The High King—and the usual string of Hardy Boys adventures. (Oddly, I also read two authors who didn’t affect me nearly as much then as they did later. The Phantom Tollbooth only became my favorite children’s novel after I was already an adult and could appreciate how much wisdom it contained, and although I loved Sherlock Holmes, I didn’t become obsessed with him until I was about to go to college, and discovered William S. Baring-Gould’s incredible annotations.) And the writer who took me to the next level, as he has for so many others, was George Orwell: after Animal Farm and 1984, I knew there was no going back.

Stephen King's It

Next comes an author whose influence I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge, although he’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I read The Talisman somewhere at the beginning of middle school, and over the next year or so, I devoured most of the books from Stephen King’s classic period. These are still the novels I’d recommend to someone who wanted to get into the habit of reading for the first time: they still grab me as they did then, and they’ve aged far better than most popular fiction. King also marked a turning point in another important respect. Until then, I’d been reading the books that most teens my age or slightly older were reading, though perhaps with greater intensity, but now that my destiny had locked into place—I knew I wanted to be a writer—I found myself faced with many possible paths. It’s really only by chance that I stumbled next onto Umberto Eco: it could have been any number of other writers, and I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I’d been drawn to, say, Hemingway or Updike. In any case, I read The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum right when I was most vulnerable to being deeply influenced, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Later, in high school, I fell under the spell of Norman Mailer, as much for the life he seemed to embody as for the books he wrote. (I still haven’t read The Naked and the Dead, and the Mailer novels that made the biggest impression on me were those weird, monumental outliers Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.) Borges came slightly later. Since then, the family tree seems to have smoothed itself out: there are many leaves, but fewer branches. Most of the books I now call my favorites are ones that I read during or after college, but although I’ll occasionally go through a period when I want to read everything an author has written—McEwan, Forsyth, Updike finally—the sense of a reading life that grows unchecked has mostly fallen away. It used to be a jungle; now it’s more like a garden, as I search out the great books that I’ve missed before and check off them off my list. I used to read like a child, and now I read like a grownup, or, worse, a writer. And that’s something of a loss. I still find books that excite me tremendously, even if I’ve been putting them off for years, but if I want to recover that early sense of contentment, I often pick up Conan Doyle, or King, or even Peanuts. But I’m always secretly hopeful that I’ll get that feeling again. The tree still has room to grow.

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

2 Responses

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  1. I like the metaphor of our reading histories as a tree. I suggest another horticultural variant: the English “wild” garden. For the past several years, my reading diet has been a balance between things I should have already read, things being adapted into film/TV and whatever’s captured the collective imagination (recently, most poorly written fiction). Sometimes a random book will enter my life, like a seed carried on the wind, and plant itself in my mental book repository.

    Less branches, yes, but there’re still a helluva lotta books in my garden.

    le cul en rows

    March 2, 2013 at 4:00 pm

  2. The metaphor of an English garden is exactly right—that’s much more what my reading life is like these days.


    March 4, 2013 at 8:12 am

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