MIND MELD: Books That Hold Special Places in Our Hearts and On Our Shelves
Every book tells more than one story: there’s the one between the covers and there’s the one that the owner associates with it. It could be how the book was acquired, or a special personal memory attached to the book…
We asked this week’s panelists the following:
Read on to see the books people adore…
I was in Chicago the summer I was eleven, a week-long vacation with my family. We mostly visited museums because we were that sort of family, but we also spent an afternoon at a vast and wonderful bookstore called Kroch’s & Brentano’s, because we were also =that= sort of family. In the years since I have spent much time in Blackwell and Powell’s and the Strand, but at eleven, I’d never visited even a library as large. My parents gave my brother and me fifteen dollars each and cut us loose for two hours. Fifteen dollars went a long way.
The Lovecraft books were on the second shelf of a case in science fiction, just at chest-height, all turned face-out. These were mostly the John Holmes covers, a series of ghastly skulls draped with rats or tentacles or slime, and I was repulsed and fascinated. The rat-boy on the cover of At The Mountains Of Madness gave me nightmares for weeks afterward. I couldn’t bring myself to buy any of them, but there was one Lovecraft paperback with a cover that didn’t make my skin crawl, from a different artist.
This was The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The stories were amazing to me, about a dream world filled with monsters and ghouls and gaunts. It was a dark and terrible place, but Randolph Carter and Kuranes had mastered this dreamland, could walk alive through it and even shape it to their will. I wanted that sort of mastery and power. For an eleven-year-old girl, life is perilous in all the wrong ways, and mastery of anything at all — wearing the right clothes, not being hated by the others — seems unreachable. To master the dreamlands would be something indeed.
I read the stories in the car on the drive home, and then reread them many times, and imagined myself as strong. Unconsciously, I also soaked up words and images; a notion of how they could be used either sloppily or surgically to convey atmosphere; and a sense of the importance of setting.
I still have that copy of that book, and I still reread it. Sometimes I cringe, but mostly I am eleven again, looking into a world that terrified me but promised that mastery was possible, and that there was a shining city at the end of it all.
Space Captives of the Golden Men was the first SF book, indeed the very first book, I ever checked out of the library. It was not my first SF. My father used to tell us bedtime stories that came from Bradbury, Knight, and elsewhere; and my brother and I had written SF stories of our own. But this was the first real live book. The branch library was small and comfortable, and the librarian friendly. (She let my brother and me check out adult SF after we had run out of juveniles. As such, Space Captives has held a little squishy place in that big squishy place called my head.
Clifford D. Simak’s Ring around the Sun blew me away when I was eleven. I discovered it in the public library during the summer before they allowed me into the adult section. (SF was relegated to the oddball and adolescent materials off to the side.) Simak’s work made me realize I wasn’t alone–there were other people on the planet who had all these crazy ideas about alternate universes and stuff. It was through him that I discovered Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Laumer, and all those other amazing writers. He’ll always hold a special place in my heart.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings enchanted me when I read it at age 16, over my Christmas holiday. It made me want to be an elf and commune with the Ents. It was an important influence on me with regard to my love of nature and sense of commitment with regard to environmental protection.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s works — it’s hard to point to a single one; I love all her stuff, but if I were forced to narrow it down, I’d say the Earthsea trilogy and The Left Hand Of Darkness. She is a wizard writer who reveals so much about human nature with such economy and lyricism, it leaves me breathless still. Her examination of gender and family roles has been an important influence on my own writing.
Anne MacCaffery’s The Ship Who Sang and Dragon Riders Of Pern, for their fantastic ideas and strong women characters. TSWS was a major inspiration for Avatars, my telepresence trilogy.
Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Glory Road, Stranger In A Strange Land, and several of his short works (e.g., “They,” “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” etc. etc.) in particular. Like many, I found his women of child-bearing years heart-breaking, because they were so much better characterized than those of his contemporaries they *almost* achieved liftoff…but had this fatally narrow (and in my view exaggerated) need to breed to the exclusion of all else, that felt strained. Still, he created great characters, indulged in courageous social, romantic, and political experimentation, and his works often had a nose-bleedingly high sense of wonder quotient throughout. I sense the echoes of Mike in my artificial intelligences.
James Tiptree Jr. Anything of hers. Probably the most vivid in my mind are “The Screw Fly Solution” and “The Women Men Don’t See.”
Jane Austen. My favorite is probably Pride and Prejudice (but really, her others are wonderful, too). She was so very clear-eyed about the foibles of her peers and wrote about them in delightfully wry ways.
While I’m on romances, Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels. They are deliciously playful.
Alexi Panshin’s Anthony Villiers books. I love Torvald.
James Schmitz’s Telzey Amberdon and Witches of Karres. Yum!
All of these works still throw me into fits of joyous skiffy nerd raptures. I’ve read them all multiple times. There are others–I could go on and on–but perhaps I should stop there for the sake of your word count and our readers’ time constraints.
They all hold memories for me, the good and the bad alike, so instead of listing every book I’ve ever read, which would be tedious even for me and infinitely worse for you, I’m going to provide you instead with a list of the books that clearly influenced me. They were read a long time ago, for obviously as I grow older and more opinionated, and have been subjected to literally thousands of books, each has had proportionately less influence on me that those I encountered when I was far younger and far more impressionable.
Winnie-The-Pooh by A. A. Milne. I must have had it read to me 100 times when I was a pre-schooler. If nothing else, it got me interested in literature. I read it a few times to Laura 40+ years ago, and don’t remember being bored by it.
Lad: A Dog, by Albert Payson Terhune. I read all the Terhune books numerous times, though this was my favorite of them. They’re pretty awful in retrospect, but they got me interested in collies, and before the dust had settled Carol and I bred and exhibited 23 collie champions (naming most of them after science fiction stories and characters). In fact, the reason we live in Cincinnati is because in 1976 we bought the country’s second-largest luxury boarding and grooming kennel, which was located here.
Science Fiction Terror Tales, edited by Groff Conklin. When I was 9 or 10 my mother found me reading an EC horror comic and took it away from me. I complained that this was censorship. She explained that she would never censor my reading, just my looking (subtle difference there). I went right out to buy a horror paperback. The one I hit on, solely because of the title, was Conklin’s anthology. I still remember the first three stories by Ray Bradbury, Fred Brown and Bob Sheckley. Before I finished that book I knew what I wanted to do for a living, and for the past four decades I’ve been doing it.
The Moon Men, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Terrible book; I thought so even back in 1962 when I was a Burroughs fan. In fact, this was only half the book; Ace cut it into two thin parts. But this one had a blurb from the editor of ERB-dom. I had no idea what a fanzine was, but I knew “ERB” had to stand for Edgar Rice Burroughs, so I haunted all the major book and magazine stores in Chicago for months, looking for ERB-dom in among the digests, as well as next to Life, Look and Playboy. And never found it. Finally I asked Don Wollheim (well, Ace; I didn’t know who Wollheim was) to forward a letter to this mysterious magazine for me, and within three months I was its assistant editor, I was corresponding with fans all over the country, and we were making plans to attend Worldcon. I would have found the science fiction community sooner or later, but this probably took six or seven years off the wait, for which I am eternally grateful, as it has been my life ever since.
Killers in Africa and Hunter’s Choice, by Alexander Lake. Though I read all the Burroughs books, it was these two evocative memoirs by a white hunter from the early part of the last century that gave me a lifelong interest in Africa, which has seen me take a number of (non-hunting) safaris and write maybe 8 or 9 science fiction novels and even more stories about it. (I was thrilled to be able to bring them back into print a few years ago.)
Rain in the Doorway, by Thorne Smith. Another author I’ve outgrown, but all during my teen years his hilarious fantasy novels, of which this was the first I read (and probably the best) were my favorites. He’s probably the reason I’ve written so many funny stories and novels.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I think it’s easily the best American novel of the 20th Century. What impressed me then and now is that none of the so-called experts in the publishing world had any idea what he’d accomplished. It got a minimum advance, minimum publicity, and a minimum print run…until millions of us bumpkins out here in the hinterlands showed the self-proclaimed “elite” that they were wrong yet again. (Hardly a surprise, in literature or in politics.) That’s when I realized that if you’re done something proud you stick to your guns and you never let the well-intentioned elite emasculate it, even if you have to say No to a handsome offer or three.
Now, I have certain science fiction (and non-science-fiction) books that I cherish, that I read and re-read and re-re-read…but while they enrich my life, I can’t honestly say that they influenced it, except to encourage me to write better, and so they aren’t included here.
There used to be a small used bookstore near here. The delightful young owner, Erma Jean, mostly dealt in second-hand commercial paperbacks, but occasionally she’d acquire an interesting job-lot from an estate sale. I used to go to the store often to visit with her, and we became close friends. She knew that, as a writer, I tend to collect oddball reference books on a “just in case” basis. So one day she acquired a book that she set aside and gave to me as a present the next time I came in, saying it seemed just my sort of thing. To this day, it’s still one of the coolest books I own.
It’s a guidebook to China, published in 1921. The original owner (“H.S. Van Camp”) inscribed his name in it in Shanghai that same year. The book’s faded 300+ pages have chapters on dealing with “Brigands, Pirates, and Rebels,” speaking “Pidgin English,” sending “Telegrams and Posts,” and what to see in Imperial China, as well as well as printed advertisements for the businesses and hotels of the era. The book also contains many illustrations and maps, including nine (by now very delicate) full-color fold-out maps of China and its major cities (the map of Peking includes the Tartar City, the Chinese City, and the Legation Quarter; the Shanghai map offers lots of detail for the Foreign Settlements and a great bit blank space for the Chinese City).
Erma’s store eventually closed down as bigger bookstores moved into the area, and she wound up becoming a bookseller at a big local indy bookseller, where she was probably the most popular employee. Then, sadly, Erma died of leukemia when she was only 44. Everyone who knew her, including me, still misses her. But I have this cherished memento of her, and I still think of her every time I dust or pick up and open one of the coolest books I’ve ever owned.
I read books in phases. The first books I can remember being in love with were the “Fairy Books” eg, the Red Fairy Book, the Blue Fairy Book etc. Fairy tales. Then there were the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Those and his interplanetary novels had an effect that lingers. Stoker’s Dracula had an effect on me; I went through my Poe, my Robert Howard and Lovecraft and Moorcock’s Elric periods. I admire Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes still. I was affected by various classics, like the novels of Thomas Hardy and Dickens (especially Great Expectations), the poetry of Baudelaire, the novels of Kafka, Celine and Bukowski. But the books I can return to with the greatest satisfaction are the Hornblower novels of Forester, the fantastic fiction of Jack Vance–like the Demon Prince novels, and his Dying Earth books, and the literate seagoing adventure novels of Patrick O’Brian, for example HMS Surprise. Books that are both escapist but which are admirably constructed, which offer cogent observations on life, which resonate with the truths of the human condition–and no one fills those bills better than Vance at his best, and O’Brian…
Two Sought Adventure by Fritz Leiber – I attended most of my high school on Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio at Robert G. Cole High School. The school was relatively small and , by default, so was the school library. I frequently had to resort to the Post Library whenever I had a report to do and for reading material. When I arrived in San Antonio in 1967 I had three books in my library. I discovered many fine writers in the Post Library – JG Ballard, Fredric Brown, Robert E. Howard Gnome Press editions. They were all there. So was this title, the first exploits of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The stories were wonderful – like Howard’s Conan but quite different. I enjoyed the book immensely. Imagine my surprise when I later found it at a sale for $1. PROPERTY OF FT. SAM HOUSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY still stamped inside. I cherished that book. I later took it to a World Fantasy Convention and got Leiber to sign it. I could have purchased a nicer, non ex-lib copy over the years, but I wanted this copy and I still have it.
The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd – I have written elsewhere of how this book is my favorite sf novel and of discovering it at age 16. I still love it. My original copy was a Science Fiction book Club copy. I had a nice paperback copy later. After college, I looked for a copy and in the mid 80’s I found one from a high end dealer. It was $75. I talked with my wife and ordered the copy. I looked as if human eyes had never seen it before. Absolutely pristine. I had argued for the purchase saying that this was why I worked at my job, for house, food, and the pleasures of my books. I later acquired copies of all John Boyd’s novels in hardback first editions. When I sold my library two years ago, they all went away except this one. I buy all copies of his work I can find and I now have paperbacks of the early books but this remains my prized copy.
Nova by Samuel R. Delany – My other favorite novel is Chip Delany’s Nova. Both it and Last Starship are from the same time period – the beginning of the New Wave in the late 60’s. I read this in a SF Book Club hardback and later had a paperback. Being a Doubleday book, it was a little hard to find the first edition. Then one day I was looking over a catalogue from Fantasy Centre, a bookstore in London that served the SF community for years. They had a signed first edition for sale. I called London at 6 AM the next day (Noon London time) and ordered it. I forget what I paid for it, something like L8. A few weeks later it showed up. It had no dj and looked somewhat worn. I looked at the signature. It had been signed to M. John Harrison. I knew Harrison’s work, particularly The Pastel City and various Viriconium short stories. This made it special! I kept it for many years until acquiring a beautiful copy in dj. I gave the other copy to a friend and later got Chip to sign it at a Sercon. I still have this book.
Mists of Dawn by Chad Oliver – The first SF writer I ever met was Chad Oliver. He was a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas. I saw one day that he was giving an evening lecture on SF and I thought I would attend. But, I did not have any of his books, had not read any for that matter. I went to my favorite bookstore at the time, the Book Stall on Burnett Road. I checked the paperbacks. No luck. I was resigned to just hearing the talk when I saw a shopping cart filled with random items. I picked up a jacketless copy of Mists of Dawn from that cart. The binding was relatively clean but when I opened it up I saw two things. This was a Winston juvenile which featured the fabulous illustrated end papers with Alex Schomburg art showing monsters, aliens, robots all over it. The front free flyleaf was gone, removing half of that double page spread. On the now contrasting white page showing, the owner had written that magic word “FREE”. I took the volume and it was free! I attended the lecture and, afterwards, went up and presented that book for his autograph. Chad opened it up, saw the notation, and said something like “And well worth twice the price!” I kept that book for many years before replacing it with a nicer copy with the full endpapers and dustjacket. That is the one I got him to sign the second time and it still resides on my bookshelf.
Finally, Who Fears The Devil? By Manly Wade Wellman – In college I had a friend who was a Lovecraft fanatic and an Arkham collector. Bad news for poor struggling students working full time to be able to attend school, much less afford books to read. He introduced me to many fine writers, including Wellman. I found a paperback of this title and devoured it immediately. Around that time, the film version of the title was released under the abysmal name The Legend of Hillbilly John. It was an OK effort but Wellman deserved better. I later found an ex-lib copy of the Arkham edition at a used book store. It had the tape stains and pocket tears that mar many library copies. But, it also had the wonderful Lee Brown Coye dj still attached. For $3 it was a steal. In 1978 I went to my first World Fantasy Convention. There I met Stephen King, Fritz Leiber, Sprague de Camp, Frank Long, Hugh Cave, Jim Turner (the editor at Arkham House, later the publisher of Golden Gryphon) and I met Manley Wade Wellman and got my book signed. It still sits on my shelf even though I now have all the original magazines where the stories appeared and the wonderful Collected Stories of Manley Wade Wellman Vol 5: Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens (Nigh Shade Press) which contains all the stories again. Recently I’ve met many people who love Wellman’s work, primarily through the later Silver John novels. I love to watch when I tell them about getting this book signed.
Growing up, my siblings and I were too poor to own books. I was one of the library kids–those poorly dressed, old-shoes-wearing brats that spend hour after hour in the library on a hot summer afternoon, browsing the shelves for hidden oddities or interests, rubbing my perpetually runny nose on the back of my hand or sleeve so as not to get my snot on my fingers and thus on the books to stick the pages.
The books that hold special memories for me are the two or three shelves in the basement of the Lawrence Public Library that housed the science fiction and fantasy selections. Upstairs, there were racks of newer paperbacks, but they were tattered, missing pages at times, and they didn’t smell like books, not like the hardcovers on the shelves in the basement. Paperbacks are like scent-sponges, taking up the odor of their environment so easily. I could always tell when I was reading a paperback that had been previously checked out by a smoker.
They library had mostly stopped buying science fiction hardcovers some time around 1970, twenty years before I discovered the shelves. My earliest forays into the genre, before moving to Lawrence, had been in the company of Anne McCaffery and the other genre authors who had somehow made it onto the shelves of a grade school library. But here in Lawrence, I had found the hard stuff.
I read Gateway by Fredrick Pohl in a single afternoon, and realizing somehow that there were more in the series, I cajoled my father into taking me back to the library. No, the sequels were absent from the shelves. It would be months before I happened upon them. These were the days before electronic catalog systems, so there was no easy way to know when a book was checked out, or when it would return. Frequent trips to the shelves were the best method–sometimes you might spot the return cart and get a chance to pillage it before the returns before they made it to the shelves. Those were good days.
I found the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Manly Wade Wellman, and one of my still-favorites, Phillip Jose Farmer. All, in retrospect, almost certainly first edition hardcovers that today would be worth large sums to collectors, or at least they would have if they hadn’t spent their bookish lives in a dank basement, pawed at day in and day out by rude children like myself. Stains all the colors of the rainbow adorned its pages. I often found notes scribbled in the margins, or passages underlined in pencil. Some might have found these intrusions a distraction, but they did something very important to me. They made me feel like I was a part of something bigger, part of a communal experience in reading these texts. They connected me with other readers that I never saw in my forays into the library basement. Perhaps they had grown up and moved away.
I had little respect for the physical object that we call a book. The words inside, yes. The books are just vessels, and not ideal ones. I can still remember the first time I returned a borrowed paperback to a friend in junior high and he berated me for “breaking the spine.” I did not understand until he showed me the heavy creases along the spine of the book, cracking the thick paper and creating white lines through the letters of the title and author’s name. The first thing I did when picking up a paperback was bend it in half as hard as I could, otherwise, holding it open was a strain on the wrists. Even after his anger, I didn’t change my ways. The paperbacks that I own today are just as creased, if not more. I do not treat books as precious objects.
But I do have fond memories of them, and of how they have affected my life.
There are many, of course. With nearly all my favorite books I can vividly recall where I got them, and the times and places that I read them; they really do become a part of my life. There are two books though, that I immediately thought about with this question.
The summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I attended a three-week summer arts camp for students in Kentucky. Near the end, we creative writing students were schlepped over to a local independent bookstore for a field trip. We browsed for ages, and it was as if there were two specific books I was meant to find. I selected them purely based on title, cover and description–something I rarely do these days outside a library. The books I bought were Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion and an anthology edited by Thomas Colchie called A Hammock Beneath the Mangoes: Stories from Latin America. I credit these books with helping me find many others I’d love, and with introducing me–more or less–to a certain modern brand of fabulism and magical realism I hadn’t encountered in such a concentrated way before.
I remember reading The Passion on a scratchy floral-patterned couch at my grandparents’ over a couple of oppressively hot days, and feeling like I lived in this dark, fairy-tale version of Venice (the Russian brutal winter doesn’t linger in my memory as strongly). I find some of Winterson’s work–especially her later novels–problematic now, but then I simply found it remarkable. I read every book of hers that Vintage had in print at the time.
But much as I loved that novel, its influence wasn’t nearly as reality-altering as the work collected in Colchie’s anthology, which I still go back to on a regular basis. The anthology is organized by country and region, with many offerings from some areas to a single one from Chile (Isabel Allende’s “Toad’s Mouth”). I stayed up late the night I started it. It was a Friday, and it was the second story that hooked me–Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl.” It’s a brief, amazing story about the narrator who may be a boy, or a man, or an axolotl, becoming obsessed with axolotls in an aquarium. The story felt like a horror story to me then. And the next morning I got my mom to take me to a photocopier and I made copies of “Axolotl” and mailed it to all my favorite people from the summer camp. They must have thought I was insane. But from that collection I found Eduardo Galeano, indirectly, and Jorge Luis Borges, directly.
So when I think about that summer and art camp, I think about those two books, and vice versa.
When I was 13 in 1958, I was enrolled in the Teen-Age Bookclub (TAB) in my 8th grade speech class. TAB sold mass market paperbacks in regular publishers’ editions through a monthly catalogue distributed in schools. One selection each month was SF; and it was through TAB that I found The Forgotten Planet by Murray Leinster.
Though the book I bought was published by Ace, it was nonetheless a school edition: one half of an Ace Double. It had ads more Ace SF in the back, however, and gave an address from which to order an Ace catalogue–which I promptly did. Before long I had resold my original copy to a classmate and bought the double version with The Contraband Rocket by “Lee Correy” on the flip side.
Decades later I met G Harry Stine (AKA Lee Correy) and told him truthfully how much I’d enjoyed The Contraband Rocket, but it was The Forgotten Planet that, well… changed my life. It was great, and it was great in fashions that I could appreciate
The book is a fixup of three novellas, two of them published before there were SF magazines, while Murray Leinster (whose real name was Will F Jenkins) was still in his early Twenties. (They appeared in Argosy in 1920 and ’21.) The third was written more than 30 years later… but with light editing they fitted together in seamless fashion. The Stanley Melzoff cover shows a youth using the horn of a giant stag beetle as a spear while he faces a bumblebee as big as a cow.
In the novel version a boy struggles to survive on a world in which insects–arthropods; spiders are a particular threat–and plants have grown to giant size. He successfully battles varied monsters, welds together a tribe, and starts humanity back on the road to civilization (just in time to meet envoys from the society which seeded the planet with life millennia in the past).
This was a great adventure story, and it was hard SF–though not of the usually sort. Leinster’s monsters come from the French naturalist Henri Fabre’s Life of Insects but Really Big. It brought SF into my own back yard–literally.
I owe so much to that Ace Single of The Forgotten Planet. The book is still on my shelves; but more important, it has never left my heart.
Aged 12 or thereabouts, I was given some money by my Aunt Mary to spend while staying with her in her hometown of Farnham. I went straight to the local W H Smiths and bought the first six volumes of the Sphere paperback Conan reprints (graced with the famous Frank Frazetta cover paintings). My mother heartily disapproved, of course, and that was a bonus, of course. She said I’d wasted the money. I knew better. Apart from anything else, I was delighted to have had enough cash to have been able to purchase all six books. I am an inveterate, irrepressible collector of books and comics, and at the time those six paperbacks comprised the full set. I was also, and remain, a huge Howard fan, and his work has influenced me probably to a greater extent than I’d care to admit. Later books in the series, many of which I also own, are by other hands, and not as good. Those six are pure REH, and I loved them, and they still have pride of place on a shelf in my office, right behind where I’m sitting now, typing this. They’re a bit tatty but in surprisingly good nick, showing their age — rather like their owner — but still cherished and readable.
I was introduced to the book in fourth grade, when Miss Potter read the novel cover-to-cover for us after lunch break.
We were riveted. I remember telling my parents each night what had happened in the story that day. I particularly recall one scene, when Bigwig was leading the doe breakout from Efrafa in the thunderstorm. Everything had gone wrong. You could practically hear the class turtle scraping along his gravel, we were so tense and silent and worried. General Woundwort and his terrifying Owsla were pursuing poor Bigwig and all seemed lost. The General closed in on Bigwig, meaning to finish him right then and there.
The teacher suddenly read a line of dialog at the top of her voice:
Yark! Yark! Yark!
Complete pandemonium. Kehaar the black-headed gull had flow to the rescue, screaming down and attacking Woundwort like a Stuka dive-bomber. A class full of cheering fourth graders leaped to their feet, dancing in joyous excitement.
Watership Down is still a favorite of mine, and in my esteem one of the greatest novels ever written. After a long, hard search I recently acquired pristine copy of the illustrated version put out by Penguin/Kestrel in 1976, signed by the author himself. It now rests face-out as the focal point of my personal library.
Although I own a couple of thousand books, there’s only about twenty or so that hold special memories for me. Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, my favorite SF work, is one of those books. The copy I own is a well-read and worn Del Rey/Ballantine paperback edition from 1979, with beautiful but beat-up cover art by Barron Storey. I first read this copy of Fahrenheit 451 for a high school literature class back in the early 1980s. It was a hand-me-down from my older brother, who read it for one of his classes as a hand-me-down from our older sister. With our names written on the inside front cover, the book has my sister’s doodles and cryptic notes to friends on the end pages, my brother’s studious but barely-legible notes in the margins, and my overaggressive underlining throughout.
Another memorable book is The Grand Alliance (1950), a work of nonfiction written by Winston Churchill. My dad, who was more of a student of World War II than a bibliophile, gave it to me. My copy is the 1950 Houghton Mifflin Book-of-the-Month Club edition. In monetary terms, it’s only worth a few dollars.
Farewell to Shady Glade (1966), a children’s work by Bill Peet, is another book that holds special memories for me. One of my favorite books as a kid, I probably checked it out of my local library dozens of times. When I bought an ex-library copy through AbeBooks a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that Peet dedicated the book to Rachel Carson.
Lastly, I’ve got an old spiral-bound notebook that I used to record license plates from a six-week, cross-country car trip my family took the summer after I completed the 6th grade. Every time we entered a new state, I would start a fresh page in the notebook and record all the different license plates I saw.
I suppose the book that holds special memories has to be Inherit The Stars, which was what started it all off–the first book I wrote. It began as an office bet while I was working as a computer sales engineer with Digital Equipment Corporation in the UK, back in the 1970s.
Although there was much that I enjoyed about the movie 2001, I never understood the ending. I listened to all kinds of ingenious interpretations from various people, but they were all mutually contradictory and left me with the feeling that they were highly subjective, existing more in the eyes of the people doing the interpreting than in anything that was out there. When I commented on this one day in the office, one of my colleagues replied in the way that we all probably have at some time or another, “If you think you can write something that makes more sense, go do it.” I said I would, and the whole thing ended up as an office bet that I couldn’t write a science fiction novel and get it published. Well, to cut a long story short I did and it was, 1n 1977, and I was eventually launched into a completely new career as a consequence.
The punch line came years later, after I had moved to the U.S. and was living in Massachusetts, I had dinner with Judy Lynn Del Rey and Arthur C. Clarke in Boston one night and was finally able to ask him–the ultimate source–“What did the ending to that movie mean?” And I can quote Arthur’s answer word for word. It was, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” It was based on his short story “Sentinel,” which Stanley Kubrick had picked up during a visit to Arthur’s agent, Scott Meredith, and liked. According to Arthur, who was retained as a consultant on the set, Kubrick wanted to end it one way, while another Hollywood person wanted something different. “They ended up yelling and waving their hands at each other,” Arthur said. “I walked away and left them to it. That was what they came up with, and I’ve never really understood it either.”
I hate to stumble into a dreadful cliché, but the title that jumps immediately to mind for me is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You see, I’ve always been a voracious reader, but during my grade-school years it was always Adventure (The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, which, in retrospect, is probably more Fantasy-ish than I realized) and Science Fiction (Tom Swift by, erm…Victor Appleton II and any novel I could get my hands on by Michael Crichton) and dismissed Fantasy as being ‘full of unicorns and princesses, only for pansies and my mom” – an eloquent, but not terribly original opinion for a 10-year-old boy, but there it is.
Then, in the summer after Grade Six, for some unfathomable reason (probably very subtle hinting from my mother, if I know her), I picked up The Hobbit, and, well, the rest is history.
Needless to say, Tolkien blew away my preconceptions and opened a myriad of doorways to whole new realms of possibility. He began my love-affair with Fantasy and I try my damndest to read The Hobbit once a year, counting it as my second-favourite novel, behind only…
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon sat on my bookshelf for, literally, years before I finally read it. I think, more than anything, I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the hype heaped upon it. So it sat, neglected and gathering dust … which is rather fitting, when one considers the story within.
Then, with a 2 month Eastern-European backpacking trip around the corner, I figured it was finally time to dive in and give the book a shot. I began it on the plane ride over and Zafon’s words still haunt me, almost a year later.
The obvious combination of a life-changing nine-week period coupled with a hauntingly beautiful book have carved a special place in my heart, and I’d give almost anything to be able to be back in that place – rumbling traincar; the beautiful, rugged landscape of the Czech Republic and Slovakia; The Shadow of the Wind glued to my hand. Ahh, memories!
The final book that sticks out is The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, the first of his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, a classic in the genre. What’s interesting about it, though, isn’t how I fell in love with it from the first page, but rather how I couldn’t get into it, despite wanting to fall head-over-heels.
In fact, I read it three-and-a-half times before I finally discovered the beauty! The first couple of times I managed to finish it, even reading a bit of the sequel, The Stone of Farewell once, but just lacked interest in the story. One time I couldn’t even make it past the half-way point.
But, being a stubborn jackass, I picked it up for a forth time… and fell completely, utterly in love. I still can’t explain what the difference was this time (I was older; I had enjoyed Shadowmarch by Williams; I was a fan of slower narrative novels, like Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy), but everything just clicked and I burned through the rest of the trilogy in short order. I now considering Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to be my favourite completed Fantasy series. Not a bad turn-around, eh?
Of course, the list could go on forever (if I included the likes of Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, which saved me from getting jaded on reading; or The Elfstones of Shannara, which filled that void after I had finished Tolkien; or The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams, which is a huge inspiration for my Work-in-progress; or The Anubis Gates, which took me forever to track down and was worth every second of the search), but I won’t ramble… too much.
I am not sure how to answer this question, since the actual act of reading the books I best remember is not itself any act that involves adventure, romance, intrigue, peril, or anything worthy of memory. I neither had to climb a glass mountain, nor solve a cryptic riddle posed by a smiling and cold-eyed monster, nor labor for Laban twice seven years to check out a paperback from the local library.
But of the books themselves, that I can speak. In the life of every bookish person, there are a few favored books, read in the golden time of youth, that come to dwell in the imagination forever. The vividness of images, the strangeness and wonder of the settings, are burned into the heart: every other tale read after is compared to these golden tales.
The difference between a bookish person and a non-bookish person (often called “Philistines”) is that our formative thoughts, memories, and ideas, the things that shaped our character, come largely from books rather than from real-life experiences. The difference between a science fiction bookish person (often called “Slans”) and a non-science-fiction bookish person (often called “Muggles”), is that our formative ideas come largely from science fiction books, rather than books about real things. The difference between a science fiction bookish person (Slans) and a dork who dresses up in a Star Trek uniform when called to jury duty, or who puts down “Jedi” as his religion on a government census form (often called “Freakatrons”) is a matter of degree only.
I am sure there is some sort of Darwinian evolutionary advantage to living a life utterly disconnected from reality (often called “Psychotic”), but scholars have yet to identify it.
One such scholarly attempt was by Robert Heinlein, writing in 1950. He said we Slans are more imaginative than Muggles, and will be better able to adapt to the far-future year of 2001 when it arrives, with its moonbases, atomic-powered Mars rockets, contact with extraterrestrial life, the peaceful one-world federation government, prefabricated plastic houses, food shortages and overpopulation, public nudity, contractual group-marriages, and the end of the cult of the phony in art, not to mention breakthroughs in parapsychology- Heinlein said we SF readers will have foreseen these changes , and we will not be disoriented by the future shock.
I will not attest to that: 2001 has come and gone, and I am still gravely disoriented. Perhaps I read the wrong SF books needed to immunize myself against future shock.
But wrong or not, the very Book of Gold itself, used by Librarians to lure youngsters into joining their guild, could not hold more wonder for me that the books that formed my character.
The first science fiction book I ever read was Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. It taught me that if you want to get to the moon, or get anything else, you need to have a plan and follow it through. The book is about self-reliance, and the lesson is a powerful one.
For better or worse, this same book also contains the lesson that when your species is on trial by super-advanced aliens, and their worry is that you may be dangerous, aggressive or irrational, the right thing to do is shout defiance, to double-dare them to extinguish your sun, and boast that you will build a new sun and visit retaliation on them. So, I also learned the sin of pride from this book.
At a tender age, when I was too young to understand its implications, I also read Slave Girl of Gor by John Norman. At about that same age I read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, not to mention The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. The sadomasochist, the libertarian, and the anarchist characters depicted had nothing in common, except that they all agreed that marriage was a foolish institution and chastity was a bad idea. From these books l learned the sin of lust.
It was not until I was in college that I read that remarkable science fiction book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This book was a two-fer, since it taught me both wrath, disguised as self-righteousness, and selfishness, disguised as sweet reason.
(Do you doubt that Atlas Shrugged is science fiction? If so, let me point out that the main character is a hero-scientist who invents a miracle engine to harness atmospheric electricity, but engages in a secret conspiracy of his fellow superhumans to overthrow an evil Orwellian-type government, and has his ‘fortress of solitude’ not in the arctic (like his progenitor Doc Savage) but in California, hidden under a force-field of invisibility-rays. The bad guys have a sound-weapon machine called Project X, etc., etc. I honestly don’t see how this book differs from Nineteen-Eighty Four or Anmal Farm or Brave New World or Thomas Moore’s Utopia. When an author wants to write political commentary, science fiction is the only genre where he can speak bluntly and honestly, it seems. )
H.G. Wells , Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke and other progressive writers from Great Britain taught me that man’s nature is infinitely malleable: not only that it can be shaped for specific ends, but that it should be. Fortunately, I had also read That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, and so was able to put a name to this lesson: the abolition of man.
I read a number of rather bitter writers whose intent, as best I can tell, was to teach me the central tenant of progressivism, which is a feeling of entitlement for the possessions of others, technically known as the sin of envy: but in this case I was a poor student. I read the odd and unparalleled book Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, and I was so bewitched and fascinated by his unearthly vision that I entirely missed and misunderstood the lesson he sought to teach. It was not until years, nay, decades later that I was able to put a name to it: and it is the most lethal name of all, for it is called despair.
Admittedly, such books are rarities. Science Fiction tends to be an optimistic genre, and science fiction people tend to be forward-looking. From books too numerous to mention, that optimist, that hope, entered my character.
Now, lest we think my character turned out utterly wretched, let me hasten to point out some of the good influences shed upon me from my bookshelf:
Emphyrio by Jack Vance taught me to value truth above all things. This lesson stood me in good stead in my days as a newspaperman, when all around me my fellows were addicted to telling and believing lies.
World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt taught me that a best hero is not necessarily the strongest or the bravest or most ruthless, but instead is the most sane and rational, the one whose mind is best adapted to reality as it is, not as wishful thinking would have it. This lesson stood me in good stead in college: ironically, this sciffy space opera first published in a pulp zine was what immunized me against the lure of Hegel and Nietzsche and Sartre and Russell and other partisans of irrationalism. I could see their word usages were merely false-to-facts: a conflation of metaphor for reality.
The same glorification of logic and reason was in many of the science fiction yarns I met in my youth, from Galactic Patrol by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith to Mr. Spock on Star Trek, and it was not absent from Atlas Shrugged, or Starship Troopers or other books from which I may have also gotten less valuable lessons. Even in the children’s fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, And the Wardrobe an admiration for dispassionate reason is not absent. Professor Kirke famously laments: “Logic! Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” To put logic before emotion was a lesson burned into my heart from a young age, and has continued to serve me well. I am very passionate about being dispassionate, as it were.
There were of course books that shaped my character in subtle ways, ways I could not, without awkward ambiguity, put to name. The first fantasy book I ever read was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, which taught me that men do not see the unicorns in life, the wonder and the strangeness, even when she stands in moonlit-shining glory before their eyes; and this book taught me that the best spells in life are wrought when the magic does what it wills. The first book I bought with my own money for pleasure was The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft, which, oddly enough, has almost the same lesson: the fabulous sunset city sought by Randolph Carter through the marvels and horrors of an otherdimensional dreamland are his own childhood memories of his home. You may have also learned this from the movie-version of the Wizard of Oz, that there is no place like home.
Of course, for a bookish person, there is no place like home when the bookshelf is comfortably stocked, and you are blessed with a soft chair, a warm fire, a bright lamp over your shoulder, a cool drink at your elbow, and a few uninterrupted hours to open the covers of some well-beloved book of gold, and soar to distant realms whose stars are not like ours, far from the fields we know.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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