There’s a book meme going around Facebook these days, which I’ve followed with a bit of interest, but haven’t yet chimed in on: something like “name 10 books that have stuck with you [which means a lot of folks have listed things they’ve read in their childhood]; don’t give it too much thought [an attempt to try to stem second-guessing – is this book highbrow enough, does this one make me look like an idiot?]; tag 10 people [no way I’m doing that].”
Anyway, I’ve seen responses to the meme enough times that I can’t fulfill the “don’t give it too much thought” requirement; yes, I’ve thought a bit about what books made (or twisted) me into who I am. And I’ve tried to separate out things that I’ve read over and over and over, but which didn’t really sink in on the first reading (Ulysses, for instance, which I didn’t really “get” when I read it at 16, but by god have gotten in the dozen or more readings since), and things which I’ve come to over the last 20 years or so.
So here, in no particular order:
William Shakespeare, Macbeth – and a lot of other plays, which I must have started reading in 3rd grade or so, first the Classics Illustrated redactions, then the whole plays, following along with Old Vic recordings. Only now, thinking back, do I realize how much Shakespeare opened up the possibilities of the language to me.
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience – probably the first books of poetry I ever read on my own, after Dr. Seuss.
L. Du Garde Peach, Oliver Cromwell (A Ladybird Book) – my parents bought me this wee hardback, sumptuously illustrated in alternate color pages, on a trip to London when I was maybe 9. I blame it for my 4-decades'-long obsession with the English Revolution and all things Puritan. (Rereading it for the first time in many years, I'm surprised to find it a pretty balanced overview – no whitewashing Drogheda, for instance.)
TS Eliot, The Waste Land – I read this sometime in high school, after a teacher described it as "incomprehensible"; yes, I was that kind of cocksure, jackass hs student, who wanted to comprehend the incomprehensible; suffice it to say that no, I didn't understand the poem; but by god it stuck.
Michael Moorcock, The Cornelius Chronicles – I had already read bales of MM's trashy sword & sorcery novels when I bought the fat Avon paperback of his 4 Cornelius novels, but they sure didn't prepare me for the radical narrative disjunctions of the last 2 of those books, The English Assassin and The Condition of Muzak. But MM's narrative techniques primed me for disjunction in modernist poetry and postwar prose more than anything else I read in my teens.
JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – okay, I didn't actually read these the first time through: my dad read them to me. That is, until about 3 chapters into Return of the King, when he had to forgo bedtime reading sessions for a stretch; I couldn't wait, so I soldiered thru the worst of Tolkien's high-falutin Maloryisms to finish the book myself. And it stuck.
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time – who knows how many times I read this book? It taught me that it was okay to think, okay not to be cool, okay to be a "geek."
HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear and Other Stories – I can't say this one "influenced" me in any way besides depriving me of a lot of sleep, shivering in anxiety at every ambient noise.
Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination – now we're getting into college; Tom Gardner lent me this one. For better or worse, it's probably shaped my life. At the very least, it taught me that expository prose could be a pleasure, rather than just an instrument.
Ronald Johnson, The Book of the Green Man – of course I came to Johnson by way of Davenport; everybody does, right? And if my student poems sounded like a cross between Johnson and Davenport's Flowers & Leaves – well, one can do a lot worse for beginners' models.