Monday, October 26, 2009

The Book(s) That Changed Your Life

(editor's note: I started this post a week ago, prior to my announcement about wrapping up LoM. I am not entirely satisfied with the post, and considered dumping it. But, heck... Here it is.)

Recently "This American Life" ran an hour on "The Book That Changed Your Life". The stories went in directions I wouldn't have expected, but for those of us who grew up in houses littered with books (and that includes most Leaguers as near as I can tell), and who cherish the object of a book as well as the content within, I think its worth a listen.


The criteria I'm using is not "These are the best books I've ever read", or "these books will make me look real smart-like". Instead, the list reflects books which I managed to read at some critical juncture, at just the right time, and which wound up affecting my worldview, my habits, my vision of how things are or ought to be. Books that, quite literally, changed my life in some way.

This list is not complete. I am trying to be specific, and will discuss other books in a later post before we wrap things up. I also do not want to be driving down the road a week from now and realize I left something off of the list, so why not make leave it open ended?

Again, send in your own books, or link to your own posts written elsewhere. That can be a post as well at some point.

Some Books that Changed my Life:

1) Go, Dog, Go!
Dogs. In cars. Going to a party in a tree.
My earliest memory of reading. Quite literally remember reading this to my grandmother while sitting on her lap, which had to have been a fairly awful experience for the woman.

"Go, Dog, Go!" doesn't get the press of Dr. Seuss, it hasn't been adapted into a major motion picture, it's devoid of themes beyond dogs driving, partying and rejecting one another upon their choice of hats. But it is THE book I read over and over as a kid.

2) Fahrenheit 451
Some weird-o teacher I had in fifth grade decided this made for fine assigned reading. A book my honors English class in high school found puzzling, presenting a future which every generation that reads it must feel is coming quite literally to pass. Probably, though, the first time an adult asked that we discuss a book in any actual real terms.

Whether it was my introduction to the concept that "ideas are dangerous" or not, I do not recall, but it absolutely crystallized the notion in my mind. Both in how far we'll go to keep a comfort and status quo (even in the face of Armageddon), and that ideas, words and what's contained in the expression of ink on paper is something to die for and with.

I've re-read the book at least a half-dozen times. Honestly, of all the dystopian future-stuff on this list, this is the one that seems like its the one we're going to slip into most easily, if we aren't already there.

3) The Dark Knight Returns
For a 12 year old who was cluing in pretty quickly that the world outside our neighborhood was a big, spooky place, who felt Ronald Reagan was a cartoon more than a human, and watched the F4's flying endlessly overhead when Mueller was an Air Force Base rather than an airport, the world of Dark Knight Returns seemed logical.

What was lost by the comic industry was that Miller, Varley and Janson were telling a story with a moral core, about pushing back against the ever expanding apathy and cruelty, and resignation that our elected officials seemed like showmen rather than leaders.

Miller would expand on the idea in Martha Washington, but for today's kids to turn to DKR, just as UK kids might turn to "V for Vendetta", to understand the 1980's in the US a bit more.

It also marked the time when I realized I was reading a comic that was blowing the doors off convention, not just in regards to format, layout, style, etc... but was using the medium and characters to comment upon the world I was living in, beyond using it as a setting for backdrop for super-powered struggles. Where X-Men was an earnest allegory that often felt clunky and repetitive, Dark Knight was electric shock satire.

If the comic industry never recovered, I guess never did my twelve-year-old brain. I am sure I am not alone in saying that I'm still chasing the rush that was the first time I read this comic, cover to cover.

4) Frankenstein
I am fairly certain that, at some point, I would have cracked this book with or without the help of Gwendolyn Fort's 9th grade English class. I knew the movie, and had watched a production of a play of Frankenstein on PBS in its entirety, which absolutely chilled me as a middle-schooler.

Obviously The League's grades meant he was unlikely to head into a life of science. However, I can attribute both the book and Ms. Fort's guiding hand, and what is probably no small dose of Kennedy-era idealism, in how I wound up reading Frankenstein as a story of hubris, failed responsibility, and really awful parenting.

There's no doubt that Frankenstein's creation performs horrendous acts by book's end, but as always, its in understanding the motives and causal relations that the book locked into my 15-year-old brain and lodged itself there.

I am not a fan of ideas like "a perfect book", and Frankenstein is far from that. Its a product of its time and seems to often drag on at length in some odd places, but its a book I would most certainly hand my own 15-year-old.

5) Kingdom Come
Most high school geeks give up on superheroes at some point, even if they keep buying comics. I had been fortunate enough to become tried of superheroes (in no small part due to the fact that I wasn't on-board with the 90's-era, Image-explosion, Rob Liefield influenced Chromium Age). At that time, I was picking up the books that were setting the stage for what became "Vertigo" comics. Sandman comics, Swamp Thing, Shade...

Alex Ross's art got me to try out "Marvels", and I'd thoroughly enjoyed that book, and so selling me on "Kingdom Come" wasn't all that hard, despite what I perceived to be a high sticker price.

The truth is, I'd been a fan of the DCU and Superman somewhat prior to the series, but Mark Waid and Ross's book managed to say an enormous amount not just about what I felt I was seeing in comic shops, and not just in entertainment, but reflected some of my own disillusionment that every undergrad experiences when you look a bit at the world you've inherited. While I was no aging preacher, Norman McCay's disappointment, Superman's grappling with the world he'd turned his back on, Wonder Woman's fury, all resonated.

Anyway, its a hell of a book, and if 80's-era Batman, JLI and GL and scattered other DC books were what got me interested, Kingdom Come's unblinking reflection upon the attempt at goodness in a world where such notions are considered juvenile, naive and even suicidal is a message worth returning to on a regular basis.

Kingdom Come, more than any other book, was why I came back to superheroes, and its influence on the next 15 years at DC is why I've wound up falling in with the DC partisan camp, why I fell in love with superheroes again as I entered adulthood, one of the reasons I became intrigued with Superman again, and why I came to expect more of "heroes" in all kinds of stories. And it had much to do with the how's and why's of how an adolescent hobby became a preoccupation that I'm still happy to entertain.

6) Superman: Peace on Earth
By Alex Ross and Paul Dini, this book is always the one I'd put in the hands of friends who start asking the hard questions about Superman. Why hasn't he made life perfect for everyone? What's holding him back?

It's brief, and I re-read it every Christmas, finding time between watching some version of "A Christmas Carol", "It's a Wonderful Life" and other required Holiday media. But its also not a story frozen into the Christmas season.

The book is in the format of a picture book more than a comic, and its a beautiful piece of art, with or without the story. But it does ask the questions that come into focus about anyone, but which are thrown into sharp relief when you apply The Man of Steel.

In the era when we're continually told Superman is outdated for our times, that the character is "broken", that wanting to do right out of a sense of right, social justice, etc... is quaint and old fashioned, and isn't as hip as wanting vengeance, etc... This is the book that I felt solidified for me not just the conflict of the character which most critics don't ever bother to get at, but that while Superman is often portrayed as the Ace of Action, the character is, and always has been, about trying to make a better world.

I suppose if anyone doubts my interest in 'ol Superman, which was influenced in no small part because of this book, which I believe gets at and explains the core of the character, I welcome you to come visit League HQ sometime.

Honorable Mention:

Caves of Steel
I, Robot
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Henry Reed, Inc.

Again, this list is nowhere near complete. And even with my clearly stated criteria, its tough to point to a book and say "Yes! It was while reading this book that I had a revelation! That I developed a new obsession!"

I earned a degree in history in part because of the reading I was doing, but it was the flood of reading at the time, and not any one book. The people in the NPR story made interesting and somewhat profound choices because of certain books. I did not go to Africa because I was reading Hemingway short stories. I didn't open a detective agency because I was reading Chandler and Hammett. I didn't run for President or turn to "the strenuous life" after reading up on TR.

So the list is tougher than you think it'd be.

I may do a list of League's Final Recommended reading before all is said and done. That might be fun.


mcsteans said...

I loved reading Frankenstein in high school. And my favorite children's book was, and still is, Frederick by Leo Lionni.

J.S. said...

I've put a link to a book that probably changed The League's life the most, but which was not included on the list.

Michael Corley said...

In the fourth grade something "clicked" in my head. I haven't the slightest idea what. I read two novelletes: One about a fictional author of "Dear Abby" and the other about a girl who turns into a mermaid.

I read them back to back and I've been reading novels ever since.

I loved reading before then. My father had all his collection of MAD magazine (most all of them since '58) as well as collecitons of Peanuts, The Wizard of ID and Tumbleweed.

When going on nights out and leaving us with the baby sitter, my parents would pick up a "grab bag" of comics for us three children to read. You can thank them (I'm guessing my father had a lot to do with the comics) for bringing me directly in the sights of X-Men, as Wolverine battled the Brood in the first comic I laid eyes on.

In Sixth grade the ante upped. I had three close friends in Austin - Justin, Adam and Micah and Adam showed me "The Hobbit". Seventh grade brought "Lord of the Rings". I'm still trying to find better and still failing.

Everything since then has been a blur of good and bad. I've transitioned primarly to audiobooks now, but I still do enjoy the paper read. Most notably the wonderful "World War Z - An oral history of the zombie war" by Max Brooks. Read this. Read it now. You will thank me big big later.

J.S. said...

I've read World War Z and second the recommendation. Prior to reading it I probably wouldn't have believed that someone could write a good book about zombies, but WWZ changed my mind.

The League said...

You'll be happy to know I downloaded World War Z as an audio book, and when I am done with Dracula, I will be switching over to World War Z.

Three stories about "What's Happening to Me".

1) While my folks talked me through the companion book "Where Did I Come From?", this one they sort of handed to me and said "good luck, kid. Let us know if you have questions."

2) In 9th grade, I would pull this book off the shelf at the library and stick it in other kid's bookbags to see if I could get the alarm to go off.

3) Circa 8th grade, Peabo and I held not one, but two "Informal Surveys" of our neighborhood. We had come up with twenty questions, one of which was me presenting this book, and Peabo asking if we needed to read it aloud to anybody in the survey-ee's home.

We were terrible children.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I too have great affection for Kingdom Come and DKR. Have you ever seen the last 4 pages that appeared at the end of the JSA storyline concerning the Superman from the Kingdom Come universe finding himself in the current DC universe. They so perfectly wrap up the story with more hope than I could ever dream of makind something I thought was nearly perfect closer to that illusive goal

The League said...

I was a faithful reader of JSA until the switch to Sturges and Willingham as creative team and Willingham's insistence that JSA must be written as if the year is 1984 again. I have, sadly, dropped the book after two or three of their issues.

I have mixed feelings about JSA's insertion into the original text of Kingdom Come, but did love the new pages you're referring to. I actually pulled those books off the shelf a week ago and was leafing through them.

I've had to decide that the Booster Gold title, as much as I continue to enjoy it, operates outside of continuity as its become a little odd to think of Gold hiding around the corner of every major and minor event in the DCU. That's just sort of goofy and adds a whole layer to things that the DCU really just doesn't need.