Books that influenced my life in one way or another (in no particular order):
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
I encountered this book in fifth grade – pulled it off the shelf in the school library because the title intrigued me – and ran head on into symbolism and allegory for the very first time at the Stone Table. I’m immensely grateful, in retrospect, that I didn’t have anybody around to explain things to me, because noticing and figuring out all the connections made the top of my head come off, in a good way: I’d never had any idea, before then, that you could do that sort of thing with a story. For a long time afterward, it felt like this nifty thing about the book that nobody knew but me.
Because, of course, I wanted to grow up and be a writer, like Jo March. (Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.)
The Iliad and The Three Musketeers
I think of these as a pair, because I read them both in the sixth grade, in unabridged translations, and between them they shaped my expectations of great literature . . . I think I was lost to the modern mainstream at that point. After that, I wanted grand themes, and larger-than-life characters, and panache. I loved the Odyssey, too, but it didn’t move into my brain and take over large chunks of its processing power for several days after the first reading, the way the Iliad did. Although Odysseus was, in some ways, one of my first literary crushes – I was then as I am now, a sucker for brainy heroes.
My Life and Hard Times
James Thurber became one of my style gods early on. I think that by the time I graduated from high school I’d already read through most of his available works at least once, and by the time I graduated from college I had whole swathes of it memorized.
Ordeal in Otherwhere
The first science fiction novel I read with the conscious awareness that it was a science fiction novel. After that, I read pretty much all of Andre Norton that I could track down.
The Miracle of Language
This was a paperback edition of a popular book on historical and structural linguistics, and how it came to be in stock on the wire rack in the local newsstand that was all my small Texas hometown had for a bookstore, I’ll never know. But I found it, one summer while I was in high school, and it was my first introduction to linguistics as a scholarly discipline. If one of the key experiences of adolescence is that moment when you realize that your elders have been lying to you all along about something – well, this book did it for me. I read it, and I realized (with the traditional unforgiving clarity) that all the stuff that they’d been telling me for years in English class about the way the language worked was Wrong, and that yes (cue the light bulbs and fireworks!), some of the insights I’d had all along were Right. I’ve been a language nut ever since.
Dragons, Elves, and Heroes
Lin Carter’s anthology for Ballantine Books of excerpts from the medieval source and analogue material for Tolkien’s works. I read the anthology because I’d read LOTR, but after I read the anthology I became interested in the source materials for their own sake. It was, more even than Tolkien’s work itself, the thing that kicked me in the direction of becoming a medievalist.
In Search of Wonder
Damon Knight’s collection of critical essays about science fiction. I found it in the university library my freshman year, and read it repeatedly. It did more to inform my science fictional literary aesthetic than almost anything else.
A Wizard of Earthsea
I read this one during the summer between high school and college, and (like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, earlier) it made the top of my head come off. None of the others in the sequence ever quite measured up to it, and by the time LeGuin got around to Tehanu I found myself wishing she’d left well enough alone several books back . . . but that first book was a wonder.