Here are five books that I really loved at different times of my life. (Funny, how you need different kinds of books at different times in your life.)
THE BLACK STALLION by Walter Farley -- The first and only fan letter I ever wrote to an author was to Walter Farley, author of THE BLACK STALLION. I was seven years old. I got an answer in the form of a publicity piece for Farley's new novel. I didn't care; I was a happy seven-year-old. I thought that he wrote it directly to me.
I loved all kinds of book series when I was a kid – Walter Farley horse books, Hardy Boys' mysteries, all of Beverly Cleary's books. I think back to my childhood reading. There were many good books, but I remember a lot of comic books, too. And the ever-present World Book Encyclopedia. There are some great books that I'm sorry I missed when I was young, and some fantastic new literature for children that was written after my childhood: Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. How lucky are kids today to grow up with these books to read – and how much do I look forward to reading them to my grandson Calder?
But that first Black Stallion book was very special to me. Hell, I still love looking at beautiful horses. (On my Facebook page, I recently put up a photo about going to Santa Anita Race Track for breakfast at Clocker's Corner just last week, to see the horses work out. Pure heaven.)
One interesting thing: in researching for this blog, I found out that Walter Farley wrote THE BLACK STALLION while he was an undergraduate at Columbia. Cool!
SCARAMOUCHE by Rafael Sabatini -- My father turned me onto Rafael Sabatini when I was about ten. He introduced me to many of the books that he loved as a kid: "The Scarlet Pimpernel" by Baroness Orczy, "Beau Geste" by P.C. Wren, "Penrod" and "Penrod and Sam" by Booth Tarkington, and others. But the ones I really loved were the swashbucklers by Raphael Sabatini. I loved fencing, a sport I picked up at summer camp, and Errol Flynn movies, too. Camp and Errol Flynn movies are mentioned in my novel. I write what I know.
I wonder if anyone reads these books anymore. "Captain Blood" and "The Sea Hawk" and "Scaramouche" and that kind of historical fiction. Have they all been supplanted by science fiction, Tolkein-like fantasy, and dystopia? I sure liked dueling against scoundrels in my mind when I was a young reader. I think a real sabre is a more elegant weapon than a light-sabre.
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger – Like a million other teenagers, I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and his story. What I didn't realize was that I was falling in love with J.D. Salinger's beautiful style. Millions of readers love this book because it's a wonderful read. Every teenager can identify with Holden as a fellow foe of the world's shallowness, materialism, and insincerity. Everyone can read along and hear Holden's precocious/naïve voice as his or her own.
I've written out a series of articles that I'm going to issue on my writing of WHAT IT WAS LIKE, and there is a whole chunk on the influence of Salinger on my book. The shadow of that narrative technique – "the smart kid's kvetch" – looms large over my book. The narrator of my novel mentions a whole lot of books as he goes along, but he never mentions "The Catcher In the Rye." (Nor "Huckleberry Finn," for that matter, and for many of the same reasons.)
And it's not just that I didn't want to call attention to a classic that humbles me and my book; any mention of "The Catcher in the Rye" in a novel about a young killer would be a howling cliché. John Hinckley? Mark David Chapman? Come on: every famous young killer is into "Catcher."
Salinger is a figure of much controversy these days, as much for his personal life as his fiction. OK, maybe he was a creep; but damn, he could write. I read "Nine Stories" many times, and "Catcher?" I honestly don't know how many times I read it. There's nothing wrong with writing a great book that is easy to read, is there?
Is Salinger overrated or underrated? "The Catcher in the Rye" sells 250,000 copies a year, every year, for a total of 65 million copies since its publication. Salinger is one of the very few modern novelists who is beyond rating.
A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS by V.S. Naipaul -- I could have picked out other enthusiasms from my adult reading (Paul Valery, Saul Bellow, Raymonds Carver and Chandler, George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen -- or my perennials Beckett and Joyce -- or my eventual Ultimate Master, Count Tolstoy), but I'll mention my strong jag of reading of V.S. Naipaul as being especially influential.
I've read quite a few, but not all of the books of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprassad Naipaul, but the first one I loved was A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS. It's the book that made Naipaul's international career. I think that he has books that cut deeper, books that seared my mind more like "A Bend in the River," but A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS is a very special book.
Naipaul is, for the most part, a brilliant, cool, calculating, distant writer – someone who examines his characters with almost clinical detachment. But there is a warmth and love in MR. BISWAS -- even as Naipaul satirizes and bemoans the crumbling post-colonial world that became his Great Subject – that give the book an almost Dickensian humanity. I think that A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS is the only book that, as an adult, I've read twice.
From what I know, V.S. Naipaul is not a very nice man. Entire books have been written about the hurt feelings he's engendered. But "Trust the art, not the artist." He certainly has that relentless, irresistible x-ray eye that as a writer that I desperately long to emulate.
WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT by Daniel Walker Howe – Like many older men, I've gotten into reading a lot of history books. I've always read a lot of non-fiction for research for things I've been working on, but several years ago, I really got on a history jag. Especially American history – to help me understand this crazy country of ours that I love.
I've read long books on the Civil War, Lincoln, Gettysburg, the American Revolution, the Mayflower, World War II, FDR, Bush v. Gore, etc., etc., but no book impressed me as much as WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Taylor Howe. The subtitle is the giveaway. Everybody knows about the big wars and famous people – the Revolution and the Civil War, Washington and Lincoln ("Chaps and scraps!") – but this is the book that shows how we got from the Revolution to the Civil War. It's about America's adolescence – and you know how difficult those years are.
One of the best things about reading history is seeing the parallels and repeating patterns of human behavior. In some ways, people don't change. (Hell, in some ways, we're still cavemen!!) But it is very interesting to see how the particulars of an era play out, demonstrating the universality of human behaviors, especially when narrated by an excellent historian like Howe. The era this book describes confronts issues that perfectly parallel our own crazy age: the all-important raw material that affects political decision-making (cotton, then; oil, now), the ground-breaking new technologies that upset the existing order (telegraphy, steamboating, and railroading, then; the digital revolution, now), the religious controversies (the Great Awakening and Mormonism, then; fundamentalist Christianity and Scientology, now), and wars of dubious origin (the Mexican War, then; the Iraq War, now.)
The book shows how very little America and its "issues" have changed in two hundred years. The particulars may vary, but some things -- racism, greed, ignorance, selfishness, short-sightedness, fanaticism -- are eternal.
Howe's book is long – almost 900 pages – but it's worth it. It's a real eye-opener and mind-expander. And I'm not the only person who admired this book: it won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2008.