As I’m preparing to edit and query my manuscript, I’ve been thinking about all the books that have influenced me over the years. I read voraciously as a kid. When I didn’t like what I saw when I looked around me, I buried myself in printed pages, and the hours would go by. Books were my drug. In elementary school, every report card I took home said that I had “poor time management skills”. I still laugh when I think about my teachers who wrote that. Of all the things I’m bad at, I don’t think poor time management is one of them. If anything, I had excellent time management skills. It was a choice between finishing a captivating novel and reviewing the multiplication table that my tiger mother had already drilled into me. I think I made the right call. It wasn’t until junior year of high school that I developed the willpower to put a book down and pay attention in class. When I think back to that moment, I feel somewhat sad. After that, responsibilities and fear of failure took over, and I never read the same way again.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen may have spawned my fantasy of winter survival. In elementary school, my best friend and I created a hideout beyond the fence we were forbidden to traverse. On a tree branch, I hung a plastic bag that I’d filled with a clock, a few books, and other “survival tools”. Continuing the winter survival theme, I devoured the Julie of the Wolves series. I wanted to get wolfdog until I realized that you practically need a zoo to house them. Then Jean Craighead George did it again with My Side of the Mountain. I didn’t know if everything she wrote was realistic, but I wanted desperately to believe it. Like everyone else in my fifth grade reading class, I got my heart broken by Where the Red Fern Grows. Everything about that book has stayed with me — the Ozarks setting, the random facts about raccoon hunting, the bond between a boy and his dogs. A few weeks ago, when I was driving up to a ski resort in Vermont, the woodland landscape and log cabins reminded me of the book.
The Giver by Lois Lowry, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Patterson, and Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand were three books that blew my mind the first time I read them. It wasn’t until I reread them a year or two later that I felt like I understood them. The last scene of The Giver was both disturbing and comforting. As a kid who didn’t enjoy a lot of my childhood, I wanted there to be something else out there for me, some parallel universe I could escape to. I remember feeling guilty while reading Jacob Have I Loved. Though I didn’t understand why, there was something stirring about the erotic imagery describing the young protagonist falling in love with an old man. I was nine when I read Seabiscuit for the first time, and I’m curious now what I actually understood. There’s a scene in which a prostitute in a Tijuana brothel smokes a cigarette out of a “creative place”.
I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was somewhat older, in high school probably. Though C.S. Lewis’ writing style often bothered me, like his frequent use of the second person, I loved Narnia. I knew it was supposed to be an evil world, but the idea of permanent winter didn’t seem all that bad to me. To this day, my favorite part of skiing is when you’re high enough on the mountain that you can’t see the base, and you’re surrounded by trees weighed down by heavy clumps of snow. Narnia, I think to myself.
When I was 12, I got baptized, and my mom was supposed to get me a Christian book as a present. Of course, I then went and picked out the most scandalous book in the store, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. The cashier gave my mom a look and asked if she was sure. It was probably the first adult fiction book I read. I got a pretty quick education in prostitution. From there, I continued the theme of twisted love affairs with The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans and The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. In eighth grade, I discovered Jodi Picoult, and I read everything she’d written and would write for several years. That year, I also read The Da Vinci Code, which was so riveting I couldn’t put it down through my entire piano recital, only stopping briefly to play a Bach fugue. In high school, there was also the requisite Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham and James Patterson, but I can hardly recall a single detail from any of their books.
Looking back at the most memorable books of my childhood, I’ve noticed that they aren’t spectacular literary works. I recoiled at my first taste of Shakespeare, and I have yet to acquire a liking for it. Out of the classics we were assigned to read in school, the only one I truly read was East of Eden. Even then, I skimmed all the boring parts. How to Kill A Mockingbird just didn’t do it for me. Neither did Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby. My favorite books were the ones that told a great story and didn’t allow their writing to get in the way of that story. Keeping that in mind, I’m trying to take some of the pressure off as I edit. I’m not trying to write the book that English teachers assign in a century. I’m trying to write the book that people will remember in 20 years, the one that people will want to read with their friends and family. What excites me most about parenthood is the opportunity to share my favorite books with my kids. I guess, when the time comes, that might include my own books.
What were some of your favorite books?