Monday, June 20, 2005

I've Been Memed...

...and to think that just this morning, as I was walking to the post office to pick up my mail, I was thinking that, for better or worse, the lengthy (long-winded? yes, that too...) way in which I blog makes this an unlikely site for a lot of comments, or for the passing of memes. And then what do I find this morning? The latest book meme making the rounds, with my name on it! Well, when Laura calls, one must answer, so here goes...

"Five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult"? I weighed in briefly on the meme when it was brought up at Crooked Timber; like Laura says, we geeky bloggers overlap in lots of ways. My list would have to include all the usual suspects: J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, etc. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was, perhaps, 11 years old, and have reread them both who knows how many times since. I discovered the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a Boy Scout when someone left behind an old battered paperback copy after a campout; I took it home, stayed up past midnight reading it, laughing myself hoarse. Many of the books I'd have to mention have already been picked up on by others: Richard Adams's Watership Down, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County (any collection would do). So let me see if I can bring some fresh possibilities to the meme:

1) Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Short Stories (comes in two volumes)--I'm not sure exactly when I went into my Sherlock Holmes phase; age 14, perhaps? Anyway, for some reason or another I decided I needed to go to source of all this Sherlock Holmes stuff, and am I glad I did: Doyle may have despised his most popular literary character, but that didn't prevent him from creating an absolutely entrancing milieu, and from managing to come up with (perhaps every other story or so) genuinely brilliant, thrilling plots. I've been re-reading these in conjunction with the Jeremy Brett BBC series, which we finally have on DVD, and most of them continue to entertain.

2) Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen--the touchstones of all serious comic enthusiasts during the 1980s. The former I picked up as individual comics during their second printing in 1986; the second I grabbed at comics fair the following year. I was coming towards the end of my time as a fan of the comic book; by the time I left for college in 1987, I'd cancelled all my subscriptions and was weaning myself away from the comic shop. But these two, in the years that followed, would still be hauled out of their storage box on occasion and re-read, just to experience their graphic power, both humorous and horrifying, all over again.

3) James Thomas Flexner's Washington: The Indispensable Man--along with Laura and Dan Drezner, I think the limitation of this meme to fiction is wrong-headed: non-fiction can captivate and expand the mind as well. So let me add this old book, which I in fact never did re-read, but only because, by the time I left home, I managed to replace it with all four volumes of Flexner's original biography of Washington, of which the above book is an abridgment. Washington remains my favorite American hero; I admire more than I can say (without for a moment wishing to share it) the raw, yet aristocratic, yet also pious, will that made him, from his youth to his declining years, fully aware of just what kind of role his country and fellow citizens needed him and wanted him to play, and what kind of work and control would be necessary to make it possible for him to pull that role off. One doesn't have to be passionate about American history, or be sympathetic to heroic or "great man" readings of such, to recognize that Flexner captured here a portrait of one of history's few, self-consciously necessary human beings. Great stuff.

4) Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers--I was never particularly into "hard" sci-fi, so I'm not sure exactly how it was that I ended up reading this when I was, who knows, 12 years old. I loved it. Years later, I picked it up and re-read it; still loved it. And the interesting thing is, in the meantime, my interpretation of the book, and the reasons why I enjoyed it, went through about a 180-degree turn. I enjoyed it as a child because I was caught up in the gadgetry, the martial ethos, the sober and serious grunt work of defending a planet; now, I enjoy it as a hilariously poker-faced glimpse of a desperate, quasi-fascist, weirdly asexual military worldview. One of the measures of truly good work of fiction is whether you find yourself understanding a protagonist's point of view despite it's obvious shortcomings. For me, at least, Heinlein passes that test (which he surely didn't intend!) in flying colors.

5) Sterling North's Rascal and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting--in a way, these are both pastoral fantasies, stories about nature and time, though their approaches to such are radically different. I read them both when I was very young, probably not even 10 years old, and I still adore them. I grew up on a farm, milked cows, and often went walking through fields and forests in eastern Washington state while growing up. The idea of finding a baby raccoon, or a hidden magical spring, and then struggling (a struggle that could be either humorous or dangerous or both) with that discovery might mean, and ultimately having to give it up, somehow nestled deep in my heart. And I still love raccoons, even when they do get into the garbage.

If they haven't done it already, I hereby pass the meme on to John Holbo and Belle Waring, Hugo Schwyzer, Noah Millman, Chris Lawrence, Peter Levine (I'd try Matt Yglesias too, but he's still technically a "young adult" himself, I think). And, of course, my wife, Melissa Madsen Fox, if she has the time...

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