Monday, July 18, 2005
Blogging from London, on the "business" leg of my business-and-pleasure trip (the pleasure leg consisted primarily of a tour of the city's playgrounds - unsurprising, given that my not-yet-3-year-old son was along). I do need to get back to work, but I wanted to take a brief moment to respond to Russell Arben Fox, who tagged me with the book meme: name five books I read as a child or young adult that I still would re-read and recommend to other adults.
First, some background. I had no taste in literature - no sense that there was such a thing as appreciating literature, as opposed to just knowing what sort of thing one liked - until well into adulthood. I was a voracious reader, but I read mostly pulp like this. I read the usual boy novels as well, and read them over and over in some cases, but I didn't really differentiate that well.
Next, there are any number of books that I read as a youngster and was very impressed by, but either I've revisited them and they don't work the way I remembered them or I've revisited them and they don't work at all. For example: I went through a real John Varley phase, and let's put it this way: for all that I still think he can write, for me, his vision has not persisted. Then there are the books that I suspect I would have liked had I read them as a kid, but I only met them as an adult, like this. I obviously can't mention them.
Then there are the books everybody mentions. I never got all that into Tolkien, and when I re-read a couple of the Narnia books as an adult they were not the books I remembered loving. Or maybe it's just that my wife introduced me to Hans Christian Andersen and that spoiled me. As for a book like The Hitchiker's Guide: yes, it's funny, even very funny at times, and a perfect book for a certain sensibility, but it's not a book you can recommend to an adult because, let's face it, if that adult is the sort of person who'd enjoy the book, then he's surely read it already.
Meanwhile, if you really loved The Phantom Tollbooth, you need to stop polishing that apple. Now.
Three books that I should mention but won't because if they haven't already been mentioned by others then I don't know what they were wasting their time reading: Animal Farm, Through the Looking Glass (which I liked better than Alice in Wonderland - read both many times, of course), and Watership Down. I trust these need no introduction nor any recommendation by me; listing them merely tells you the kind of person I was and am.
So here's my list:
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain. In my more megalomaniacal moments, I still daydream of founding a school and calling it, "The Man Factory." And our politicians still seem to think you can tranform a culture by teaching the thuggish aristocracy to play baseball. But that's not why I remember this book with love. Why do I remember it so, and why did I re-read it over and over in my pre-teen and teenage years, and again as an adult? Well, suffice it to say that if I had a daughter, I would be sorely tempted to name her Hello Central.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. Starship Troopers certainly works, and has its morbid fascination for an adult. (If your son is a little too into it, you could have him read The Forever War as an antidote.) Stranger in a Strange Land is his most ambitious book, and has more than the requisite quotient of sex to keep an early-adolescent male happy (though I wonder how much that matters anymore in the age of internet porn), but Heinlein's unresolved feelings about the religious milieu in which he grew up ultimately cripple the work (can you articulate how Heinlein ultimately feels about the Fosterite church? or give a good reason why Valentine Michael Smith should have what amount to magic powers?). Mistress suffers from no similar problems. It has a compelling narrative; it has a coherent "point" (science fiction unfortunately usually does - in this instance: to make the case for a libertarian society); and it has two of the very few real-seeming characters that Heinlein ever created - Boris the computer technician and Mycroft the computer. I still tear up when I remember Mycroft's "death." It's one of very, very few science fiction books that I would recommend to a non-science-fiction reader.
Danny Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl. If I recall correctly, I read this in third grade as part of a contest at school to see who could read the largest number of books in a month. I wound up reading this one three or four times (but I still won - ha!). My father was nothing - but nothing - like Danny's, a fact I suspect I share with very nearly every boy who has ever read this book, and which explains much of its appeal. So what. This book is not just the ultimate male domestic fantasy (be a gypsy! live in a trailer! live by stealing! with your Dad!) but a beautiful and moving bit of what I'd have to call Romanticism with clear glasses (well, reasonably clear); there's something Wordsworthian about the book without any of Wordsworth's . . . words. If you know what I mean. Anyhow: it's still good, now that you're old. Read it.
There Will be Time, by Poul Anderson. I like obviously like time-travel stories, and this has something of a father-son theme as well now that I think about it. Is this a great book? No, this is not a great book. Is this even a good book? Not entirely. But it has such potential. The premise is that our hero (not the narrator; the book is narrated by a surrogate father figure, the family doctor, who befriends the hero when the hero is old enough to have grownup friends) is born with the ability to travel through time. He's also not alone, it turns out. What I remember so vividly about the book is its evocation of the world of the 1950s (when the "present" of the novel is set) and the various historical periods that our hero visits. It's a sad story in many ways; the hero suffers and loses a great deal, and the book wanders off on a less-than-entirely-interesting tangent to wrap up the plot and bring things to at least somewhat a "happy" conclusion, which leaves one remembering the sadness rather than lifted out of it. I credit this book more than any other with awakening an interest in history (an interest I initially fed mostly by reading other Poul Anderson time-travel novels, I must admit). And I will admit to something else: I have a longstanding ambition to re-write this book in some fashion so that it might better achieve its full potential. I'm not sure I'd recommend this book to just anyone, because I know it ultimately isn't a successful book. But it meant a lot to me, and when I re-read it as an adult, I wasn't embarrassed by what I read.
Godel, Escher, Bach. The ultimate intellectual-geek-kid book-as-accessory. I got this for what, my 10th birthday? My 13th? I forget. I read all the dialogues and skipped the boring parts in between. How many years was it until I finally slogged through the whole thing? But in the meantime, the book had awakened me to a whole field of knowledge, and to the very idea of philosophical reasoning - not to mention to the dialogue form. This is a beautiful, enormously fun book, and - like the Lewis Carroll books - it keeps giving new things as you re-read it at later ages.