I was involved in a discussion recently, probably in response to various Ray Bradbury tributes (see earlier entry), about those books that have proven most influential in my life. I'm big on lists, so I thought I would give it a go and reflect a little on those titles that helped inform me or define me as I grew up. Time to get personal. Let's try things roughly chronologically:
1. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss
This was early Seuss, written in 1938, just a year after his debut with And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. I well remember how this book struck a chord with me. I must have read it hundreds of times. It was unlike most other Seuss efforts in that it lacked the iambic/anapestic rhythms that are his singular trait. When I reflect upon it, I must have been emotionally charged by its story of unfairness. Bartholomew offends King Derwin, of the Kingdom of Didd, in an act of deference to the king. He removes his hat as the king passes, but another hat appears under the first. As each one is removed, the king becomes more incensed that a new one alights on Bartholomew's head! That Bartholomew is sent to the chopping block spoke to my sense of fair play. By the time the 450th hat appears, the hats begin to become more ornate, until their extravagance and rococo stylings baffle all around. It is a Seuss book, so a happy ending is inevitable, but the scare of seeing Bartholomew sentenced to death gripped me and no happy ending could really act as assuagement! I have been profoundly troubled by unfairness ever since!
2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'EngleThis book came out when I was nine, and I must have read it a year or so later. So much science fiction was being published at that time! The country was fascinated by science. In 1958, marine biologist Rachel Carson topped the best-seller list for six (count 'em, six) months with The Sea Around Us. Think of that. A book about marine life dominated book sales for half a year! Imagine that today. Jacques Cousteau was filming the ocean floor and that footage was appearing in movie theatres. The space race was on. New inventions, like the laser, were gripping the imagination of all Americans. It was quite a time. This book was my first introduction to the world of physics, with its sketched notion of space portals ("wrinkles in time"). It was unusual to read about a female protagonist, Meg Murry, and her genius little brother Charles Wallace was a unique creation too. I did not know at the time that the publishing world largely dismissed L'Engle's manuscript as too bizarre. I just knew that in their struggle to find their missing father, the characters would face evil in horrifying forms. Like most children in fairy tales, they would need the assistance of other forces, and they would need to look deep inside themselves. The word tesseract entered the American vocabulary thanks to this wonderful book. Amazingly, it has been a frequently banned book over the years and to this date! I think it's time to go back and reread it!
3. Batman/Detective Comic Books by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Others
What can I say? From the age of five or six I devoured Batman stories. I couldn't afford comic books usually (they were 10 cents apiece!), but I got them in trades or people gave me old copies. Sure I read all the other comics in the DC world (From Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Mystery in Space to the lesser Sgt. Rock, Strange Adventures, and Teen Titans.) I read them all. But Batman was the ne plus ultra. The greatest comic book character ever with the greatest villain (The Joker) ever.
When I look back I can see how the character was a little like Zorro crossed with Sherlock Holmes by way of Hamlet. Like Hamlet, he clearly had "daddy" issues; the scenes of gunsel Joe Chill murdering Bruce Wayne's parents and leaving him an orphan were seared into my brain. So, ultimately, the Batman mythos is not unlike an extended revenge play. Just like Hamlet. I had many favorite issues. The two pictured above were among them. Yes, DC went alien crazy in the late 50s and early 60s. And in late 1964 they re-envisioned the character. They turned to my favorite penciller ever, Carmine Infantino, and updated the stories, eschewing alien visitors thankfully. The Bam!-Pow! Batman of 1966 on the television screen was offensive to me, but I watched it nevertheless. These changes did prevent DC from ditching the character altogether during that period. Really exciting things were going on in DC's upstart rival, Marvel Comics, and I bought early issues of many titles, including Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Avengers, Daredevil, and X-Men. Wish I still owned them. I largely left behind the world of comic books during the 70s, but there was a great revival in the 80s with reconfiguring publications by the legendary Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and a little later, my favorites--Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale.
Batman has become a movie franchise multiple times now, from the Tim Burton version to the recent interpretation by Christopher Nolan, the first interpretation, however flawed, to take the character seriously. I will always appreciate that. My love affair with Batman is life-long. I wish I still had the wooden scrapbook I put together as a child honoring the character who has so influenced my internal life.
Below: The covers of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns and of Loeb's and Sale's The Long Halloween.
4. Big-Time Baseball Don't know how many times I read this book, which I was given when I was about eight-years-old. Still own it, though the cover is off. Wonderful stories about the oddities and wonders of the game pre-1960. Photos of up-and-coming stars like Mickey Mantle. Don't think Sandy Koufax was even a presence in this book. Lots of data about Merkle's Boner, Ruth's "called shot", and Christy Mathewson, a childhood hero. Spent dozens of hours poring over every page. Helped form the fan I am today.
5. The Colors of Space by Marian Zimmer Bradley I suppose I could have picked Encyclopedia Brown, or the Hardy Boys (I even purchased the hard-to-find Hardy Boys Detective Handbook in case I went professional as a gumshoe), or any of a number of childhood passions. I pored through illustrated encyclopedias (I read the A-B volume more times than I care to recall! The W-Z volume not so much.) and dinosaur books and Three Boys series books, and Classics Illustrated comic books, and so many others. The Colors of Space seems a good choice. Quality writer with a wonderful story-telling capacity. It's the tale of Bart Steele, newly graduated from the Space Academy. He is seeking the alien-held secret of interstellar travel. This book also came out in '63, and has some of the same issues as A Wrinkle in Time--the physics of the universe and an absent father.
6. Unknown Illustrated History Book It didn't look much different from the book above, except the boards were dark brown. My family had numerous old books in the basement, from medical books to encyclopedias. My favorite was a certain collection of historical events, each depicted in a bold black and white illustration, an etching really. Each event garnered a single page drawing with a box containing an explanation of the import of the rendered historical moment. It was here I first learned about Hannibal crossing the Alps or, my favorite, Horatius at the Gate of Rome improbably warding off Etruscan hordes single-handedly. Great way to while away the time on a rainy afternoon.
7. Hitchcock/Truffaut by Francois Truffaut Perhaps the most influential book in my adolescence was this collection of interviews of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, by the eminent French New Wave director and critic Francois Truffaut. My recollection is that excerpts from Hitchcock/Truffaut appeared in the pop counter-culture magazine called Eye, one of many magazines I read religiously in my early teens. I had to purchase Eye Magazine because the library didn't carry it and many issues contained posters for my bedroom walls. That doesn't seem right, though, since the magazine wasn't published until early 1968, a full year after the release of the book. I'll have to do some digging on this. At any rate, I read an excerpt somewhere and was fascinated by it. One day my mother took me shopping in Manhassett, the Miracle Mile, and in B. Altman's or Bonwit's or some store I came across a copy of the book. I believe I had to beg my mother to buy it for me, but I took it home and read it from cover to cover. Many times! I was very familiar with the works of Alfred Hitchcock in 1968. My brother Steve and I had watched Rear Window, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Birds, and others when we were little kids. His pictures were my favorites, and he remains the most influential artist of my life. I have, to date, devoted well over 500 hours (Update: 750 hours) of my existence just watching his films, not counting reading about them and studying them. Back then people dismissed his films as suspenseful melodramas, but Truffaut's interviews confirmed for me what I had always suspected but was too inarticulate to say: Alfred Hitchcock was the great existential artist of our time, an examiner of man's morality and the workings of the human mind, especially the disordered mind. He was a 20th Century Dostoevsky. This book propelled me into the study of film, as well as the works of Hitchcock and Truffaut, a passion that has been integral to my life. I doubt I would have a Masters of Cinema Studies degree today had I not discovered this book so many years ago. Today I own the revised and updated edition as well as the actual interview recordings. It's a gem.
8. Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis I'm sure I became interested in the law well before I read this classic. There were many legal-themed shows on television, including The Defenders, which examined hot-button issues back in the early to mid 60s; Perry Mason; East Side West Side; and Judd for the Defense (a big favorite of mine). I loved this book. I think I was in 9th grade when I first read this work, and soon I made sure to read Anthony Lewis in The New York Times twice a week. Eventually they made a TV movie with Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon, the lowly prisoner who petitioned the Supreme Court that he had not been given a fair trial because he had not been properly represented. Thanks to Gideon, all perpetrators have the right to an attorney. Sadly, today prisoners are often represented by state-provided legal practitioners who are ill-informed or apathetic about their clients' cases. Money still talks. Still, the book is a great tale of the underdog triumphant. I have been a fan of legal books ever since, I love reading about the Supreme Court, and I could easily have chosen law as a profession.
9. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury Basically just go back and read my Bradbury tribute. The most important writer of my youth, Bradbury produced this "novel" (which is just a collection of Martian-themed short stories) in 1950. I must have owned a dozen different copies in my life. Bradbury said he was strongly influenced by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, another book I taught to high schoolers. Of course he pays homage to Poe as well. The book has been banned frequently because it satirizes racists, capitalists, etc. I remember that Bradbury was one of the most highly regarded American authors in the old Soviet Union! He was just a plain progressive liberal, though, in an era where Joe McCarthy made Ike look like Eugene V. Debs! Well that's it for now. I may add a few more as they come to me. All formative experiences for a young reader.