A Solipsistic History of Me & Books
Posted on July 4, 2012
I cannot say when it began. My parents so assiduously recorded and replayed my childhood that I am unsure which memories came from experience and which from the glass-eyed video camera. Like most French novelists, I carry impressions of the past that manifest themselves in shades of light, smells, tastes, and sounds. There is too much of what others have told me about my childhood for me to maintain any semblance of objective reportage. So I’ll not try.
What I will and can tell you–with some accuracy–is that I fell in love with books at a young age. It’s a tale as old as time and in no way novel (pun intended). My first serious infatuation centered on a series of books by Susan Cooper called The Dark Is Rising Sequence. Though the details are a bit murky, I remember young children discovering a secret cave by the sea, crawling through boarded up crawl spaces to reach hidden rooms, and battling the forces of evil with powerful amulets. My connection with these books was instant and enduring; never since have I identified so much with a book’s protagonist(s).
Goosebumps was the next logical step. Every copy of the 100 plus books in the Goosebumps’ series had a textured title with raised lettering. This, coupled with the standard beginning scare, relatable characters, and seriously spooky creatures made for a memorable literary addiction. The choose-your-own adventure spinoffs were even more thrilling; now you didn’t have to knowingly groan at the characters’ stupidity when they decided to split up while being chased by a werewolf-vampire hybrid–you could directly affect their fate by the choices you made. The power was intoxicating, but I’d often read with one (or two or seven) fingers holding my place at critical parts of the book in case I happened to make the wrong choice and fall into a vat of mutant jelly.
Animorphs followed, as did all the Lord of the Rings trilogy–including The Hobbit, which I inhaled in a single day. Though I was never smitten with comics, I had a special place in my heart for the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. I aspired to be in Calvin’s club, “Get Rid of Slimy Girls” (G.R.O.S.S. for short). The coolness of belonging to such a club–aided in no small part by the awesome treehouse where club meetings were held–was catnip to my grade school boy’s imagination.
Naturally, the land of Narnia managed to claim a large stake of my heart. Aiding and abetting the power of the books was the curious BBC miniseries, which featured humans dressed in ill-fitting beaver suits and an Aslan puppet that looked like he could have been a giant midway ring toss prize. For all its flaws, the miniseries was deliciously campy and surprisingly poignant. The Magician’s Nephew (with its inspired Wood Between the Worlds) and The Last Battle (with its description of a reality where you can run without getting tired) still thrill me as works of philosophy disguised as children’s books.
When the Harry Potter books first started coming out I was in middle school. Between bouts of body image anxiety, hormonal turbulence, and exploratory trips to Abercrombie & Fitch (where I bought a number of pre-faded $30 t-shirts), I luxuriated in Ms. Rowling’s impeccably realized wizarding world. I am not nor ever was a begrudging Harry Potter fan either. While some of my friends spent their high school years avoiding the HP phenomenon because it was “uncool” or the books lacked “literary merit,” I was an open–even conspicuous–reader of the books. I did so because nobody I asked could satisfactorily answer the question: “what’s hipper than a Hippogriff?”
Around that same time I stumbled across Ender’s Game. As an insecure but fairly intelligent middle school boy, Ender’s Game pandered to my poorly conceived dreams of grandeur. I kept waiting for the moment when military brass would come knocking on my door and inform me that, due to my superior intelligence and leadership abilities, I had been offered a spot in a flight academy where I would work toward saving the earth from an imminent alien invasion. Compounding my weakness for such fantasies was the fact that Ender used video games as training tools. Truly, this was an adolescent boy’s dream come true.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was next on my radar. Its blend of proto-steampunk imagery and epic world-hopping (complete with a trip to the underworld itself) kept me glued to the pages. I often imagine that Pullman’s books bear some spiritual kinship with James Gurney’s awesomely illustrated Dinotopia. It’s had to say why I think this, other than I wish Gurney had illustrated all of Pullman’s books with his lavish, borderline impressionistic paintings.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I grew interested in a few of Ayn Rand’s novels during high school. The Fountainhead‘s siren song of confidence and self reliance almost dashed my brain on the hollow rocks of objectivism. I remember clutching that chunky paperback in the hallways between class, feeling as if I were holding onto some life preserver of surety in a sea of ignorance. While Rand’s prose wasn’t anything special, it did have a cadence that produced a curiously hortatory effect. As most people who sheepishly admit their onetime infatuation with Rand, I now see her books’ biggest flaw was their assertion that ego, greed, and lust can be harnessed for good. Unfortunately, many people haven’t seen the light, and Rand has left quite a legacy of “have your cake and eat it too” thinking.
Thanks in part to a few fantastic teachers, my high school days weren’t a complete waste of reading time. During my senior year I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and was forever ruined for other books. In my opinion, no writer has been able to portray the simultaneously inane and sublime aspects of human nature as Dostoevsky did. To feel yourself sliding down the sieve of insanity during an interminable Russian summer is to read Crime and Punishment. And though Dostoevsky failed to include it in his title, this novel is about crime, punishment, AND redemption. There’s everything that humanity can sink and rise to in this novel.
The last real protean stage of my reading development occurred the summer after I had graduated from high school. On a church trip to Mexico, I fortuitously chose to bring along a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I can’t say with certainty whether it was the unrelenting heat, Marquez’s nostalgia laden prose, or some unholy combination of the two, but I was immediately converted to the church of Magical Realism. In short order I had read all of Marquez’s books and half of his two-volume autobiography. It seemed to me that more truth was to be found in the fantastically unreal than in the significantly mundane. Although I still count myself a fan of Marquez, I’ve cooled in my torrid love for all things magical.
And that about concludes this solipsistic journey through my personal reading history. All the books I read in and after college are just icing on a thoroughly baked cake. If I ever become a famous novelist, maybe some graduate student will happen upon this little self indulgent piece and write a dissertation on how my reading Goosebumps as a child affected my later work. But, being somewhat self aware of my potential, I doubt this will ever be the case. I hope you enjoyed reading this, and I look forward to looking at books with you!