Dec. 26th, 2013

starlady: (a sad tale's best)
[personal profile] wintercreek asked about "Four books that everyone should read early in life/formative books."

I don't know about books that everyone should read early in life. There are some books that I think that everyone should read, one of which is M.T. Anderson's The Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. I also expend more than my usual effort on getting non-genre readers to read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness for all the reasons we all know, and I really recommend Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies to everyone for multiple reasons. I also wish I could get all academics to read Neal Stephenson's Anathem.

Four books that were formative for me is easier. I'll go in reverse-ish order.

When I was seventeen I read Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. A lot of that book sort of comes out of left field--there are hints that Lord Asriel is going to make war on the Authority beforehand, of course, but nothing that prepared me for the amazing climax of the story, or for Lyra's speech at the end about the Republic of Heaven, which always makes me weep and which I quoted in its entirety on my senior yearbook page. (Yes, I know. We were all pretentious and arty at my high school, if that makes it any better.) I still remember reading those parts of the book and feeling like Pullman was saying everything I'd felt but hadn't been able to articulate as well as he did. Eleven years later I don't think quite the same about what I thought then or about Pullman, but there is no question in my mind that TAS changed how I thought about some significant things in my life.

When I was nine I read Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. It was everything I'd ever wanted in books but had never known could exist within them--a girl with a sword, and magic! She even had purple eyes, and purple was my favorite color, and still is. I devoured Alanna's adventures and in many ways I'm still reading in the shadow of her influence on my life, which I think is almost entirely a good thing. Alanna and her anger taught me a lot about growing up and being your own self, and it was great.

It was probably less than a year later that I finished The Lord of the Rings and tore into The Silmarillion. In the next few years I read the first five volumes of the unpublished papers (it took me until high school to read Unfinished Tales, bizarrely) and most of the rest of what Tolkien ever wrote. (Protip: his translation of Gawain is crap. Don't bother.) I read and reread The Silmarillion in particular over and over. The epic sense of history, of loss--I'm not even sure how to describe it. There are many, many parts of the story that make me cry, and as much as I liked the actual story of the downfall of the Eldar, the worldbuilding of the first epic within the book also always got me. I spent a long time memorizing all the songs--A Elbereth! Gilthoniel!--and they're still there when I think about them. I once read an article by Adam Gopnik talking about the worldbuilding in LOTR, and worldbuilding in general and its connection to history, and in retrospect it's not surprising that I grew up to study history.

I'm not sure how old I was when I read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. This was all in the same time frame; when I was ten my sister and I started going to a different school with a twenty-five minute commute each way, and we (me, my sister, and my mom) hit on the idea of my reading books aloud. We read all the good Redwall books, the first two Harry Potters, and many other classics of fantasy including The Dark Is Rising and some of Narnia, I think. I was trying to think of how to answer this question, and I thought of all the books that I had the poetry memorized from, and The Dark Is Rising fits that bill. Narnia goes that deep, too.