Thursday, January 15, 2009

What's Your Best Book?

What was your "Best Book"? An absurd question. And yet, in an online class I am taking on children's literature, I had to consider that question.

So...what is a "best book"?

In my mind it is a book which is influential or somehow transformative.

“Best” is a book that resonates, allowing you to forge a connection that will travel with you through life. I could easily mention A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle. Or perhaps The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

But let me instead talk about a book that became my “Best Book” because I knew it wasn’t my “Best Book.”

The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key was one of those titles that the Detroit public schools sold once a year through a Scholastic Reading program. As a ten-year-old, I recall being drawn to the fantasy of it. This wasn’t a fairy tale, nor did it address its fantasy element in a condescending way. It treated its subject with respect and in turn respected its reader.

The story, the journey of a boy from another planet who somehow drops through a dimensional gate to land in our world, fired my imagination. It’s the sort of tale that makes you pause on the front porch as the summer’s evening draws around you, and stare at the stars to consider the possibilities.

But the Forgotten Door was a safe book. It was one of those titles the adult world gives children with a pat on the head. It was predictable and delivered the positive message one expected to find in a school library.

However, I heard something else.

“Keep reading kid,” it said. “If you like this, you should see what’s on some of those shelves you can’t reach. Or they won’t let you reach. Nudge. Nudge.”

You see? The Forgotten Door itself wasn’t a “Best Book”, but instead a guidepost. It pointed me to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It guided me to the works of Heinlein, Bloch, Matheson, Tolkein, and Asimov.

I could mention numerous other titles that were more stimulating, thought-provoking and memorable, but The Forgotten Door , although I felt at the time that it wasn’t anything special, gave me that peek and welcomed me into a community. Bradbury would become my grandfather. Asimov, my uncle. Vonnegut? The next-door neighbor who partied all night long and kept the rest of us awake. Lovecraft lived in the house at the end of the block and warned everyone away with closed blinds and crabgrass lawn.

I didn’t think about sharing that community with friends. Most of them seldom read and anyway, a ten-year-old needs something to claim his own. Books were power.

In the fifth grade, reading The Forgotten Door, joining that community, enjoying the secretiveness and excitement it offered, I decided one more thing. I recall closing the book and thinking: “I can do that.”

I can write. I can tell stories, too. For some reason, The Forgotten Door helped me recognize writing as a person’s creative expression.

I knew I wanted to write, not because the book was special ( I clearly remember feeling it was okay, but not great), but because I suddenly understood what writing represented.

At ten, someone would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A writer.” I would answer.

Some things don’t change. Or shouldn’t.

27 comments:

spyscribbler said...

I could never choose! I remember fifth grade as the year of the dog, only because I read all those dog books that made me bawl, then. I also read and re-read the Indian in the Cupboard. And The Hiding Place. I always was eclectic.

I haven't read Heinlein in about fifteen years, and yet he remains one of the most influential. And I didn't know I wanted to be a writer. It chased me. I was actually writing and claiming it on my taxes for about five years before I suddenly realized with COMPLETE shock: ohmigosh! I want to do this!

I'm pretty focused. I decided in third grade I was going to be a pianist and I never considered anything else, LOL.

SQT said...

When I was a kid my favorite book was "101 Dalmatians" by Dodie Smith. I loved that the book was told from the dog's point of view and they referred to their owners as their "pets." It was a turning point book for me. It allowed me to look at things from another perspective and read things that were more imaginative. It was that book that turned me on to "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Engle and "The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis. Such an innocuous book, "101 Dalmatians," but it was the star I steered by for many years.

Charles Gramlich said...

If I had to pick a single book that was most influential on me, I'd have to go with "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Stewart Sternberg said...

spy

I love dog books...but I've become psychotic over the years. I can't sit in a dog film without sobbing. Even a happy one. I remember sitting through TURNER AND HOOTCH..the dog dies. I took a ten year old. When I returned home, the ten year old was smiling, and I was still trying to recover from the trauma.

As for Marley and Me? There's no "F"n' way I'm going to subject myself to that. I'll be suicidal.

So you were electic, eh?

SQT, funny how something can spark. I believe books can be transformative. It's one reason why it is so different to quantify. Love of a book, especially in children, is such a reflection of the child.

Charles, why? Why that book? And how old were you?

Sidney said...

Ah, a gateway drug.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Would it come as a surprise to anyone mine was A Wrinkle in Time? I also loved John Bellairs and Lois Duncan books (which is probably where the girly/romance seed started)

Gwendolyn said...

Oh! I LOVED The Forgotten Door!!! I read it in fourth grade. I will never ever forget that book. In fact, I've been trying to find it so my daughter could read it. She would just love that book. I can't find it anywhere... I, too loved A Wrinkle in Time. She is reading the series right now. The Anne of Green Gables series was also a huge favorite in elementary school. I've been a writer since I was eight. I don't know what made me want to be a writer, but I read so much as a kid I used to pee my pants because I didn't want to stop reading to use the facilities. My parents have lots of great stories about me and compulsive reading...

Stewart Sternberg said...

Gwen,

I think if you look on Amazon they have copies available. I am sure of it. And "Wrinkle In Time" , yes, it certainly is another one that has done a good deal to stimulate youngsters and capture imaginations.

Zoe Winters said...

Yep, I always wanted to be a writer too. And I think I always had the vague notion that I'd marry a man who would work while I stayed home. I don't think it ever "truly" entered my head that I'd ever get a "real job." And I stick by my plan, unless the only other option is living under a bridge someday.

And I love the blog redesign!

Donnetta Lee said...

Long, long before the Narnia movies, my brother and I were reading CS Lewis. I, too, followed the path straight to Burroughs, Heinlein, and also Asimov. I've never regretted it. Wonderful stories. I'm going to go looking for your "best book" and see if I can find it. D

Stewart Sternberg said...

ZOE.
I think the problem with wanting to be a writer is that it is sometimes too romanticized. I recall all these fiction books I read during my youth, it happened that so often the protagonist was a writer. Hell, with writers having such freedom and so many adventures, who wouldn't want to be a writer?

DONETTA.
I apparently the Forgotten Door became quite a favorite. I have started reading some of the web pages about awards for young adult literature. I'll be doing a posting about it. But it makes one stop and think about what criteria we use in deciding what is valuable for our kids to read.

Middle Ditch said...

Kazan the wolf hound. When I was nine. My first book given to me as a birthday present and the first birthday present ever it was too. I cried my way through it and it made me love reading and then writing even though that was not encouraged and I dropped writing for a long time.

Rick said...

I'd have to go with "A Study in Scarlett," by Arthur Conan Doyle. Throughout the years, the opening scene is still as fresh as the day I turned the first page.

Jon said...

The Tom Swift series. Common enough for you? Also Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

etain_lavena said...

Awesome awesome post:)
My imaginary friends made me want to be a writer, I guess tell the story of the unseen....:)

I laughed so much at your Lovecraft idea.....so true....

Stewart Sternberg said...

RICK. JON. Why? Why those books? What was the allure? What do they say about who you were at the time?

ETAIN. How is life in your part of the world these days? I thank you for the compliment. Being a writer, the need for expression, is what makes us who we are as a species and certainly it is what defines us as a culture.

Rick said...

Well, my dad said he'd pay me a dollar if I read the whole story and both quit shooting the neighbors chickens and planting evidence pointing toward the kid down the street.

Stewart Sternberg said...

RICK
Some of this stuff gets a little threatening for you, doesn't it. If the dosage isn't working, ask the doctor to up it.

Avery DeBow said...

It actually took me a while to discover fantasy. As a kid, I clung to Louisa May Alcott, Francis Hodgson Burnett, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Then came high school and an obsession with all things Stephen King. It wasn't until college when I found The Mists of Avalon and my eyes opened up to a whole new world.

Akasha Savage said...

Up until last year, if anyone had asked me what was my 'best book', I would have had no hesitation in telling them it was IT by Stephen King. And then I read Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - a mammoth read of 900+ pages. This book has truly been an amazing influence to me; not least because Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It is a powerful tale set mainly in Bombay, loosely based on the author's own experiences. Even talking about it now has made me want to fall between its pages again. I urge anybody who has not already done so to read this powerful book. It does not disappoint. :)

laughingwolf said...

stoker's dracula is a keeper....

Jon said...

Alfred's mag was great because they intoduced me to the accessable short story, written, it seemed, by regular people. And I remember thinking, "I can do that!" Got my first rejection slip from them.

Virginia Lady said...

I had a similar epiphany with "Escape to Witch Mountain". It opened up a world without the same rules as our own. It freed my imagination in a whole new way, and it started my quest for more stories of similar nature.

Christina said...

I don't know what my "best book" would even be at such a young age. Strangely, I remember stories, just not the names of the stories, from when I was young. I know my mom had so many books that I would sit and flip through to look at random pages, but nothing comes to mind as far as names, just pieces of the stories. I guess I wasn't very observant. Maybe that's something I've taught myself in the last twelve years. Yikes, right?

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

I didn't really have a specific book until twelve. Before that, I wood repeatadly check out books about mythology, King Arthur, and mysteries (Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, etc). I would occasionally buy a sword and sorcery or horror anthology, but mostly I read comic books.

At twelve I lost my faith, discovered heavy metal, and read H.P. Lovecraft for the first time. I experienced a trifecta of angsty nihlisim that has never quite gone away. Lovecraft's title story from "At the Mountans of Madness" was the first story to give me nightmares; vivid, delicious nightmares. It has infused and informed my work and as well as many other writers with far more skill.

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

Wow, did I really write "wood" instead of would? My shame knows no bounds : )

Zoe Winters said...

hehehe, I've always been a homebody so I always secretly hoped those glamourous writer lives weren't true. Finding out I really can just stay home and write, was thrilling to me, haha!