Formative books

I think we all had our formative books: those that stayed with us, changed our young outlooks, made us who we are. I certainly did, and they have been on my mind lately.

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine l’Engle): a book with a Christian theme, thus considered acceptable kid reading at the psychotic religious school I attended in Colorado. (Heritage Christian School, Fort Collins, CO, 1971-74, still haven’t forgotten you or the sadism. Have a good day.) At that age, I didn’t quite get it, but on a later re-read I did. There is a misfit character in the book named Meg, who is obstinate and emotional and doesn’t quite meet everyone’s lofty expectations. There comes a point where all the children are given gifts, and Meg is told: “Meg, I give you your faults.” Later on, she comes to understand and wield her obstinacy and passion as weapons.

Meg was my inspiration. I realized I would probably go through most of my life agreeing with very few people, constantly pressured to conform and fall into line, ridiculed when I would fail to do so, and never much of a group joiner. Meg also taught me that, as long as I was committed to immunity to peer pressure and okay with its consequences, I would right a few wrongs and get a few things done through simple obstinacy. I’d make a few enemies doing that, and I’d baffle people who would not understand why I cared, but that was why I had to get serious about rejecting peer pressure.

1984 (George Orwell): didn’t really get it in high school, but definitely got it in college. It was one of the texts for my modern European history survey with the late, revered Jon Bridgman, in the book’s actual titular year. At the time, I could see that there was a strong pattern of speech policing and suppression of ideas in academia, though they didn’t torture people for ‘wrong thinking.’ Then I saw that society offered the same thing, increasingly, over the course of my lifetime, though not always in the same direction. I saw mass hysteria and mass conformity, and I saw those become the social rule.

And I realized that no matter who Big Brother might represent in my world, for my own sense of self, I’d better commit to hating him all day long. Otherwise I’d be drawn into the mass conformity, and while a part of me would be happier, the majority of me would know I’d sold out.

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn): and here was the full tale of life in katorga, corrective labor in camps, for those who did not toe the Soviet line. I didn’t know what our best solution was, but from that I knew one potential solution that had an irredeemable flaw. That said, as I studied Russian in high school, Solzhenitsyn was a hero of mine. He had gone ahead with publication knowing what it would cost him personally. He may be Russia’s greatest modern writer. If I was going to despise authoritarianism, Solzhenitsyn showed me why one might.

Veeck as in Wreck (Bill Veeck with Ed Linn): I found my copy of this as a battered spine-split paperback among Gothic novels on the shelves of a house my family rented in northern Colorado when I was seven. The more I learned about Veeck, the more I yearned to have been born in a time when I could just travel to his operation and start picking up litter outside the ballpark until he finally gave me a job. Baseball can be stuffy, and that’s an insult no one ever directed at William Veeck Jr. He put clowns in the base coaching boxes. He invented the exploding scoreboard. Most famously, he sent a little person up to bat. Veeck was what the dictionary people are trying to describe when they seek to define the word ‘rollicking.’ We miss him terribly.

Ball Four (Jim Bouton): another great nonconformist book, for which the author paid the price. Bouton had risen so far as to win two World Series games for the Yankees, back when I was a tot. By the time I was six, he was throwing the knuckleball and trying to stay in the game with an expansion team. Bouton was a freethinker in the most resistant to change of all our sporting cultures, wearing a weird number, throwing a weird pitch, liking hippies and the players’ union, and all that made him somewhat of an outsider even before he wrote this tell-all book about the season. No one credibly tried to say that the book was untrue; the knock on Bouton was that he shouldn’t have written it.

As for me, I found it hilarious, bawdy, and invigorating. I was a teenager living in a small, stupid, brutal logging town, I didn’t fit in and never would, and Bouton was speaking my language. Later in life, when I went back to real baseball and was recovering from a serious injury with a new team, I donned #56–Bouton’s number, the symbol of the nonconformist and the comeback. I even learned to throw a good enough knuck to earn one start and one relief trip to the mound. Without Bouton, I’m not entirely sure I would have made it through my teens as a free adult.

They weren’t all nonconformist, though…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (Howard Pyle): what many don’t realize is that there’s no single authoritative canon of the Robin Hood legend. To the extent that one takes it as fiction, the story can be what the author desires. Pyle’s treatment is the adventure classic I read until the covers began to fall off, and loved more and more each time. Comedy, good vs. evil, culture and history…just the thing for an early readers.

The Mad Scientists’ Club (Bertrand R. Brinley): kids, when we were young, what happened was the school passed around an Arrow book catalogue, from which we could order whichever books we could convince our parents to fund. It took weeks to receive them, but we did. As I remember, this was one such.

The book is about a group of young nerds with a lot of scientific ambition. It doesn’t set out to be comical; that was part of its genius. It told a good story, but it also told a story of gifted boys having adventures. It would be a mistake to call it ‘young adult,’ because adults are eighteen and over, and this is for teens and pre-teens. It’s worth the effort to hunt up.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain): this produced hilarious results. I loved it, of course, and for the record, the un-PC aspects didn’t imprint racism on my little brain; they showed me how it was back then, without sanitizing. However, my parents were Kansans, and in addition to the Kansas vs. Missouri rivalry that has its roots in eleven years of mutual atrocity and reprisal, there’s the fact that educated Kansans like my parents tend to recoil from the Cletus stereotype. So when I began talking like Tom Sawyer, you can imagine their horror. I didn’t understand the freakout; it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what was correct. I guess it’s the same freakout my second grade teacher had when I deliberately misspelled every word on a writing assignment. (Sorry, Mrs. Fulks. That really was disrespectful of me.)

Dune (Frank Herbert): for me, the impact was in the frank way it proposed viewpoints that held water, yet were unpalatable to speak in our own society. “We mustn’t run short of filmbase. How will the people know how well I govern them if I don’t tell them?” In two sentences, gone is the folly that the People are Wise; they are acknowledged as too foolish to discern the truth. The entrenched oligarchy without apologies: what we have, but what we are supposed, even ordered, to insist we do not have, and its ownership class expected to issue the usual pro forma denials. I have only so much patience for certain types of idealism, and Herbert presents a universe with very little.

No, I didn’t see the movie. Whatever movie you are asking about, I haven’t seen it.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (C.S. Forester): it was the first in a long series devoted to a flawed but mostly admirable semi-historical figure during the Age of Sail. It wallowed in British chauvinism while showing up all the weaknesses of the British system. It inspired. It made one wish to be able to say one had walked the decks with roundshot coming in through the side. And while it did so, it taught a great many lessons about leadership. Were it in my power, every midshipman at Annapolis and New London would read and write a paper on the entire series, of which the given title is the first.

The David Kopay Story (David Kopay with Perry Dean Young): growing up, I guess I was as homophobic as the garden variety small-town American boy, but that was already unraveling by my mid-teens. This book would help that process. Kopay, the first NFL figure to come out, was an alum of the dream school that I would later attend. His story filled me with admiration, because he had done two impressive things: he had made an NFL career out of hustle and desire and a little bit of talent, and he had taken a public stand for which there would be consequences.

I understood Kopay immediately: he had never set out to become an activist, though his actions pushed him into that position. Above all, he was a competitor. I would play sports into my mid-forties, always with a couple of ounces of talent and a whole lot of fight (at times arguably too much), and Kopay was among my inspirations.

 

Here’s a valid question that might occur to some in our control-oriented society with its schools like jails and its universal surveillance and its obsession with minor wrongdoings: could my parents have shaped my behavior through the books they provided?

I don’t think so, and here is why: so many of the books did not take. Yeah, I may have started a lamentable speaking habit after reading Tom Sawyer, but it didn’t stick. Treasure Island didn’t turn me into a pirate. The Bible didn’t stay with me long after my liberation from high school. The books that influenced me did so because they resonated with what I already was, even going back to toddlerhood. I read plenty of books that didn’t change me: Helter Skelter, for example, or None Dare Call It Conspiracy. No, I don’t think it has much targetable impact.

Thank the gods it’s not that easy.

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6 thoughts on “Formative books”

  1. Great read, JK. I had the same experience with Dulag and 1984, and I’d add Gulag Archipelago II and Animal Farm from those writers. I also loved the Hornblower series, and later as an adult, the O’Brien series. I think a was an adult when I enjoyed Ball Four. I’ve always wanted to read Veeck as in Wreck, but copies were hard to find. His son founded the incredibly successful and crazy independent league St Paul Saints with Bill Murray as a part owner. They now have a really nice small stadium in downtown St Paul. Anyway, the most influential book for me was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

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    1. Thanks for sharing! I would mention that nowadays it’s very easy to find Veeck’s book, though getting it to where you are might be another story. It has been reprinted a number of times. Mike Veeck was also up in Bellingham, WA, so we got to hear about him. Veeck has two other books, including one about his days running a racetrack, where Mike got to spend a lot of time shoveling horse puckey.

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      1. I am told that the problem with small-timer sports books is that the individuals usually have axes to grind. I’ve had clients–for whom I have done Alan Smithees–who had those axes and refused to dull them. In those cases, I know the book is going to bomb, and the author has officially refused me permission to help him kill his darlings, so he’s on his own. In some cases, I think the author truly refuses the guidance, and in others, I think the editor is afraid to be candid. Simply put, we can never have that fear. We are hired because someone seeks the candid truth.

        By all means let me know what you think of Bill Veeck’s book. If you were to get around to comparing it to Durocher’s _Nice Guys Finish Last_, I think you would reach the same conclusion I did: the hidden genius in both cases is the co-author, Ed Linn, who understood that he had good material and then made it everything the ‘talent’ already was, plus better. Not that Veeck was any kind of illiterate, but he wasn’t a writing professional, and Linn was. One of my basic rules for myself and sports books is: if it’s with Ed Linn, answer is yes.

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  2. “Could my parents have shaped my behavior through the books they provided? I don’t think so, and here is why: so many of the books did not take.”
    -It’s interesting to think about how the books we read could potentially shape our world-view. If the book doesn’t “take”, though, wouldn’t you still consider it to be an influence- even if it’s influencing you to disagree with it (perhaps both philosophically and in taste). That influence then might echo with other influences, so in the end the initial influencer might persuade you towards a whole slew of things. For instance, you considered your high school to be a sort of prison, therefore, you consider most high schools to be types of that same system.

    You don’t have to respond to this- I think I may have just rambled. Sorry.

    All the same, thanks for sharing! It was a very interesting read.

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    1. Fair points, James. I suppose it’s fair to presume that nearly everything we read influences us. Of course, that influence may not be what was intended by someone who placed the reading before us. Rambling is fine; I appreciate having readers feel inspired to react, and thanks for the kind words. I do this, of course, in hope of producing a steady stream of interesting reads.

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