Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Madeline L’Engle

My ten great books #7: The Westing Game

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Of the hundreds of novels that I must have read between the ages of eight and twelve, the three that have stuck with me the most are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The first two get the lion’s share of love, and not without reason: we like to reward children’s books that leave their youthful readers with valuable lessons. The Phantom Tollbooth, as I’ve written elsewhere, is the best fictional handbook to being alive I’ve ever found, and A Wrinkle in Time contains one of the most moving passages in all of young adult literature, when its protagonist, Meg, realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz. The italics are mine:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

Compared to such peers, The Westing Game might seem like a trifle, “a puzzle mystery,” as it says right there on its paperback cover. As time goes on, though, it’s the one that impresses me the most. It’s every bit the equal of the other two in terms of invention, and it belongs on any short list of the great mystery novels. (A glance at Raskin’s notes only underlines how much care, thought, and sheer cleverness had to go into it at every stage.) If it had been written in French and translated into English—which is impossible to imagine—we might put it on a shelf with the works of Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec, who founded a movement defined as “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”

Instead, The Westing Game was written by Ellen Raskin, a homegrown genius of a particularly American kind. It’s revealing that she began her career as one of our great commercial illustrators, designing the covers for over a thousand books, including the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. All four of her fantastic novels have a way of talking among themselves, in what Nabokov, another precursor, called “a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another,” and it reflects the sensibility of an artist used to thinking in terms of the relationships of elements on the page. Reading it again recently, I was amazed by how much it accomplishes in fewer than two hundred pages. It invents an ingenious mystery that doubles as an ergodic text for preteens. Unlike most mystery novelists, who give us a series of names that blur together as soon as we put the book down, Raskin creates over a dozen characters whom I remember vividly after the passage of decades. (Every few weeks or so, I seem to mutter to myself, for no particular reason: “Ed Purple-Fruit. Ed Plum.”) The cast is diverse without making a point of it, and everyone is allowed to be smart, foolish, empathetic, obtuse, and funny. Its wit is incredibly sharp and consistent. There are no villains, aside perhaps from Grace Wexler, whose casual racism is skewered so beautifully that it’s easy to undervalue it. Best of all, there’s no implication, as we sometimes get from L’Engle or Juster, that we’re meant to take the story as a moral lesson. The Phantom Tollbooth turns into something like propaganda for curiosity, while The Westing Game achieves much the same goal—it’s impossible to read it without hungering for more puzzles—simply by serving as an example of what a curious mind can create. As a result, it points more emphatically than any other book at the kind of novels I ended up writing and reading as an adult. Unlike the others, it wasn’t trying to change lives. But it sure changed mine.

Written by nevalalee

May 16, 2017 at 9:00 am

Astounding Stories #14: The Heinlein Juveniles

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Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

“There is a major but very difficult realization that needs to be reached about [Cary] Grant—difficult, that is, for many people who like to think they take the art of film seriously,” David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. The realization, he says, is that along with being a great movie star and a beloved style icon, Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.” There’s a comparable realization, I’ve decided, that has to be reached about Robert A. Heinlein. As well as being a cult figure, the first science fiction writer to break through to the mainstream, and an object of veneration for countless fans, he was also the best writer the genre ever produced. And believe me, I know how boring this sounds. Frankly, I’d love to come up with a contrarian stance—that Heinlein is interesting primarily for his historical significance, that he’s revered mostly out of nostalgia, or that a handful of masterpieces allow us to overlook the fact that much of what he wrote was routine. But none of this is true. Of all the science fiction writers I’ve read, Heinlein is consistently the most compelling author, the most interesting thinker, and the most versatile artist. He’s the one writer of his era who could seemingly do anything, and who actually did it over an extended period of time for a big popular audience: great ideas, meticulously developed science and technology, worldbuilding, plot, action, character, philosophy, style. Heinlein was given what the sports writer Bill Simmons likes to call the “everything” package at the car wash, and he more than lived up to it. To a very real extent, Heinlein was the golden age of science fiction, and it’s hard to imagine John W. Campbell doing any of it without him.

This doesn’t mean that Heinlein was a perfect writer. For all the smart, tough, attractive women in his fiction, most of them ultimately come across as desirable fantasy objects for a certain kind of man. (The one really likable, compelling female character in his work, aside from Podkayne of Mars and Hazel Stone in The Rolling Stones, is Cynthia Randall in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”) He never entirely lost the didactic streak that undermines his first unpublished novel, For Us, the Living, even if he advanced so rapidly in craft that it didn’t really matter. His late novels are a mixed bag, but they were never anything less than intensely personal, and they could hardly have been written by anyone else. And it goes without saying—or maybe it doesn’t—that merely because Heinlein was the strongest writer, sentence by sentence, in the history of the genre, it doesn’t mean that he was right about everything, or even about most things. As you read his stories, you find yourself nodding in agreement, and it’s only later that you start to raise reasonable objections. A novel like Starship Troopers is so cunningly constructed around its central argument that it can take you a while to realize how completely the author has stacked the deck. Heinlein liked to say that he was only trying to inspire people to ask the right questions, which isn’t untrue, although it seems a little disingenuous. He’s the most interesting case study I know on the difference between artistic mastery and good advice. They aren’t always the same thing, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either: they coincide some but not all of the time, which is why the reader has to pay close attention.

Tunnel in the Sky

If I wanted to give a new reader a showcase for Heinlein’s talents, I’d probably start with his early, wonderful novella “If This Goes On—,” but I’d also consider recommending a few of his juveniles. These are the twelve books that he wrote for Scribner’s between 1947 and 1958, and although they were originally intended for young adults, they exemplify most of his strengths and almost none of his flaws. Heinlein explicitly conceived them as an updated version of the Horatio Alger books that he had loved growing up, and his pedagogical tendencies are both fully indulged and totally charming. The moral precepts he’s trying to inculcate couldn’t be more straightforward: “Hard work is rewarded.” “Studying hard pays off, in happiness as well as in money.” “Stand on your own feet.” And because he saw a strong technical education as the royal road to the stars, these books amount to the best propaganda imaginable for a career in the sciences. They’re filled with the kind of lectures—how a spaceship works, the physics of zero gravity, the design of a spacesuit—that most writers are rightly discouraged from including, but which many readers like me secretly crave, and Heinlein serves them up with great style. There’s no question that they inspired countless young people to go into science and engineering, which makes me regret the fact that he deliberately excluded half of his potential audience:

I established what has continued to be my rule for writing for youngsters. Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts. To this I added subordinate rules: No real love interest and female characters should only be walk-ons.

You could justify this by saying that these books were marketed by the publisher toward boys anyway, and that most of them wouldn’t have patience for girls. But it still feels like a lost opportunity.

Of all the juveniles, my favorite is Tunnel in the Sky, which starts out by anticipating The Hunger Games or even Battle Royale, moves into Lord of the Flies territory, and winds up as something unforgettably strange and moving. But they’re all worth reading, except maybe the aptly titled Between Planets, a transitional book that plays like Asimov at his most indifferent. Rocket Ship Galileo sends Tom Swift to the moon; Space Cadet looks ahead to Starship Troopers, but also Ender’s Game; Red Planet is terrifically exciting, and provides the first instance in which the adults take over the story from the kids; Farmer in the Sky is flawless hard science fiction; Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones come the closest to the ideal of a boy’s book of adventure in space; The Star Beast is uneven, but appealingly peculiar; Time for the Stars is a great time-dilation story; Citizen of the Galaxy has a lot of fun updating Kipling’s Kim for the future; and Have Space Suit—Will Travel begins as a lark, then grows gradually deeper and more resonant, to the point where I’m halfway convinced that it was one of Madeline L’Engle’s primary inspirations for A Wrinkle in Time. Heinlein’s uncanny ability to follow his imagination into odd byways without losing momentum, which is possibly his most impressive trick, is never on greater display than it is here. The best sequences, as in Starship Troopers, often take place in what amounts to basic training, and many of the juveniles fall into the same curious pattern: after a hundred fascinating pages about the hero’s education, there’s a sense of loss when the actual plot kicks in, as when Rocket Ship Galileo settles for a third act about Nazis in space. We’ve seen most of these crises before, and other writers, as well as Heinlein, will give us plenty of space battles and close escapes. But we’ve never been educated this well.

Writing on tablecloths

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Napkin drawing by Jay Park of Facebook

Note: I’m taking a short break, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 31, 2015.

Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:

Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.

As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:

He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”

In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.

Back of the envelope

Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.

These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.

A wrinkle in life

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Madeline L'Engle

Last week, it was announced that the director Ava DuVernay was looking for mixed-race and minority actors to play the children in her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. The news delighted me to no end, and not just because I come from a mixed racial background myself—although that’s certainly part of it. It’s the kind of decision that might seem surprising at first, but then comes to feel utterly right: I’ve spent most of the last hour leafing through my battered paperback copy of Madeline L’Engle’s novel, which I’ve owned since I was eight years old, and one line after another seems charged with new life and meaning when I view it through that lens. A few years ago, I wrote of L’Engle: “Her work was my first glimpse of what I’ve since come to think of as the novel of ideas in its most rewarding form: richly imagined, emotional, and dramatic works of fiction whose central subject is the search for meaning in a universe dominated by science and information, which are really forms of protection against the unknown.” And it’s a journey that has been informed by my own multiracial heritage in ways that I haven’t always appreciated. When you’re of mixed race, you often end up searching for meaning on your own, either by arriving at one combination or another of the elements in your family story or by assembling a new value system from first principles. And I suspect that I was so strongly attracted to A Wrinkle in Time in part because it was one of the first books I’d read that was explicitly about that process. 

In my original post about the book, I noted that it’s essentially an episodic and didactic novel, but we don’t tend to notice this—in the way we do with, say, the Alice stories or The Phantom Tollbooth—because it’s so tightly constructed. It also approaches its characters in a vivid, intimate way that conceals how much of it is structured to function as an allegory. I wouldn’t say that Meg, Charles Wallace, or Calvin are more real to me than Alice or Milo, but they’re portrayed with more incidental detail and warmth, so that they come to seem more like real boys and girls whom we could actually meet one day. Unlike their earlier counterparts, who can seem oddly detached in the face of the strange characters they encounter, Meg, in particular, is vibrating with wounded feeling, which isn’t an accident. A Wrinkle in Time, like the other books I mentioned, is ultimately a story about a young person’s education, but it isn’t primarily an intellectual one, but one of emotion. You can even read each of its worlds as a place in which Meg is forced to fully confront a single emotion in its purest form, from joy on Uriel to freezing grief and forgiveness on Ixchel to mindless conformism on Camazotz. She emerges from each chapter with a lesson, but they’re gently conveyed, and they made less of a conscious impression on me at the time than the book’s vision of a life spent among ideas, which flew like sparks from the characters whenever they spoke.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

But the book’s message is also deeply Christian—more so, perhaps, than even the works of C.S. Lewis, which I admire in more complicated ways. Lewis, an epic fantasist who owed his religious conversion to none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, thought naturally in eschatological terms: Aslan dies on the stone table, but he returns at the head of an army to pounce triumphantly on the White Witch. (This doesn’t even get at The Last Battle, which I read with a kind of horrified fascination as a child, with its literal division of the characters at the end of the world into the sheep and the goats.) A Wrinkle in Time puts its scriptural sources right there in the text: Charles Wallace’s bedtime reading of choice is Genesis, and the song of the winged centaurs of Uriel comes straight from the Book of Isaiah. But I think L’Engle’s religion is more subtle and meaningful. When asked to name the great fighters against the Black Thing, Charles Wallace cries out: “Jesus! Why of course, Jesus!” But they also include Einstein and Buddha and Gandhi. And when Meg is asked to confront IT, the monstrous brain that rules Camazotz, her only weapon is love itself, which leads to the following extraordinary passage:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

This is just a few pages from the end of the book, and Meg resolves her dilemma by choosing to love her lost brother Charles Wallace instead. But the line to which I keep returning, and which I’m not sure I even noticed in my first dozen readings, is: “Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.” I think that this unheralded sentence is the secret heart of the book. A Wrinkle in Time comes as close as any work of literature I know to sincerely honoring the man of whom one of the few things we can say for sure is that he told us to love our enemies. (We also know that he was a member of an oppressed religious group ruled by an imperial power.) Yet it also understands how difficult this is, and even Meg, at the end of her journey, falls short of that ultimate example. It’s a line that reflects the personality of L’Engle herself, who was refreshingly empathetic and pragmatic in her faith, and whose books were always more about the search than about any answers that they provided. This search is a birthright that belongs to everyone, but to children of mixed or minority backgrounds even more urgently than most. Their construction of a self, of a personal history, and of their understanding of their own parents isn’t something that they confront in adolescence, as many others do, but as early as kindergarten—which turns them all into something like Charles Wallaces. You don’t need to be of mixed race to love this book. But it adds an interesting wrinkle.

Written by nevalalee

May 17, 2016 at 8:38 am

Writing on tablecloths

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Napkin drawing by Jay Park of Facebook

Writers will jot down ideas on any flat surface that happens to be handy, but one habit that seems to have vanished—along with cloth linens at most homes and restaurants—is that of doodling on tablecloths. I first encountered it as a young reader in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door:

Mrs. Murry looked down at the checked tablecloth, and at the remains of an equation which had not come out in the wash; doodling equations on anything available was a habit of which she could not break her husband.

As a child who had been strictly warned against writing on the furniture, I was struck enough by this detail to never forget it. Yet older novels and books are full of characters writing on a tablecloths, and it’s mentioned so casually that it seems to have been commonplace, as we see in Jack Olsen’s nonfiction classic The Girls in the Office:

He took me to Lüchow’s, and in the course of explaining something to me he began writing on the tablecloth with a pen. I had never seen that in my whole life; I was shocked! I said quietly, “Please don’t write on the tablecloth!” He said, “All businessmen write on tablecloths.” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen it before. Please don’t! It’s very hard to clean ink out of a tablecloth, and somebody will have to do it.”

In fact, you could write an entire history of the role of tablecloths in creative thought, although it appears to have flourished for a relatively short time, after the proliferation of cheap, easily laundered table linens and before their disappearance from most dining tables and restaurants. (It would have gone back at least to the early nineteenth century: legend has it that Schubert began composing his Octet in F Major on the tablecloth in a Viennese café. Much later, the songwriter Matt Dennis wrote the Sinatra standard “Violets for Your Furs” on a tablecloth while watching Billie Holiday perform at Kelly’s Stable in New York.) And it’s no mystery as to why the tablecloth provided such an attractive surface for noodling. With its large size and alluring emptiness, it was the whiteboard of its day, and it was right there at the diner’s elbow to capture any passing insight. Writing on cloth also offers certain tactile pleasures. And there’s the not inconsiderable fact that whatever notes you made weren’t meant to be kept. The tablecloth was a surface for daydreaming in two dimensions, not for writing anything that was supposed to last, and unless you begged or bribed the restaurant to take it with you, what you wrote down would literally come out in the wash.

Back of the envelope

Tablecloths at casual eateries can be hard to find these days, and when they do appear, they’re usually at restaurants that would frown on a customer defacing the linens. Fortunately, they were supplanted just as another convenient surface arrived on the scene: the paper napkin. A napkin, of course, is the proverbial canvas for unstructured thinking, or for rapid estimates that are only designed to guide more systematic calculations to come. (There’s even an entire book, The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam, devoted to making quick sketches for brainstorming, and although it’s a little too focused on business considerations to be useful for writers, Roam’s initial piece of advice is a good one: “To start, draw a circle and give it a name.”) What’s funny about writing on the back of the napkin is that it doesn’t really have a back: both sides are equally blank. The phrase seems to have arisen by analogy with the back of the envelope, where the distinction between front and back makes more sense, but it’s also appealing in its own right. A napkin is already disposable, and there’s no sense of permanence inhibiting us from thinking freely, but we aren’t even writing on the front of it. Both sides might look the same, but the back is where the real, unencumbered action takes place.

These days, if we don’t have a piece of scrap paper handy, we’re just as capable of taking notes on a tablet or smartphone, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the physical medium. Like a tablecloth, a napkin is an ideal surface for scribbling, especially with a felt marker or Pilot ballpoint pen, since the ink’s viscosity allows it to sink pleasantly into the surface. (Going back even further in time, we discover mentions of notes jotted down on blotting paper, which would have afforded many of the same delights.) And its folds, like those of an envelope, add an appealing sense of three-dimensionality: I’ve found that a blank piece of paper immediately becomes a more attractive medium for notes when it’s simply folded in half. I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing an envelope along whenever I’m going to be out of the house for more than a few minutes, and I’ll often prime it beforehand with a few notes on what I want to be thinking about that day. Sometimes I’ll even write down an Oblique Strategy or two to guide whatever brainstorming takes place. I could do something similar on my phone, or on the business cards I hoard for the same reason, but with its slightly larger area and foldability, an envelope all but begs to be used. Which only means that if you ever have a writer—or a composer—over for dinner, you’d better hide your tablecloths.

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2015 at 9:59 am

Quote of the Day

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Madeline L'Engle

The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. 

Madeline L’Engle

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2014 at 7:30 am

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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: Madeline 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

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