Formative Reading

August 17, 2012

On the Twitts yesterday, Rebecca Skloot asked a few of her Tweeps about which formative fiction books they best remember reading when they were 10-15 years old. I came to it a bit late but we had a lot of fun talking about some of our favorite reads. Rather than try to storify it, let’s take another whack at it from the blog side….

My trouble was one mentioned by edyong, i.e., that I can’t really recall precisely when I read which particular books. My other problem, which was what made the Twittersation so much fun, was that I don’t always remember the books until my memory is jogged. So let’s have at it.

In my more fixed memories, I am pretty sure I started the obsessive-reading thing just prior to first grade. My first real book memory is of On the Banks of Plum Creek from Laura Ingalls Wilder. I went through most of her works in short order. Then through towards 3rd or 4th I was working through Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, Bobbsey Twins, my dad’s old Tom Swift books. Somewhere in there came The Great Brain and perhaps 4th to 5th a diversion into my mom’s old-lady mysteries- Agatha Christie, etc. None of this was what I think of as formative in terms of really essential good-reads, although it established the life of a reader. Later on, there were more in this category. Piers Anthony is apparently most famous for xanth novels but I don’t think I read many of those- Apprentice Adept series was my thing

Watership Down, Narnia Chronicles, The Dark is Rising series and the Arthurian works of Mary Stewart were around 5th grade. These are starting to be what I think of as formative books…ones I’d be disappointed if my kids never read and ones that in many cases really did contribute to my orientation on the world.

There are also a host of books which I don’t know when I read them but very likely it was just prior to, and into, Skloot’s 10-15 year old interval. My recollection is that by 13-14 my obsessive reading was tapering off so mostly up to about 13.

Lord of the Rings, of course.
The Foundation Trilogy by Asimov
Vonnegut’s works
Heinlein- an interesting recollection of always thinking his intellectual elitism and macho libertarianism was a bit of a spoof. This was buttressed by my later life realization that for some people Heinlein was their Ayn Rand. Like they actually were on board with that stuff. Rollicking good reads though.
L’Engle- I think I read Wrinkle in Time and the two other ones a bit early
Thomas Covenant series

What do you remember Dear Reader? Which fiction books from your youth were most important to you?

ps for the scifi nerds who haven’t seen it yet, Baen Free Library will give you free samples (not recommended for anyone starting their new Assistant Professor job).

pps anyone who mentions the Hobbit movies will get punched in the e-nads

No Responses Yet to “Formative Reading”

  1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for me – I started reading it at around 13 or so. It was the first time I realised I wasn’t the only one with a really weird sense of humour – I’d found one of my tribe. The fact that most of my friends and all my family either couldn’t get into it or actively hated it helped with that enormously! The Dirk Gently books, which I read next, helped nudge me on the path to atheism.


  2. Oh, and anything by Judy Blume, as well 🙂


  3. becca Says:

    The biggest ones in shaping my worldview were the Chronicles of Narnia and all of Madeline L’Engle’s young adult books; oh, and Anne McCaffery. And maybe L.M. Montgomery. Those were the ones I read over and over.

    Heinlein didn’t sink-in on that level, but Podkyne of Mars was if not the first, one of the first, “adult section” books I read. “The Giver” by Lois Lowry was the most important novel I read in school (important to me personally, that is). And there were several specific books that stick with me- “Julie of the Wolves”; “Jacob Have I Loved”; “The Midwife’s Apprentice”; “Juniper”/”Wisechild”; “The Trumpet of the Swan”;”The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen”; “Strider”; “Ender’s Game”


  4. FunkDoctorX Says:

    I completely second the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The only five book trilogy I’ve read twice!

    And then I ended up in the UK…go figure…


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Followup query: I can only ever remember my folks trying to censor me from reading one book, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”. Did your parents ever object to anything you* were reading?

    *in this case my Mom was reading it and I picked it up.


  6. Chris lbs Says:

    The Bobbsey Twins? Can you name them? I still can some 35 years later…

    I was also a Tom Swift reader–both the set from the 50s and then the originals from the 1920s. I think I cleared off all 11 Oz books one summer (and now have them on my Nook).

    Robert Heinlein’s sci fi books were awesome–especially when some were set in my ultraconservative hometown of Colorado Springs.


  7. Never censored – any book in the house (and there were hundreds) was up for grabs


  8. Yes, I was a Hitchhiker’s fan too. It’s a sign of the times that while I could make a Hitchhiker’s reference to any fellow grad student in the 1990s and they’d get it, but generally they just cause puzzled looks from the current Gen Y crop — I guess we are to Gen Y what the Boomers were to us — a source of bizarre references to outdated pop culture.

    But besides Douglas Adams, the typical stuff favored by 1980s nerdy adolescents — Lord of the Rings, Thomas Covenant, (dare I say it) the Xanth books…

    I’m a fan of Vonnegut too, but I don’t think I started to read him until my undergrad days, so I’m not sure it counts as “formative”.


  9. Jim Thomerson Says:

    Edgar Rice Burroughs books of all kinds, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, Zane Grey westerns. Heavy into Science Fiction magazines. ASF, Planet Stories, Startling Stories, and the like. Leigh Bracket a favorite author. I liked Heinlein OK. I didn’t discover his juveniles until later in life.


  10. I read much of what you mention, especially loved detective stories and Nancy Drew (also Encyclopedia Brown). My school had a program where we had a book festival every year and read Newberry award winners from previous years, so I’ve read many of those as well. One book from the pre-teen era that still sticks with me was “After the Bomb” about a kid in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, which probably led me to my love of dystopian fiction and opened doors for Vonnegut, Orwell, Bradbury, etc. I also loved–and still love–horror stories and Stephen King in particular. Went through a lot of Dean Koontz probably around age 13-14 but his stories, even at that age, got really repetitive.


  11. anon Says:

    Deenie, Bridge to Terabithia, Go Ask Alice ( just saw it was banned in my state at the time but it was definitely assigned so must have had a rouge teacher- sweet!), Atlas Shrugged, Illusions:Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. Later Carlos Castaneda and Vonnegut (undergrad formative). No parental bans – nothing more exciting than picking up one of theirs to read! Didn’t read Lord of the Rings until grad school and I re-read it about once a year – TOTALLY weird but I feel like it organizes my brain and makes me think better, or something.


  12. drugmonkey Says:

    oh and second followup: I never found Confederacy of Dunces to be that profound and didn’t even like it that much. How’s about you? Which book are you supposed to like (given peer advice, your other reading habits, conventional wisdom, etc) which really didn’t get you going?


  13. Says:

    Anything by Rene Barjavel. “The Ice People” (terrible English title, great book) is probably the easiest to find in English.

    Andre Gide too – all kinds of awesome.

    I find that it’s much easier to remember the books you read at 16 than at 13! 😦


  14. Beaker Says:

    Since this is partly a blog about drugs, I note that most everything I learned about illegal drugs before age 13 came from the Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook. Also, I’ll mention an offbeat masterpiece called The Portmanteau Book, by Thomas Rockwell. It taught me a lot about wordplay, offbeat humor, and out-of-the-box thinking before I ever encountered Hitchhiker’s, Python, etc. Sadly, it is out of print.

    Most of the other ones I remember have already been named by others (Hardy Boys, Bradbury). I also read a bunch of Robert Silverberg’s SciFi.


  15. Dr Becca Says:

    Early tween/teen years, I was way into classic Stephen King–Firestarter, The Shining, Carrie…if there was a freaky superpowered kid in it, I couldn’t put it down, and would probably read it at least twice. He may be mass market, but damn, the guy knows how to tell a story.


  16. @DM – I think the “Confederacy of Dunces” resonates more with humanities nerds than science ones. In terms of books that just didn’t click with me, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, but maybe there was a generational thing going on there because it was a Boomer bible.


  17. anon Says:

    Expected to like but didn’t: Dune


  18. Dan Andersson Says:

    The Hobbit was the first book I chose to read for myself.
    The Foundation Trilogy soon after that.

    Then I graduated to reading the English originals of:

    The Earthsea Trilogy, they where a trilogy then 🙂
    Harper Hall of Pern trilogy.


  19. Jekka Says:

    I must have missed Laura Ingalls in the discussion last night. Every kid should read the Little House books. Entire chapters on descriptions of door, bullet, or butter-making, as well as calf-breaking, horse-training, you name it. Also, the Long Winter is brutal, it basically describes 6 months of misery and starvation.

    And they are a good reminder of how modern-day Americans have extremely limited life-skills.


  20. I hated that fucken fiction shitte when I was little. I liked non-fiction. My favorite book was Alive, about those soccer fuckers whose plane crashed in the Andes and they had to eat each others dead bodies to survive.


  21. drugmonkey Says:

    Rugby players. Sicko.


  22. As soon as I could read, it became an obsession that continues to this day. Was also into the same mystery books when I was a kid as well as a lot of British ones that were along the same lines.

    No censoring as such as we couldn’t afford to buy books and the library limited their lending by age. Although by about 11 or 12, I was reading so much that the library agreed to let me be the only child allowed to have an adult lending card so that I had access to the rest of the collections. Nothing says Obsessive Reader like a kid who is on a first name basis with the district librarians.

    By about 15, I was paradoxically into fictional sagas that had so many pages the books weighed more than I did and trashy teen romance pulp; the latter was mostly so that I had something in common with my friends.


  23. If they were rugby players, they probably wouldn’t have had to eat as many of them.


  24. Virgil Says:

    Clockwork orange was one of my favorites at 13. Terrible film. Amazing book. William Gibson’s early stuff was also great, plus anything by Douglas Adams. Great Gatsby was a good read at 15 too (I hear they’re making a new movie, should be awful). Apart from that, most of my teens were spent reading En gLit assignments (Hardy, Shalespeare, Brecht, Dickens, Twain) so I mostly read non-fiction and comics for pleasure. Didn’t really re-discover good fiction until my late 20s.


  25. bill Says:

    Let’s see, in addition to much of the stuff mentioned upthread: The Pigman, Stig of the Dump, The Gift. Timelines are fuzzy but I read all those before high school, so 10-12.

    Lotsa sci-fi: Asimov, Bradbury, Zelazny, McCaffrey, Wyndham, Anthony (Incarnations series), Harrison, Clarke, Ellison, LeGuin…

    Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World were in there somewhere, and had some impact. I think I read Wind in the Willows and Watership Down before I was 10, but maybe not.

    A handful that only Australians would recognize: Nargun and the Stars, Nin and the Scribblies, No Kava for Johnny.

    Read LotR for the first time at 12 — my Grandma gave me her copy. First book that ever made me cry (when F gets it in the neck from Shelob and poor Sam is left alone).

    Most formative of all — everything by Gerald Durrell. Didn’t make me want to be a biologist, as I was already fascinated by critters, but did give me the happy idea that I could spend my life indulging that fascination (which, by and large, I have done). Had read much of it by 10 but continued throughout high school.


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    JB- totally agree on ZAMM. Started it several times, boring as all get out.

    Jekka- I don’t thing Little House came up on the Twitts…..otherwise, agree with your analysis.

    anon- no Dune? What!?!??!!

    (scratches CPP carefully off the stuck-on-deserted-island list)


  27. Dude, every fucken fucker for herself!


  28. anon Says:

    I even tried Dune twice!

    Deserted islands and non-fiction reminded me of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – that’s a badass true story.


  29. darchole Says:

    Are you talking about books geared toward that age range (young adult) or just books you’ve read at that age range? Most gifted kids that like to read have probably already graduated to “adult” books by that age. I did.

    Some authors I liked at that age included Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce. Now I’d probably also recommend Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber (both sci fi & fantasy), and Robin McKinley. Also Laura Ingalls Wilder (even if she probably didn’t actually “write” the books).

    I totally hated Tolkien, Jordan and Heinlein at that age. Still do.

    and…what the fucke is with CPP’s obsession with that book? I think CPP should be struck off the Zombie apocalypse list, unless you’re using him as a snack for the zombies.


  30. Ooh, I forgot about John Wyndham. I started with The Chrysalids when I was about 12 and had soon read almost everything else he’d written.

    Thought I’d like but couldn’t get into: Generation X. I tried twice. I’ve since read some other Coupland novels and really liked them, so maybe I should try again.


  31. becca Says:

    ” I think CPP should be struck off the Zombie apocalypse list, unless you’re using him as a snack for the zombies.”
    No dice. Zombies would starve. /obligatory crack

    Sometimes I think the entire next generation of kids is going to grow up to be just like CPP. They are, after all, reading Hunger Games.
    /depressed about the future of humanity


  32. Spiny Norman Says:

    @Cath, I feel sorry for people who didn’t grow up that way. What a gift.


  33. Spiny Norman Says:

    You should try some fiction, CPP. I suggest Lord of the Flies.


  34. Spiny Norman Says:

    A lot of the good stuff is upthread. A few that come to mind:

    LeGuin, especially; I’ve read every major book she’s written, starting around that age. A bunch of Asimov including the Foundation books and I, Robot. I’d certainly have read all the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, most of them 3-4 times, by age 15. Twain: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Life on the Mississippi, etc. Jonathan Swift, most of the Hardy Boys, some Nancy Drew. All the Judy Blume stuff (yes, including Wifey). Hitchhiker’s Guide, for sure. By 16 I’d read some Jonathan Swift and some Chaucer, thanks to an amazing high school English teacher. Sagan’s Cosmos, to this day a brilliant piece of popular science writing. I’d read most of S.J. Gould’s essays before my senior year of high school. Same with Zinn’s People’s History of the US. I read Lewis’s Lives of a Cell but never really liked it. In my senior year I read Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is probably as great a novel as Moby Dick or Huck Finn. I’ve read it more times than either of them and every single time it leaves me gasping for breath.

    Later: Melville: Moby Dick (greatest fucking novel in American history? Dunno, I haven’t read enough.). Conrad: Heart of Darkness. Whitman: Leaves of Grass. Heller: Catch-22. Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Coupland: Microcerfs. Stephenson: Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Rich: Diving into the Wreck, Snyder: Axe Handles. Berry: the Unsettling of America. McMaster: Dereliction of Duty. Herr: Dispatches. Chandler: everything.


  35. Bashir Says:

    I didn’t really read much fiction outside of school assigned books. Nothing that I would call formative. We read a few good ones like The Hobbit, and some interesting southern work (e.g., Tennessee Williams). I mostly recall my science books, A Brief History of Time, Hyperspace, Flatland, etc.

    I did read the entire Dune series in grad school, also enjoyed Contact (Sagan) and Anathem.


  36. Lady Day Says:

    Not fiction, but when I was in 5th grade my mother, having a PhD in theoretical physics and all, had a copy of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” lying around the house. As a family, we sat down and watched documentaries about him, too. I’d say that was formative. He was like both of my parents – quirky, funny, good-tempered, not pretentious, and a scientist who also had other interests and passions. It made me realize that my parents weren’t so odd. They were definitely very different from most of my friends’ parents.

    I also remember reading a biography of Marie Curie a couple of years later. That was eye opening. Oh, and a biography of Sofia Kovalevskaya, after my mother’s suggestion that I do a book report on it. Those were also eye-opening.

    Other books that were fiction:
    Mom had Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian series lying around, and I read the first book, “A Princess of Mars.” She also had an old edition of Tolkien’s Ring series in her library, that I read.

    Read C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and Space series because my friends were reading them. Nancy Drew and The Black Stallion series, too….

    Later on, in high school, I read and fell in love with “1984,” Vonnegut’s writings, Edward Abbey’s fiction, “Brave New World,” “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Arthur C. Clarke’s works, all of Jane Austen’s works, and my absolute favorite book at the time: “Far from the Madding Crowd”…. Bathsheba Everdene became one of my inspirations.


  37. Lady Day Says:

    Oops! I meant to say that I *read* the copy of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” too – not that it was just lying around the house! : )


  38. Lady Day Says:

    Oh, yeah, in middle school, the Anne of Green Gables series was also the rage among my female friends. Not sure if they were formative, though… although Anne’s achievements at school made an impression.


  39. bacillus Says:

    Portnoy’s Complaint for making me feel like a normal male adolescent. The Dice Man for its prophesy about how study sections would evolve by the 21st century.


  40. dsks Says:

    Hmmm… lot’s of high brow stuff above. My list is probably a little pedestrian by comparison, but in my defence my generation was the first in which books had to compete with video games for the male adolescent’s attention (Ah… Prince of Persia, Carrier Command, Wolfenstein 3D; that’s fucking literature right there folks).

    Red Dwarf, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers – because it’s awesome

    Animal Farm – a great yarn even for a kid with absolutely no idea what the story was really about, and a highly effective piece of propaganda given how it appears to have influenced the later political leanings of said kid

    Day of the Triffids – giant man-eating daffodils, dude! FTMFW!

    King Solomon’s Mines – the entry point to a voluntary exploration of classical literature that I had hitherto assumed was all crusty and boring (why else would they have to force you to read that shit in school?)

    About Time – For me, Paul Davies made sense where Stephen Hawkings didn’t

    A lot of James Herbert stuff.


  41. DrugMonkey Says:

    I didn’t truly understand Lord of the Flies until I became a parent and was regularly around groups of 5-10 yr old boys. Now I know that Golding had to stretch out the narrative for dramatic purposes….in reality the end stage would occur in 36 hrs, tops.


  42. […] recent blog post and conversation on the tweeter was addressing the question of "what were some of your formative […]


  43. ninacat Says:

    When I was a kid-I read everything and most that has been mentioned. The ‘rents–who did not read anything-were horrified–they thought it was all trash. Then one day, the local supermarket gave away thick volumes of fairy tales for so much spent. Thinking these were more wholesome-I got the whole set. If you’ve ever read the *real* fairy tales, you know why I was horrified and confused that Disney would ever make a movie of “The Little Mermaid”. I still recall the sadness I felt after reading “The Red Shoes” and “The Fir Tree”.

    I love Ray Bradbury–“Dandelion Wine”, ” Something wicked..”

    Others not mentioned: William Goldman, “Once and Future King”, “Flowers for Algernon”, “Sybil”, Michael Crichton; someone pushed “Crime & Punishment”–and I liked it! Harriet the spy books, any mysteries (except Perry Mason books–boring). So many more…

    Reading, just to escape, is one thing I really miss (and I blame this profession–where you are always reading–just not for guilty pleasure). The kids don’t know what they are missing.


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