I’ve been thinking about this list by Elizabeth Gilbert about the 7 books that shaped her. It is so hard to winnow it down, especially since often how you react to a book depends upon the intersection of when and why you read it. So many books just knock you sideways and you never know when it will happen or why until you take a moment of contemplation. Here are mine:
The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White and published in 1970, I was born in 1971. Louis the swan is caught between two worlds and not capable of performing perfectly in either so he has to forge his own way. There is something that connected with me on a deeply emotional and empathetic way to Louis and Serena through the idea that their wings would be clipped, or “pinioned” and they would not be free.
Books of Paul Zindel, who wrote over 53 books but the ones I remember the most are The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, The Pigman (which I recently reread), and My Darling, My Hamburger. Very 70s zany, also a certain amount of sadness to these books. I think I took to the The Pigman because the main two characters are on the fringe and sadly thoughtless in their destruction, which I think connected with my awareness of the danger of thoughtlessness.
Kurt Vonnegut made an impression on me with all of his novels from Cat’s Cradle to Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and one about Bluebeard (where I can remember his exact description of the way faulty paint an artist used dried up and fell of the canvas like rice crispies). When I was in college at the University of Iowa I went to one of the Mayday parties at the “Vonnegut House” where supposedly he had lived for a time. Surreal.
I would also add Aldous Huxley and George Orwell somewhere in here if I had the space.
White Noise by Don Delillo was published in 1985 was my first adult foray into reading where someone put into words exactly what I felt as the zeitgeist of America. The post-modern feeling of my post 70s – post atomic bomb/radiation, midwest tornadoes, apocalyptic vibe.
The last three is where it gets hard. There are books that I love that I don’t feel specifically influenced me beyond the fact that I loved them. The 90s- The oddity and imagination of Geek Love by Katherine Dunne or Cruddy by Lynda Barry. The weirdness of Arc D’x by Steve Erickson, and Mark Leyner.
So, I am going with # 5 as Richard Brautigan. The Abortion totally blew my mind, so I will use the Wikipedia description of the book, “The Abortion is a genre novel parody concerning the librarian of a very unusual California library which accepts books in any form and from anyone who wishes to drop one off at the library—children submit tales told in crayon about their toys; teenagers tell tales of angst and old people drop by with their memoirs—described as “the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing” in the novel. Summoned by a silver bell at all hours, submissions are catalogued at the librarian’s discretion; not by the Dewey Decimal system, but by placement on whichever magically dust-free shelf would, in the author’s judgment, serve best as the book’s home.“
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr mixes memory, storytelling, character and poetry together so artfully it made me understand what the highest point of memoir could be. To me, it is the gold standard in personal storytelling.
Jennifer Egan‘s books Look At Me, The Keep, A Visit From The Goon Squad are on my list because she gives me faith as a writer that magic can happen. She reworks stories and invents in such a clever and masterful way that I feel satisfied and reinvigorated by fiction. I would also add Virginia Woolf and Miranda July as writers whom I believe their time has not yet come. The world has to catch up with them, still.
Of course I am leaving a lot out, but I can see many of these influences in my work. Little brushstrokes here and there, but mostly a sense of common point of view. Books for me have a role, but not a duty, to reflect society. For me that is what lifts a book from being a story to embodying a sense of consciousness. It is what drives the words on the paper, the spirit in the machine.