Monday, March 22, 2010

The books to blame for what you see

X. Trapnel suggested the most influential books meme, so here goes. The trouble with answering this honestly is that I have to list a bunch of stuff read at very young ages. I suppose there are people whose character and values are relatively malleable until college or graduate school, but I am not one of them. Not to say that my values haven't changed over time, but my way of looking at the world has remained fairly constant, regardless of what conclusions I draw from that perspective. Part of me wants to call bullshit on the idea that all of one's most influential books could possibly be those you encountered at age 18 or 20, but I suppose the sad fact that many young boys do not read fiction is to blame.

In order of exposure:

1. The Wizard of Oz: I'd read all the Baum books by age five or six. My first exposure to an immersive fantasy world. My parents eventually took the books away because I ate, slept, and breathed Oz. Probably all my years of reading speculative fiction are based on a subconscious yearning to return to this original state of blissful wallowing.

2. Mythology: The beginnings of an obsession with ancient Greece and Rome that led me to spend a birthday in Delphi, a week hiking Hadrian's wall, and years writing bad poetry with classical themes. I read this countless times. Anything with a mythic theme or allusion will strike a chord with me, and it's all because of this book.

3. The Lord of the Rings: Another immersive fantasy world, but one I was self-aware enough to manage my engagement with.

4. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: An introduction to the absurd, to the concept of probability, to the immensity of the universe, and to the idea that it's not about us.

5. Watership Down: It's the Aeneid, with rabbits. And it's a beautifully written piece of literature.

6. Gone With the Wind: I read this one summer in middle school when I was babysitting two rambunctious boys and two giant, flea-ridden hound dogs. The only escape was when the boys were napping and I could retreat to the formal living room, where the dogs had been trained not to go, and read about southern belles and yankee soldiers. This book is a baneful and horrid influence on a developing romantic psyche and reading it may result in doomed yearnings after pale, cerebral, ineffectual men, or alternatively for someone bold to take you firmly in hand. Which leads to ....

7. The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged: As I have previously noted, reading Rand at a young age does weird things to your brain, especially if you're a girl. You should be incredibly brilliant, you see, or you're a gutless parasite that deserves to starve, and your ideal romantic partner is an even more incredibly brilliant asshole, and to fully respect your values it's necessary to find that brilliant asshole and fall at his feet. Because it's not self-abnegating if the dude is really, really smart. Or something. This and GWtW are influential primarily in the sense that I've spent a lot of time getting over them. Nobody actually wants to date the unholy fusion of Scarlett O'Hara and Dagny Taggart.

8. Stranger in a Strange Land: An interesting and even necessary counterpoint. If Rand is the left brain's idea of love, Stranger in a Strange Land is the right brain's. Nobody can grok John Galt, missy. There's nothing to grok, for one thing, and you wouldn't want to if you could. His mind would taste like metal alloy. But this does suffer from the common Heinlein weakness of being a little too in love with men and maleness.

9. Atheism: The Case Against God: I needed something to kill off the lingering aftereffects of weeks of foot-washing by well-meaning Baptists in central Texas. This did the trick neatly.

10. The Handmaid's Tale: The catalyst for a feminist consciousness that's persisted to this day, although Atwood kind of gets on my nerves by this point. The logical endpoint of too many people's ideologies, even if being confronted with the conclusions that follow from their premises baffles and upsets them.
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