UNESCO is sponsoring World Book and Copyright Day (April 23rd, 2020), and this brings to my mind the recollection of many thoughts about books I’ve loved. Frankly, it is trite to praise books and reading, and in doing so we position ourselves as for what hardly any sane person is against. Even so, every reader has a few treasures that they grew up with, and perhaps still return to.
A few words about a few works of fiction that formed, and continue to form, the landscape of my imagination:
Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll): When I first started visiting my local public library, at the age of 7 or so, I stumbled upon – or maybe I was guided towards — the old standbys for children. I read Pinocchio (Collodi), and Peter Pan (Barrie) at this time also. I took up the habit of re-reading, and I have re-read some of these classics more than a dozen times. The Alice books are full of verbal play, and the stories took (to me, then) incomprehensible turns. They were mysterious and wonderful and, when I returned to them as an older reader, they continued to unfold with meaning.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade) (Mark Twain): Back as far as fourth grade, I think, I read the two of these in cheap editions from Whitman Publishing. (I can visualize the covers in my mind’s eye, even now.) I was enamored of the world of Twain’s boyhood and wished to go explore a cave or drift downriver on a raft myself. Huck Finn in particular rewards re-reading and has come to hold a substantial place in the scholarship of American literature. And, like any enduring work, it is not without its controversies.
The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien) and the Chronicles of Narnia (Lewis): I had read some fantasy, and a little sci-fi, before a friend shoved a copy of The Hobbit into my hand, saying (with that quality of enthusiasm only junior high students are capable of) “You’ve got to read this!” Reading Tolkien led me to many things – to Beowulf, to Dante, and (in part) to a master’s degree in Medieval History. Tolkien, whatever you may think of him or the genre, revivified epic fantasy, and bookstore shelves have been overflowing with it ever since. Looking for “more like Tolkien” on my first trip to England, in a college bookstore I spotted the Narnia books by his great friend C. S. Lewis. That encounter also led me down many other pathways.
The Marlowe Stories (Chandler): Raymond Chandler’s detective stories were a late-developed taste for me. I had seen the movies, of course; and it was following up on those, especially The Big Sleep (1946), that led me to his writing. Chandler was a master of a particular sort of noir-ish prose, and his dark hero, Marlowe, figures as sort of a modern knight-errand who takes on hopeless quests. I think the contemporary Harry Dresden series may owe more to Marlowe than some casual readers realize.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (Cather): American literature of the 1920’s produced many memorable works, now coming into the public domain due to their 95-year copyrights expiring. I hadn’t read many of these until it occurred to me, coming up on the turn of the century, that I ought to. While I could as easily have slotted a Hemingway, a Faulkner, or a Fitzgerald here, I think that this historical novel by Willa Cather stands with, if not above, most of them for the sheer, inescapable flavor of its setting and the subtlety and richness of its main character.
A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving): A meditation on friendship, on faith, on the American misadventure in Vietnam, and on many other things as well. Owen Meany is a straight-ahead, traditional novel, one whose plot and character development Dickens might understand were he around to read it. Like that of Stephen King’s novella “Stand by Me,” the setting reminds me of a past America I would otherwise barely remember.
The Dark Tower (King): Roland the Gunslinger’s world is in serious decay and encroached upon by corruption all around. It is King’s “Lord of the Rings” – which is to say, an epic fantasy with connections to so many other of his works that readers make a game of trying to find them. But if you were to watch The Magnificent Seven (1960) or any of the films Clint Eastwood made with Sergio Leone, or any of those Eastwood went on to make on his own, you should be able to mentally enter Roland’s world without any difficulty. It is a tough place to inhabit, albeit a rich and imaginatively engaging one.
Some of us, most of us I suppose, have new and unexpected time available for reflection now. I encourage you to consider thinking back about those books that meant something to you when you first encountered them and that have stayed with you. For my list, as it turns out, some of them are in copyright while others are in the public domain (due to their terms having long ago expired). There’s wonder and immersion to be had in many a good book – the old ones as well as their newer kindred.
“Of the making of books there is no end.” ( Ecclesiastes ) Thank goodness!