Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”
Anne Terry White, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (1960).
They’re all here: Theseus, Narcissus, the Volsungs, Beowulf and Grendel, Charlemagne, Tristan and Iseult, all strikingly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Finding this book in my elementary school library was like falling into a whole new universe, one I haven’t quite climbed out of yet.
Literature I: The Oregon Curriculum (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
When my fifth-grade teacher saw me reading The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, he decided I was ready for this more advanced textbook. He marked the Greek myths with a paperclip, but I soon moved on to the Norse myths, literary ballads, fables, folktales, and short stories, not knowing I was reading Aesop, Goethe, Kipling, Poe, William Morris, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Graves. Thirty years later, I’m amazed by the breadth of this book’s gorgeous color illustrations: ancient and medieval art from India, China, and Scandinavia, colonial American folk art, and paintings by Breughel, Rembrandt, Chagall, Grandma Moses, Calder, Warhol, Dürer, and Klee. Could we even publish such a sophisticated textbook today?
All of those hardcover Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks from the early 1980s.
Judge me if you must, but I stand by what I wrote in my appreciation of Gary Gygax: “[f]or those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community.”
Commodore 64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. (Commodore Business Machines, Inc., 1982).
We humanities types blather on about “critical thinking skills,” but if you really want to create English majors who can ace an upper-level college course on symbolic logic, make them program a computer.
Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1980).
I bought this book in high school on the recommendation of a friend who went on to become an engineer. I didn’t entirely get it, I don’t think I finished it, and I doubt I’ll ever return to it, but the lesson was useful: The world is full of people who are much smarter than you are, and you sound like a fool when you call their work “weird” or “esoteric” just because you don’t understand it.
J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953).
It’s exciting to be 17, and to be charmed by a book, and to think, “I want to write like that.” Only when the author kicks the bucket 20 years later do you realize what his book was trying to tell you: “This isn’t the sort of thing you’re meant to write.”
Ben T. Clark, Russian: Third Edition (Harper and Row, 1983).
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning on your first day of college, no one can yet imagine a world in which the Berlin Wall falls and “Winds of Change” is the #4 song in America, and you’ve never seriously studied another language—but within minutes, you’re learning a new alphabet, holding rudimentary conversations, and absorbing terms and concepts that will help you dabble in languages for years to come. Спасибо, Ben T. Clark.
Henry Treece, The Crusades (1964).
I still have my crummy paperback copy of this lurid pop-history, which introduced me to all sorts of wild medieval nutjobs, including Pope Urban, Peter the Hermit, Peter Bartholomew, and Henry Dandolo. Wanting to understand why angry mobs would tear people apart for the sake of relics, I became a medievalist—and as a result, here you are, reading this blog.
Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, Fifth Edition (Blackwell, 1992).
So maybe you don’t grow up to become an Anglo-Saxonist. So what? Spend a semester working through this tome and you ought to agree with C.S. Lewis: “The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students.”
A.S. Byatt, Possession (1990).
Few novels matter, so it’s nice when a work of fiction speaks to you, offering assurances that leaving grad school is okay—and that trying your hand at writing might be more fun than making a career out of studying the works of others.