Sunday, March 08, 2009

Influential Writers, Annotated

In the comments to the shorter version of this post, Sisyphus pointed out that since I had tagged myself, that I'd need to do this meme twice, which seemed cause for some really self indulgent book blogging...To wit: the influential writer's meme, annotated as memoir. Part One.

King James's translators and a long history of commentators: My folks started attending church together when I was quite young. First they began as choir members, and then my father began to conduct the choir. And by the time I reached 4th grade, we were attending an evangelical church. Like so many young evangelicals, I wore my faith on my sleeve, and knew the Bible stories backwards and forwards.

At some point in middle school, I followed my parents in their New Year's resolution to read the entire Bible in a year. I read it cover to cover several times over the next several. I was a champion bible verse memorizer, and these were my allusions in early creative writing. Lord knows why I never found an early affinity for Milton, since the devotion to text and faith were complete.

I say that the Bible and its commentators were early influences for two reasons. The first is the obvious, which is that my moral and ethical upbringing always returned to this book and its commentators. In many ways, that moral upbringing was repressive, and I have abandoned it in most literal ways. But others of its lessons remain: judge not lest ye be judged, let him without sin cast the first stone, do unto others as you would have them do unto you...these are more than just aphorisms; they represent a philosophy that established to me that the msot ethical way to function in the world is through compassion and an honest and diligent attempt to imagine others' experience of the world, rather than to make judgements (and act on those judgements) based only on my own experiences. (See Harper Lee below).

The second is the more important, honestly, and it is simple. From the bible I have taken a sense of the importance of the word. The Word became flesh after all, and so I studied these words carefully. It's why I have always preferred King James, and always will, since it is the only translation in my experience that pays attentio to the language as language, whereas modern translations seem much more interested in trying quite futilely to be some kind of transparent window onto some other inscrutable divine intent. In the end, it was the Bible that taught me how to read, read closely, and to apply the ethics of texts and of language to the world around me. This I retain. There is no small irony, then, that this sense of reading carefully and closely undermined my faith in this text as literal dogma, but I still find solace in its language, if not precisely its theology.

Editors of the World Book Encyclopedia: My folks didn't have truckloads of cash to spend on books before say, high school, and while I occasionally went to the town library, it wasn't on any of our regular routes, so I was always racking up library fines. And I used the school library some too. But I read in torrents with little in between, and so often when I was bored, I'd sit down in front of my dad's 1950's childhood set of encyclopediae and just start reading. I think it became apparent to them that as a precocious child, I'd need something a bit more up-to-date, and so they laid down the money for the complete set of the World Book Encyclopedia. Whenever I'd come into the room and say I was bored, and mom would suggest I'd go read, if I said I didn't have anything, she'd ask, only partially in jest, whether I'd finished all of those World Book volumes. And so I got in the habit of plopping down in front of the one dedicated bookshelf in the house, picking a volume, and reading.

I loved the ones on different countries, and the colorful entry on flags still sticks in my head. dozens of school reports referenced these books, and when puberty hit, I got a fair number of (insufficiently tawdry) details about sex from the S volume. I suspect that were I to go back and do a cultural studies reading of any one entry, I'd find all sorts of ways that cultural hierarchies are reproduced by publications like these, which probably partially explains the amount and degree of re-enculturation I've experienced since I left home for college.

Judy Blume: Of the books I did get from the school library, Judy Blume was my most frequent source of fiction (Though I read a lot of Beverly Cleary, too. I quite remember Dear Mr. Henshaw resonating quite a bit). I don't vividly recall most of Blume's books, especially not the way many people of my generation recall, say, Are You there God? It's Me Margaret. But the ones I do most remember are Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and its sequel Superfudge. Something about an older brother being outdazzled by a mischievous younger sibling felt very familiar, and the attitude that the main character (Peter?) took to his younger brother seems to have shaped, subtly or not, the way approached my similarly boisterous younger sister. That's still a tricky relationship, though one made much more mutually appreciative by adulthood, but let's just say that Judy Blume gave me a few tools for that one.

C.S. Lewis first contact. In the sixth grade,I devoured Narnia, blowing through TLtWatW in a day or so, and moving greedily onto the next. As a thoroughly indoctrinated Christian, I was already quietly attuned to its allegory, and I was at an age where the very idea of allegory was awfully cool. I read the whole series two or three times, and read Voyage of the Dawn Treader several more times over. It was my first really memorable experience of reading greedily, something that I rarely do anymore, but when I do, it feels like a sweet spot, taking me back to the walnut-paneled bedroom with the inch-think green shag carpet. I'd click on the hot lamp clipped to my headboard, reach over to grab my plastic-framed glasses, and start in. I'm guessing my folks told me to put down one or other of these seven books and go to sleep many, many times over the course of that year.

Lewis's fantasy seems quaint now, especially in light of the technicolor films that were out over the last year or so. But it seems significant for me that these books provided a pretty clear pathway from the kind of sanctioned, often devout reading experiences I'd had to that point, and the kind of pleasures of the text I've since learned to love enough to make into my life's work. In fact, though I was no great reader of Tolkein, I've always wanted to teach or at least take a graduate course on Lewis, Tolkein, Rowling and Pullman. Lewis stands (for me) at the start of that list.

1 comment:

undine said...

World Book--yes. Who can forget those full-page color pictures of flags and those of breeds of cats and dogs? I didn't read Judy Blume (still haven't), but I still remember vowing, and, of course failing, to read it all one day.